On Wednesday, President Joseph Biden handed sociologist Alondra Nelson interim leadership of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Nelson currently serves as OSTP’s deputy director for science and society; she fills in for geneticist Eric Lander, who stepped down on February 7 after allegations he bullied subordinates became public.
Biden has been vocal in championing science and raised OSTP to cabinet level a year ago when he announced the nominations of Lander and Nelson. Nelson’s appointment and her position were key moments for social and behavioral science – she became the highest-ranking social scientist to serve as a social scientist in the Executive Branch while the position she accepted had grown from the less-senior assistant director for social, behavioral and economic sciences (a job then-President Trump never filled).
On Wednesday, Biden also named the just-retired head of the National Institutes for Health, Francis Collins, to perform the duties of science adviser to the president and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both Nelson and Collins will serve until permanent leaders for the posts are nominated and confirmed.
Nelson has been seen as a frontrunner for the permanent position, Politico opined last week: “As the current deputy director for science and society at OSTP, Nelson’s name surfaced over and over again on [February 8]. She heads a new division at the agency focused on the societal impacts of emerging technologies and diversity in science and tech — two key priorities for the Biden administration.“ Nonetheless, putting a social scientist in the nation’s top science advisory position would be a major step for a job that has always been given to a STEM scientist.
In announcing the appointments, the White House noted that “Nelson has directed priority efforts to protect the integrity of science in the federal government, broaden participation in STEM fields, strengthen the U.S. research infrastructure, and ensure that all Americans have equitable access to the benefits of new and emerging technologies and scientific innovation.” She helped implement presidential directives on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking and on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.
At the time she was nominated, Nelson was the president of the Social Science Research Council and Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. She was previously professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she also served as the inaugural Dean of Social Science. “Alondra’s assumption of this role, so critical for our nation’s future, is testimony to her spectacular achievements as a scholar and her inspirational leadership across fields,” the Institute for Advanced Studies’s director David Nirenberg said. “She brings to the office a keen awareness of the ways in which social science can enrich and transform science policy.”
While those recent roles put a premium on her leadership skills, she has a strong background in research. As detailed in a 2020 Social Science Bites podcast, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.