Science, according to President Joe Biden’s deputy science adviser Alondra Nelson, is more bipartisan than people think.
“I think fundamentally [that] science and technology policy is one of the few places where one can get any kind of bipartisan cooperation,” said Nelson, the deputy assistant to the president and deputy director for science and society in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaking in Boston Tuesday at the STAT Summit.
Several Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates ran midterm campaigns disparaging the national Covid-19 response, federal health agencies, and top officials such as Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci. While Democrats defended control of the Senate, House Republicans set to take the majority have promised probes into Covid-19 spending and health officials’ work.
But Nelson pushed back on the notion that science has become more polarized and pointed instead to the recent CHIPS and Science Act, passed by Congress in August, which directs billions of dollars towards building up onshore biotechnology manufacturing, research, and development.
“Historic legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act, you don’t get without bipartisan buy-in” she told STAT Executive Editor Rick Berke. “People want their families lives to be saved … so I think [science and technology] are the places where the polarization is moderated, if not dissipated.”
However Nelson acknowledged that there are national divides over the role of scientific institutions and public trust in them. “We came into office at a pretty challenging time for science and technology policy,” she said, listing the ongoing pandemic, racial inequality, and the climate crisis.
“That was new terrain for trying to do science and technology policy and engagement. We had to think about how we wanted to communicate to the public about what we do, even as we were advising the president and coordinating his priorities,” she said.
The once little-known office saw turmoil and headlines earlier when then-director Eric Lander stepped down in February amid allegations of bullying and toxic workplace culture first reported by Politico.
That February shuffle saw Lander’s role split in two, with Nelson leading the science office and then-recently retired National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins serving as co-chair of the president Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Both officials worked on one of Biden’s long-held personal priorities, relaunching the cancer moonshot to slash cancer diagnoses and deaths.
In June, Biden tapped Arati Prabhakar, a former Pentagon science official, to be OSTP director.
As her role and portfolio changed, Nelson’s multiyear work on a book about the science and technology office also shifted focus. She told summit attendees that it doesn’t have a title yet, but some working names based on talks she has given. One potential candidate: Even a moonshot needs a flight plan.