Two past members of the AAAS Board of Directors are bringing their science policy expertise to the federal government as leaders in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
Marine scientist Jane Lubchenco is the deputy director for climate and the environment, and sociologist Alondra Nelson is the deputy director for science and society.
“These are among the brightest, most dedicated people not only in the country but the world,” said President Joe Biden at a January event announcing several OSTP appointments.
Since 1976, OSTP has provided the president and members of the executive branch advice on science, engineering and technology as it relates to the economy, security, foreign relations, health and the environment, according to the White House. The composition of the office has shifted in line with administrations’ changing priorities. Lubchenco’s role was renamed from “deputy director of energy and the environment” to reflect a higher priority on climate issues. Nelson’s position is newly created.
Lubchenco brings deep expertise in climate, which the Biden White House has called “an existential threat that requires bold and urgent action.” Trained in marine ecology, Lubchenco’s research at Oregon State University has ranged from human impacts on ecosystems to sustainable oceans. She also brings past science policy experience to the role, having served as undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the first Obama administration.
Lubchenco’s connections to AAAS run deep, as well. She served as AAAS president in 1997 and chaired the AAAS Board of Directors the following year. Lubchenco was elected a AAAS Fellow in 1990, and in 2005, she received what is now called the AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science in recognition of “her exemplary commitment to, and leadership of, public understanding of science initiatives in public policy and professional arenas as a core aspect of her scientific practice.”
“To me, science means hope and opportunity. I’m eager to work with the stellar team at the White House and across the federal government to craft evidence-based solutions to climate and environmental challenges – solutions that produce durable outcomes for people, the nation and the world,” said Lubchenco in a White House statement upon the announcement of her role in March.
That viewpoint has guided Lubchenco for many years. As she said in her presidential address delivered at the AAAS Annual Meeting in 1997, “Scientific knowledge is urgently needed to provide the understanding for individuals and institutions to make informed policy and management decisions and to provide the basis for new technologies.”
A social scientist specializing in the social and historical study of science, technology and medicine, Nelson was most recently professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and president of the Social Science Research Council. Nelson, who was elected to the AAAS Board of Directors in 2019 and stepped down to assume her role at OSTP earlier this year, has written and spoken widely about topics such as the intersection of race and genetic genealogy. At the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting, for instance, she delivered a plenary address about the unintended reach of genetic data and how our bioethics have not kept pace with the spread of information derived from consumer genetic testing.
“Science, at its core, is a social phenomenon,” said Nelson in January when her new role was announced. “When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test, and research, we are making human choices.”
She added, “Of course, science and technology have permeated nearly every aspect of our lives throughout the course of human history. But perhaps never before in living memory have the connections between our scientific world and our social worlds been quite so stark as they are today.”
Lubchenco and Nelson join other scientists and science policy experts holding leadership roles in OSTP. Mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander has been nominated to serve as presidential science adviser and director of OSTP – a role that has also been elevated to cabinet level for the first time. Frances Arnold and Maria Zuber were named co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Narda Jones was named OSTP legislative affairs director and Kei Koizumi – a former AAAS senior adviser and past director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program – was named OSTP chief of staff and is serving as its acting director until Lander is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
In a January statement, AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh applauded the Biden administration’s senior science appointments – and affirmed the importance of scientific expertise in policymaking.
Said Parikh, “From effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, to building an innovation ecosystem that protects our national security and economic interests, the use of science and technology is crucial in informing evidence-based and equitable policy options.”