June 20, 2024


Science It Works

Can Alondra Nelson Remake the Government’s Approach to Science and Tech?

‘A lifelong curiosity’ about science, tech and inequity

Alondra Nelson was born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1968. Her parents, both military, had met at New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, she says. (Her mother worked in a subterranean bunker, and would walk a mile to meet her father above ground.) Nelson’s first handful of years were spent in Guantanamo Bay and then Naples, Italy, before making her way to San Diego. She was surrounded by science, she says — candy-striping at the local naval hospital, spending weekends at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She found it claustrophobic. “I was always more interested in the people,” she says, “what people do with science.”

Graduating from UC San Diego in 1994 magna cum laude with a degree in anthropology, she looked for a graduate program that would let her study not some far-off culture but something closer to home: the American tech scene. She found it at NYU.

In New York, she quickly made a mark, and connections. She’d been struck, she says, by the narratives going around that “the great thing about technology is there won’t be identity,” as she puts it, laughing. “Is that a good thing, if no one knows you’re a woman on the Internet? Maybe. Is it a good thing if no one knows you’re Black?”

She began interrogating the idea, pushing back on the notion that race and gender wouldn’t mean anything in the digital age. This was the late ’90s, and people were learning to build relationships online. Nelson grabbed onto a concept circulating in the air of “Afrofuturism,” an aesthetic and philosophy that blends ideas about the future and technology with the history and experiences of the African diaspora. A related listserv created by Nelson attracted an eclectic mix of scholars, artists and inventors, among them the science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, the poet Pamela Mordecai and Jelani Cobb, then a grad student studying history at Rutgers, now a widely acclaimed New Yorker writer.

“She’s a brilliant scholar who has bridged lots of different disciplines,” says Cobb of Nelson today. “Sometimes people take one idea or one question and drill deeper and deeper into that single area. Alondra has gone outward,” to roam through the “cultural context in which technologies and society exist.” Cobb today remains a Nelson fan. “I just think the world of her.”

PhD in American studies in hand — her dissertation recounted the health activism of the 60s-era Black Panthers — in 2003 Nelson joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor, and spent a half-dozen years in New Haven before being recruited away by Columbia, first to teach, then also to serve as the dean of social science for the school. She spent a decade there, building a reputation as a creative scholar capable of seeing around corners. Throughout her career, she collected stories of how communities of color embraced science and technology in unexpected ways, laying claim to places much of the world told them they didn’t belong.

Dash, the Glitch CEO, has known Nelson for years, including serving with her on the board of the think tank Data & Society. He points to her popularization of the idea of Afrofuturism now widely reflected in pop culture — see Time magazine declaring in 2019 “Afrofuturism is having a moment” while citing the film “Black Panther” — and her spotting early on the salience genetic testing would come to have in Black communities. Her 2016 book, The Social Life of DNA, an ethnography of sorts that took her from Oakland, California, to the U.K., dug into Black early adopters of consumer genetic testing kits and looked at how the practice held potential as a way of reclaiming lineages hidden by slavery — and becoming a tool for addressing reconciliation, perhaps in the form of reparations. “Being that right for that long with that much clarity is pretty rare,” says Dash.

At its core, her philosophy was that focusing solely on those communities’ exclusion not just misread the past, but shriveled the future possibilities innovation holds for them.

In 2017, she took on the presidency of the Brooklyn-based Social Science Research Council. She left in 2021 to focus on her spot on the faculty at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton organization that once housed the likes of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Along the way, she was working on another book, one that would look at a semi-obscure wing of the Obama presidency she found fascinating: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Nelson says she saw OSTP as the place where a compelling shift was taking place. As his administration wore on, Obama began to show a wariness of science and tech. “Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds; to cure disease and understand the cosmos,” he said on a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, deep into his second term. “But those same discoveries can be turned into ever-more efficient killing machines.” Says Nelson, “I was very interested in the emergence in American science and technology policy of a conversation about ethics and values [coming] in an explicit way from the White House.”

Nelson’s work on the book, rooted in the idea that Obama broke new presidential ground by centering the ethical implications of tech and science, would raise her profile in Washington, but the Biden universe already had her on their radar screen. As it became obvious that Biden would be president (“Dodged a bullet,” Nelson wrote in a now-deleted tweet on Election Day, adding, “I didn’t even know I had this phrase in my vocabulary”), they looked for a place for her.

President-elect Biden would craft a new role custom-built for Nelson, one she had her own hand in defining: the first ever “deputy director of science and society.”

Nelson signed on. She’d rent an apartment in a townhouse in Logan Circle and start working under Lander. In announcing his pick of Nelson, Biden called her one of America’s leading scholars powered by “a life-long curiosity about the inequities and the power dynamics that sit beneath the surface of scientific research and the technology we build.”