Alondra Nelson

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Alondra Nelson
Alondra Nelson, OSTP Deputy Director.jpg
Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
Assumed office
February 18, 2022
PresidentJoe Biden
Preceded byEric Lander
Succeeded byArati Prabhakar (nominee)
Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for Science and Society
Assumed office
January 20, 2021
PresidentJoe Biden
Preceded byPosition established
Personal details
Born1968 (age 53–54)
Bethesda, Maryland, U.S.
EducationUniversity of California, San Diego (BA)
New York University (MPhil, PhD)
Academic background
Academic work
DisciplineScience and technology studies
Political sociology
Social movements
Cultural sociology
Social theory
African American studies, science policy
InstitutionsInstitute for Advanced Study
Social Science Research Council
Columbia University
Yale University

Alondra Nelson (born April 22, 1968) is an American policymaker, writer, and academic. She is the Harold F. Linder Chair and Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent research center in Princeton, New Jersey. She is Deputy Assistant to the President, and currently serving as acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).[1][2] From 2017-2021, she was President and CEO of the Social Science Research Council, an independent, nonpartisan international nonprofit organization. She was previously professor of sociology at Columbia University, where she served as the inaugural Dean of Social Science,[3] as well as director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She began her academic career on the faculty of Yale University.

Nelson writes and lectures widely on the intersections of science, technology, medicine, and social inequality. She has authored or edited articles, essays, and four books including, most recently, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.

Early life and education[edit]

Nelson earned a bachelor of science degree in anthropology, magna cum laude, from the University of California, San Diego, in 1994. While there, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She earned a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University in 2003.


From 2003 to 2009, Nelson was assistant professor and associate professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Yale University,[4][5] where she was the recipient of the Poorvu Award for Interdisciplinary Teaching Excellence and a Faculty Fellow in Trumbull College.[6] At Yale, Nelson was the first African American woman to join the Department of Sociology faculty since its founding 128 years prior.

Nelson was recruited to Columbia from Yale in 2009 as an associate professor of sociology and gender studies. She was the first African American to be tenured in the Department of Sociology at this institution. At Columbia, she directed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (now the Institute for Gender and Sexuality), founded the Columbia University Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Council,[7] and served as the first Dean of Social Science[8] for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.[9] As dean, Nelson led the first strategic planning process for the social sciences at Columbia University,[10] successfully restructured the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, and helped to establish several initiatives, including the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity program,[11] the Eric J. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights,[12] the June Jordan Fellowship Program,[13] and the Sabancı Center for Turkish Studies.[14] She left the Columbia University faculty in June 2019 to assume the Harold F. Linder chair and professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study,[15] "the Princeton, New Jersey, organization that once housed the likes of Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer."[16]

In February 2017, the Social Science Research Council Board of Directors announced its selection of Nelson as the 94-year old organization's fourteenth President and CEO, succeeding Ira Katznelson.[17] She was the first African American, first person of color, and second woman to lead the Social Science Research Council. Nelson's tenure as SSRC president ended in 2021 and was hailed as "transformative," particularly in the areas of intellectual innovation and institutional collaboration.[18] At the SSRC, she established programs in the areas of new media and emerging technology; democracy and politics; international collaboration; anticipatory social research, and the study of inequality, including the Social Data Initiative, “an ambitious research project that aimed to give academics access to troves of Facebook data in order to examine the platform's impact on democracy,”[19] the Just Tech Fellowship, MediaWell, a misinformation and disinformation research platform, Democratic Anxieties in the Americas, the Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, the Religion, Spirituality, and Democratic Renewal fellowship, the Arts Research with Communities of Color program, the Inequality Initiative, and the widely-praised and influential COVID-19 and the Social Sciences platform.

Prior to her White House appointment, Nelson served on the boards of directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center for Research Libraries, the Data and Society Research Institute,[20] the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, and the United States International University Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. She was also a member of the board of the Harlem-based youth development organization, the Brotherhood/Sister Sol.

Nelson is a member of the board for African-American Affairs at Monticello, as well as the advisory board of the Obama Presidency Oral History Project.

From 2014 to 2017, Nelson was the Academic Curator for the YWCA of New York City and was also a member of its program committee.

Nelson was a juror for the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize in 2017. She served as a juror for the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program from 2018-2021.

Nelson has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society,[21] the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Sociological Research Association. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. [22]

Before joining the Biden Administration, Nelson was co-chair of the NAM Committee on Emerging Science, Technology, and Innovation, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering Committee on Responsible Computing Research. She has been a member of the World Economic Forum Network on AI, the Internet of Things, and the Future of Trust, and the Council on Big Data, Ethics, and Society. Nelson is past chair of the American Sociological Association's Science, Knowledge, and Technology section; from 2020-2021, she was president-elect of the international scholarly association, the Society for Social Studies of Science, relinquishing this leadership role when she assumed the role of OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society.

Nelson has been a visiting scholar or fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics, the Bavarian American Academy, the Bayreuth Academy, and the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University.

Political appointment[edit]

On February 17, 2022, President Joe Biden announced that Nelson, whom he'd previously appointed Deputy Director for Science and Society in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP),[23] would lead OSTP until permanent leadership could be confirmed.[24] She is the first Black woman to lead OSTP in the office’s 46-year history. In this role, Nelson “leads OSTP’s six policy divisions in their work to advance critical Administration priorities including groundbreaking clean energy investments; a people’s Bill of Rights for automated technologies; a national strategy for STEM equity; appointment of the nation’s Chief Technology Officer; data-driven guidance for implementing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law; a transformative, life-saving Community Connected Health initiative; and programs to ensure the U.S. remains a magnet for the world’s top innovators and scientists.”[25] She was also appointed as Deputy Assistant to the President.

Her appointment as OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, was praised as an "inspired choice" of “a distinguished scholar and thought leader," whose "scholarship on genetics, social inequality and medical discrimination is deeply insightful and hugely influential across multiple fields, most notably because of its focus on excellence, equity and fairness in scientific and medical innovation."[26] Others anticipated Nelson would "open... many doors... to [create] a more inclusive government;" Protocol said she was "the embodiment" of candidate Biden's commitment "to bring a civil rights lens to all of his administration's policies, including tech policy."[27] Science magazine reported that Nelson's appointment reflected President Biden's concern with how the "benefits of science and technology remain unevenly distributed across racial, gender, economic, and geographic lines.” [28]

As OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, Nelson oversaw the work of the scientific integrity task force,[29] an interagency body mandated in President Biden's "Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking" to review scientific integrity policies and practices in the federal government, including cases of improper political interference in scientific research, and the distortion of scientific and technological data and findings.[30] Her portfolio also includes open science policy,[31] policy to strengthen and broaden participation in the STEM fields,[32] and new and emerging technology policy. She co-chairs the Equitable Data Working Group,[33] a body that was established by President Biden by Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. On October 8, 2021, Nelson co-authored an op-ed with OSTP Director Eric Lander announcing a policy planning process for the creation of an "AI Bill of Rights."

As OSTP Acting Director, Nelson "push[ed] policymaking motivated by... the notion that emerging technologies should be built with the fundamental rights held by citizens in a democratic society as their blueprint," including digital assets, climate and energy science and technology innovation, artificial intelligence, privacy-enhancing technologies, and public health.[34] She represented the United States as Head of Delegation at the G7 Science Ministerial in Frankfurt, Germany; the meetings topics included protecting the freedom, integrity and security of science and research; contributions of research to combating climate change; research on COVID-19 and its impacts; and support the rebuilding of Ukraine's science and research ecosystem.[35]


Nelson researches and writes about the intersections of science, technology, medicine, and inequality.[36] "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."[37]

She is a pioneer in study of race and technology, a field of inquiry she helped to establish in the late 1990s. Named one of "13 Notable Blacks In Technology" by Black Voices,[38] she founded and led the Afrofuturism on-line community in 1998, and edited an eponymous special issue of the journal Social Text in 2002.[39] She is also among a small group of social theorists of Afrofuturism. Particularly, her 2002 essay "Future Texts" lends insight onto the inequitable access to technologies. Nelson explained Afrofuturism as a way of looking at the subject position of Black people that covers themes of alienation and aspirations for a better future. Additionally, Nelson notes that discussions around race, access, and technology often bolster uncritical claims about the "digital divide." The digital-divide framing, she argues, may overemphasize the role of access to technology in reducing inequality as opposed to other non-technical factors. Noting the racial stereotyping work of the "digital divide" concept, she writes, "Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress."[40] She continued, "Forecasts of a race-free (to some) utopian future and pronouncements of the dystopian digital divide are the predominant discourses of blackness and technology in the public sphere. What matters is less a choice between these two narratives... and more what they have in common: namely the assumption that race is a liability in the twenty-first century... either negligible or evidence of negligence."[41] Nelson is co-editor, with Thuy Linh N. Tu, of Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life, one of the first scholarly works to examine the racial politics of contemporary technoculture.[42][43]

Her book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination was praised by Publishers Weekly as deserving "commendation for its thoughtfulness and thoroughness," was noted as "a much-needed and major work that will set the standard for scholars" by the American Historical Review, and was hailed by leading scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as "a revelation" and "a tremendously important book." Body and Soul inspired an October 2016 special issue of the American Journal of Public Health on the Black Panther Party's health legacy, which Nelson co-curated. This book was recognized with several awards, including the Mirra Komarovsky book award.

Nelson has written extensively about genetics, genomics and racialization. She is co-editor with Keith Wailoo and Catherine Lee of Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History, published in 2012.

In 2016, she published the landmark book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Kirkus Reviews described Nelson's book about the uses of genetic ancestry testing in Black communities, as a "meticulously detailed" work that "adds another chapter to the somber history of injustice toward African-Americans, but... one in which science is enriching lives by forging new identities and connections to ancestral homelands." Writer Isabel Wilkerson hailed the book as the work of "one of this generation's most gifted scholars." The Social Life of DNA received honorable mention for the 2021 Diana Forsythe book award, was a finalist for the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction, and was named a Favorite Book of 2016 by The Wall Street Journal.

Her writing and commentary have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe,[44] The Guardian (London) and The Chronicle of Higher Education,[45] among other publications.

Awards and honors[edit]

Nelson has received several awards, honors, and distinctions:

Personal life[edit]

She was born in Bethesda, Maryland in 1968, the daughter of Robert Nelson, a career member of the U.S. Navy and retired Master Chief Petty Officer, and Delores Nelson, a cryptographer and systems analyst for the U.S. Army and Department of Defense. The eldest of four siblings, she was raised in San Diego, California. Nelson has one sister, Andrea, and two brothers, Robert and Anthony. She attended the University of San Diego High School, a private, co-educational college preparatory school.

Nelson is married to Garraud Etienne, a non-profit executive. She was previously married to Ben Williams, a digital editor at GQ and New York Magazine; she was subsequently romantically linked to legal scholar Randall Kennedy for several years.[55]


  • 2001. Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. New York University Press, ed. with Thuy Linh Tu ISBN 0-8147-3604-1.
  • 2002. Afrofuturism: A Special Issue of Social Text. Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-6545-6.
  • 2011. Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 0-8166-7648-8.
  • 2012. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. Rutgers University Press, ed. with Keith Wailoo and Catherine Lee, ISBN 0-8135-5255-9.
  • 2016. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Beacon Press, ISBN 0-8070-3301-4.


  1. ^ "A New Chapter for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy". The White House. Retrieved 2022-02-19.
  2. ^ "'We are turning a corner.' Acting White House science director moves to calm troubled office". Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  3. ^ Jasen, Georgette. "Faculty of Arts and Sciences Names New Divisional Deans for Social Sciences and Humanities" Archived 2014-07-14 at the Wayback Machine, Columbia News, June 24, 2014.
  4. ^ Smallwood, Scott and Flores, Christopher. "Yale Seeks 'Next Generation' of Stars in Black Studies", Chronicle of Higher Education, February 22, 2002.
  5. ^ Lee, Brian. "Prof Cornel West heads south to Princeton". Archived 2013-02-10 at Yale Daily News, April 15, 2002.
  6. ^ "Junior Faculty Win Awards In Support of Their Research" Archived 2010-07-10 at the Wayback Machine, Yale University Office of Public Affairs, November 7, 2008.
  7. ^ Columbia University Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Council
  8. ^ Watson, Jamal. "Two African-American Scholars Join Ranks of Deans", DIVERSE: Issues in Higher Education, May 22, 2014.
  9. ^ Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
  10. ^ "The Social Science Initiative", Columbia University Faculty of Arts and Sciences,
  11. ^ "The Atlantic Philanthropies Establishes New Fellowship Program at Columbia to Dismantle Anti-Black Racism", Columbia University Office of Public Affairs, October 24, 2016.
  12. ^ The Eric J. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights.
  13. ^ "The June Jordan Fellowship", Center for Justice at Columbia University.
  14. ^ "Sakıp Sabancı Center for Turkish Studies", Columbia University.
  15. ^ "Sociologist Alondra Nelson Joins Faculty of the School of Social Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study", IAS, April 16, 2019.
  16. ^ Scola, Nancy. "Can Alondra Nelson Remake the Government's Approach to Science and Tech?". POLITICO. Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  17. ^ "Social Science Research Council Names Alondra Nelson as Next President", Social Science Research Council, February 7, 2017.
  18. ^ "Nelson Announces Plans to Step Down as SSRC President in Early Fall 2021", Social Science Research Council, April 16, 2019.
  19. ^ "She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team." Protocol, February 1, 2021,
  20. ^ Data and Society Research Institute
  21. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-02-04.
  22. ^ "Council on Foreign Relations Membership Roster"
  23. ^ Kate Sullivan. "Key lines from the unveiling of Biden's science team". CNN. Retrieved 2021-01-17.
  24. ^ "A New Chapter for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy". The White House. Retrieved 2022-02-19.
  25. ^ "The Director's Office". The White House. Retrieved 2022-02-24.
  26. ^ "’Inspired choice’: Biden appoints sociologist Alondra Nelson to top science post", Nature, January 21, 2021.
  27. ^ "She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.", Protocol, February 1, 2021.
  28. ^ "Biden breaks new ground with science team picks", Science, January 29, 2021.
  29. ^ "New Task Force Will Conduct Sweeping Review of Scientific Integrity Policies", Government Executive, March 30, 2021.
  30. ^ "Memorandum on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking",, January 27, 2021.
  31. ^ "Biden’s new science adviser shares views on foreign influence, research budgets, and more", Science, June 3, 2021.
  32. ^ "First science adviser in US president’s cabinet talks COVID, spying and more", Nature, June 4, 2021.
  33. ^ "An Update from the Equitable Data Working Group", The White House, July 27, 2021.
  34. ^ Scola, Nancy. "Can Alondra Nelson Remake the Government's Approach to Science and Tech?". POLITICO. Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  35. ^ House, The White. "Readout of Dr. Alondra Nelson's Participation in the G7 Science Ministerial: Progress Toward a More Open and Equitable World". The White House. Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  36. ^ "Scholars Question the Image of the Internet as a Race-Free Utopia", Chronicle of Higher Education, September 28, 2001.
  37. ^ Scola, Nancy. "Can Alondra Nelson Remake the Government's Approach to Science and Tech?". POLITICO. Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  38. ^ "13 Notable Blacks In Technology", Black Voices
  39. ^ John Pfeiffer, Review of Alondra Nelson, guest ed. Social Text 71: Afrofuturism. Utopian Studies 14:1 (2003): 240-43.
  40. ^ Nelson, Alondra (2002). "Introduction: Future Texts". Social Text. 20 (2): 1–15. doi:10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-1.
  41. ^ Nelson, Alondra (2002). "Introduction: Future Texts". Social Text. 20 (2): 1–15. doi:10.1215/01642472-20-2_71-1.
  42. ^ Estrada,Sheryl. "What Does it Mean to be Hi-Tech Anyway?", Black Issues Book Review, 1 January 2002.
  43. ^ [1] Archived 2007-08-19 at the Wayback Machine Reviews of Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies.
  44. ^ "Beyond Roots", The Boston Globe, February 10, 2006.
  45. ^ "Henry Louis Gates's Extended Family", The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2010; "The Social Life of DNA", The Chronicle of Higher Education, Big Ideas for the Next Decade, August 29, 2010.
  46. ^ "Alondra Nelson receives Just Wellness Award". Archived from the original on 2014-09-14. Retrieved 2014-09-13.
  47. ^ "Top 35 Women in Higher Education", Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, March 2020.
  48. ^ "New Members, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2020"
  49. ^ "Elected Members, American Philosophical Society, 2020"
  50. ^ "National Academy of Medicine Elects 100 New Members"
  51. ^ "Researcher, author Alondra Nelson is Commencement speaker"
  52. ^ "AAAS Honors Outstanding Scientific Contributors as 2021 AAAS Fellows"
  53. ^ "DC's Tech Scene: The Current Most Innovative and Important Leaders". 2022-05-18. Retrieved 2022-07-06.
  54. ^ “Rutgers Commencement 20222”
  55. ^ Randall Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy

Succeeded by