Dr S T Lee Public Policy Lecture 2024: Earning public trust in evidence-informed policy

31 October 2023


Earning public trust in evidence-informed policy

Reported by Zelna Weich, PhD Candidate, British Antarctic Survey and University of Cardiff

The Dr S T Lee Public Policy Lecture was delivered by Professor Alondra Nelson, the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study and a distinguished senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress. In her talk, Professor Nelson shared her experiences from her tenure as the Deputy Assistant to President Joe Biden, and the inaugural Principal Deputy Director for Science and Society in the White House Office of Science and Technology.

You can watch and listen to the lecture recording here:

The OSTP was established in 1976 to provide the US President with in-house scientific advice. Over the years, the role of this office has adapted to align with the priorities of different administrations. During President Obama's tenure, the OSTP expanded to include a staff of over 130 members, evolving into a hub for innovation. In projects like the Precision Medicine Initiative, the OSTP played a pivotal role in advancing science, while also managing potential risks and enhancing public trust. The success of the OSTP during this period drew Nelson's interest as a sociologist. In 2016, she began researching science and technology policy within the Obama-Biden administrations for a book.

Nelson's Appointment to OSTP

While conducting research for her book, Professor Nelson became acquainted with the social network within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). She participated in the Science Policy Committee and, after being involved in the rechartering process, assumed the role of Chair of the Subcommittee on Social, Behavioural, and Economic Sciences (SBE) from June to October 2020. Following this work, President Joe Biden appointed Nelson to the position of Deputy Director for Science and Society at the OSTP.

This new position explicitly integrated social science expertise into federal science and technology strategy and policy. Nelson suggested that this appointment was in response to the four defining crises at the beginning of the Biden administration: the Covid-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic crisis, the climate crisis, and the equity crisis. These challenges highlighted that good science and implementation were insufficient to foster public trust in science and technology, necessitating a new approach.

Emphasising Equity

Addressing the challenge of equity played a pivotal role in the Biden administration's response to these crises. The administration's first executive order was titled 'Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.' This order mandated the fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, with a particular focus on historically underserved communities. Such directives expanded the scope of the OSTP and mandated an enhancement of the positive impact of science and technology policy on marginalised communities.

Rebuilding trust

Another distinct aspect of Nelson's tenure in the OSTP was the crisis of public trust that had developed during the Trump administration. The outgoing president had encouraged the suppression and distortion of scientific evidence across multiple agencies. Therefore, a primary objective for the OSTP in the post-Trump era was to restore trust in science and establish clear conditions and norms for scientific work within government.

Nelson's work within the Subcommittee on Social, Behavioural, and Economic Sciences (SBE), a division of the OSTP, played a pivotal role in achieving this goal. This subcommittee brought together representatives from various government departments to formulate norms regarding the use of social science research and interventions in policy.

New Industrial Strategy

During her discussion, Nelson highlighted three key pieces of industrial strategy influenced by the OSTP, each of which emphasizes both science and innovation and the overarching equity focus of the Biden-Harris administration:

Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) and Science Act

This act was designed to promote the revival of semiconductor research, development, and production in the United States by reshaping the supply chain ecosystem. It included the establishment of innovation hubs in rural communities, as well as creating employment opportunities and research prospects for historically underserved communities.

The Inflation Reducing Act

The IRA primarily aimed to invest in clean energy infrastructure, incentivizing the production of technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, and heat pumps, alongside the necessary research and development to commercialize technologies like carbon capture and storage. This act aligns with the equity focus by providing infrastructure and employment opportunities for historically underserved communities and reducing healthcare costs.

Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H)

The OSTP played a key role in the establishment of ARPA-H, an independent agency within the National Institutes of Health. Its mission is to improve the health of all Americans by catalyzing biomedical innovations that would be challenging to achieve in traditional research or commercial settings. ARPA-H seeks to support biomedical research opportunities that go beyond the scope of academic research or the biopharmaceutical industry, ultimately leading to improved health outcomes for a broader segment of the population.

A value proposition and a values proposition

Professor Nelson concluded her talk by referencing Ezra Klein's New York Times article on the Biden-Harris administration's approach to science and innovation. In the article, Klein cautioned against overburdening legislation with multiple priorities, which could hinder the achievement of the legislation's original objectives. He referred to this approach as "Everything-Bagel liberalism".

In contrast, Professor Nelson emphasised that each of the three pieces of legislation described had made transformative investments in infrastructure and research. She highlighted that acts such as these inevitably have effects that extend beyond their initial intentions. Rather than passively hoping that science and technology legislation will lead to positive outcomes, Nelson advocated for active government stewardship of science and technology. She coined this approach as "lodestar liberalism," which emphasizes not only the value of innovations but also a focus on values to create a better future for all.

Professor Alondra Nelson

Institute for Advanced Study