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Alondra Nelson Boldly Goes to Join President Biden’s Science Team

Alondra Nelson
Photo credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis

“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 world been quite so stark as they are today. . . . As new technologies take root in our lives, from artificial intelligence to human genome editing, they reveal and reflect even more about the complex and sometimes dangerous social architecture that lies beneath the scientific progress we pursue.”

That’s Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Sciences and professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. She’s also the author of The Social Life of DNA: Race and Reparations After the Genome. And now she has another title to add to her already spectacular CV. She’s been appointed to President Biden’s science team as Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for Science and Society! She stated the above at the televised ceremony introducing President Biden’s science team on January 15.

She is having a moment, and we at Beacon are here for it!

Our associate director and editorial director, Gayatri Patnaik, is especially excited: “I was overjoyed when I recently heard that Alondra Nelson would be part of the Biden-Harris cabinet. Beacon Press published Alondra’s book, The Social Life of DNA, in 2016. The word ‘brilliant’ is overused, but I recognized from the beginning that it was the correct word to describe Alondra intellectually.”

Nature Magazine was also abuzz with coverage around Nelson’s new role, highlighting experts who’ve said that she is an “inspired choice.” And we wholeheartedly agree.

At the televised ceremony, Nelson continued to say, “Science, at its core, is a social phenomenon. It is a reflection of people, our relationships, and of our institutions. When we provide inputs to the algorithm, when we program the device, when we design, test, and research, we are making human choices. Choices that bring our social world to bear in a new and powerful way. It matters who makes these choices. It matters who they’re thinking about when they do. As a Black woman researcher, I am keenly aware of those who are missing from these rooms. I believe we have a responsibility to work together, to make sure that our science and technology reflects us, and when it does, that it reflects all of us, that it reflects who we truly are together.”

Let’s take a step back and look at The Social Life of DNA, because it gets at the heart of the points she raised at the ceremony. It’s also an excellent entry point to understand where she’s coming from.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, especially after the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, the interest in genealogy surged. Millions of people started tracing their roots with the latest technological advances, like direct-to-consumer DNA testing kits and the appearance of online genealogical websites that simplified uncovering one’s past, making it the second most popular hobby in the US. In her book, Nelson details her more than ten years of research into the ways that African American communities are specifically engaging with these new scientific insights, exploring the personal, cultural, and political impact that genetic data is having on issues of race in America.

The book unearths lesser-known but “truly momentous uses of genetic ancestry testing,” Nelson writes, including legal and political uses that aid in establishing ties with African ancestral homelands, transforming citizenship, recasting history, and making the case for reparations. From individual “root seekers” and “DNA Diasporas” groups collaborating to reconfigure and reconnect to their pasts, to contemporary activists and lawyers working on social justice campaigns, she details the surprising trajectory that genealogical information is having. She explores the global emergence of reconciliation projects that are incorporating DNA analysis, including a major class-action suit demanding financial restitution for unpaid slave labor that originated in a Brooklyn federal court in 2002. The book also considers the ongoing influence of the groundbreaking study initiated at the African Burial Grounds in New York City, beginning in the 1990s.

The Social Life of DNA examines the role that genetics now plays in the story of race in America. “DNA holds not only the molecular building blocks of life, but also some of our highest aspirations, for ourselves, our families, and our social communities,” writes Nelson, adding that, “the double helix now lies at the center of some of the most significant issues of our time.”

When it comes to Nelson’s book, Gayatri Patnaik said, “It’s no surprise that it broke new ground, showing how the double helix can be not only a portal to history—shedding light on historical injustices—but that science can be an ally to transform our present and future racial politics. We at Beacon Press can’t wait to see what Alondra and the Office of Science and Technology Policy do to use science to benefit and to promote a more just and liberated future.”