Remarks of Dr. Alondra Nelson at the Innovation Forum on Building Equitable Partnerships
On July 20, 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the General Services Administration (GSA) hosted an Innovation Forum to highlight citizen science partnerships between Federal agencies and diverse communities, as well as explore how community input can strengthen innovation initiatives across government. The event featured keynote remarks from Dr. Alondra Nelson, head of OSTP, who later also participated in a discussion with GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan. Below are Dr. Nelson’s remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you, Dave, for that warm introduction.
Good afternoon, everyone. As Dave said, my name is Alondra Nelson.
I want to thank General Services Administrator Carnahan, and the entire GSA team, for co-hosting this forum with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, for your deep commitment to open innovation, and for being such wonderful partners in this and many other initiatives.
In particular, I want to thank Dr. Jarah Meador, GSA’s Director of Open Innovation Programs. She manages Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov, along with the vibrant Prizes Communities of Practice. She’s not only a dedicated public servant, but also a fervent supporter of equitable partnerships.
And this event would not have been possible without my colleagues here at OSTP, Dr. Karen Andrade and Dr. Erica Kimmerling. Thank you both so much.
At its core, an equitable partnership is a collaboration that advances the priorities of all partners through an inclusive process where power dynamics and structural constraints are actively addressed.
Sometimes that is an equal partnership, and sometimes one or the other partner contributes more because they can.
In any case, all partners have a say in the partnership. It’s an amazing thing, and an aspirational outcome that’s at the core of what we’re celebrating today.
Indeed, I’m so glad to be with you all to celebrate the recent biennial Report on Implementation of Federal Prize and Citizen Science Authority, for Fiscal Years 2019-2020.
This is a celebration and also a milestone. And it’s worth pausing to highlight exactly why this is the case.
Citizen science, prize competitions, challenges, and crowdsourcing all help connect a wide range of the American public to their communities, to the environment, to Federal agencies, to the science and technology innovation ecosystem, and beyond.
These participatory tools can help us to better understand both what science is capable of and what its limitations may be.
And citizen science, prize competitions, challenges, and crowdsourcing also have the potential to change communities’ relationships to science and innovation for the better.
They create two-way streets of communication, so communities can raise what’s important to them and figure out solutions that work for them, and so that scientists can make their work more relevant and grounded in those communities, increasing the reach and impact of our science and innovation, and thus providing benefits to everyone.
These tools and activities give all of us a unique set of approaches to address pressing challenges — in science, in technology, societal problems, and national priorities.
Citizen science, prize competitions, challenges, and crowdsourcing bring more people, from more communities and more backgrounds than ever before into the missions of Federal science.
These tools allow government to be more grounded in the priorities of the communities we serve.
They make government more agile and responsive to current and future problems we’ve yet to solve.
And they provide us with another source of the only truly unlimited resource we have: the human imagination.
This Prizes, Challenges, Crowdsourcing, and Citizen Science report, totaling almost 1,000 pages, detailing nearly 300 activities, from nearly 20 Federal departments and agencies over a period of two years — taken together, it isn’t just a practical guide for future citizen science initiatives.
It is a testament to how much progress we’ve made in a little over a decade. It shows how Federal agencies have used these tools to expand their capacity to innovate — and to give individuals and communities a voice on issues that matter to them.
THIS is progress worth celebrating.
When OSTP released this report, we were proud to use it to showcase your efforts, and submit to Congress — and by extension the American public — the tremendous work of many of you with us today.
Because of you, we know that challenge competitions create opportunities for additional modes of knowledge to contribute, and that more inclusive knowledge production may yield a more equitable scientific ecosystem.
Because of you, we know that prizes and competitions can help us build a nation where innovation comes from more people and therefore potentially benefits more people.
Because of you, we know that citizen science and crowdsourcing open lines of communication and connection between government and a diversity of communities.
These kinds of engagement are on-ramps for individuals, channeling their curiosity — including about their environment, the Earth, and the universe — to engage with and strengthen the work of the federal research community.
For example, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the National Forest Service is working with citizen scientists — using field surveys to gauge the population of the American Pika, an adorable small mammal, and assess their vulnerability to climate change.
The American Pika is an indicator of the alpine ecosystem’s integrity, and community scientists are now being trained to monitor their presence in the fields and slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Another example is from early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospitals didn’t have enough ventilators, and the Defense Department used prize challenge competitions to drive innovations that could address the shortage.
In just 10 days, the Army received 150 concepts for review. Within 20 days, they were able to choose five winners, each receiving a cash prize and entering into potential contract negotiations — a testament to how quickly these tools can activate to help us fill an urgent need.
These examples, and other projects that will be highlighted in today’s panel, illustrate how in today’s world, the work of partnering with communities has rarely been more important.
For so many of the massive problems we face — pandemics, the climate crisis, societal inequities, health disparities, environmental injustices, and more — the answers are not necessarily one-size-fits-all.
More and more, we’re learning these answers must be tailored to fit the local context. Because a climate resilience strategy meant for New Orleans, will likely differ in important ways from what New York City needs.
And, as more and more scientists and technologists are beginning to understand, these challenges should be studied — and the solutions should be created — together, with communities.
Because who knows better about — or is more impacted by — a lake being polluted, than the people who live by that lake?
And who better to help co-create an experiment to study what’s happening in that lake, and to propose the best and safest steps to make it better?
Indeed, many scientists and technologists — particularly those from underserved and marginalized communities — often want to use their skills to serve their communities, to serve as bridges between experts and community members in collaborative research, using everything they know about both science and their own communities to learn and discover together.
I am convinced that our challenge and our charge, at OSTP and other parts of the U.S. government that support scientific research and development — including the many represented here today — is to push our use of these tools — our prize competitions, challenges, citizen science, and crowdsourcing authorities — to get even closer to communities; to incentivize, encourage, and fund more collaborative research partnerships and more co-production of knowledge with communities; and, to collaborate and learn from one another here in government, because that’s how healthy ecosystems grow and flourish.
If we do this effectively, it will help us collectively cultivate a more robust, and equitable science and technology ecosystem, an ecosystem that thrives on the full participation in, stewardship of, and contribution to, science and technology by and for all people.
If we do this effectively, it has the potential to garner more trust in both science and government.
That’s what the Biden-Harris Administration, and we at OSTP, envision when we work to advance equity in science and technology.
I’m so proud to be part of this event, filled with civil servants who heed that call, and are opening ever more doors for engagement, and also filled with members of the American public, who are stepping through those doors every day. We’re so grateful to have you as partners.
Thank you each and all for your service.
I look forward to being in conversation with Robin and you.
And now, back over to you, Dave.