Keynote of Dr. Alondra Nelson at the World Science Forum
Keynote Address – World Science Forum
Plenary Session: “Justice in Science: How to Ensure Science Reflects the Society We Want”
As Prepared for Delivery by Dr. Alondra Nelson
Deputy Assistant to the President and OSTP Principal Deputy Director for Science and Society
Cape Town, South Africa
Honorable Ministers, Distinguished Colleagues, Fellow Delegates, Dear Friends:
I am humbled and grateful to be here with you today as a representative of the United States of America—on behalf of President Joe Biden, who believes that science and technology can be transformative for society; that it can be a lever for economic opportunity for competitiveness and collaboration, and for expanding the horizons of people in our country and across the world.
I am honored to be here with you as a representative of an Administration that has, since its first days and first actions, placed at the center of its work the values that have animated our discussions here this week:
Equity and justice, opportunity and shared prosperity, the conviction that science and technology must be a tool to make lives better, safer, and fairer and that innovation can open the door to a better future for all people.
As I address you this morning,
I am conscious that my presence here—in the long arc of history—is unlikely.
And I am cognizant that a person who looks like me—a Black woman of African descent, the daughter of a father who was born and raised in the Jim Crow South, and of a mother reared in conditions of racial segregation—stands here before you, as an emissary of the United States of America and the President of the United States.
If we bear in mind that unequal past, if we recall the distance all of us have traveled, then our focus here on social justice will strike us not merely as a thematic choice.
It will strike us, I believe, as our inheritance.
It is the debt owed to those who came before us and the responsibility due to those who will come after.
I am grateful to call you and your countries, your organizations, and your institutions partners in this shared work of ensuring that science and technology meet the demands of history and serve as instruments for a better world.
I have been encouraged to see those values on full display this week at the World Science Forum as I have engaged with you, my fellow delegates—leaders in science, technology, research, innovation and policy, and colleagues from across the globe.
But I have borne witness to these ideals in full force in my travels this week across Cape Town and the Western Cape and in my conversations with this country’s extraordinary people.
I have experienced South Africa’s great warmth and hospitality.
But even more, I have had the pleasure of meeting South Africans who are living these values we share.
South Africans who are forging innovative answers to difficult problems.
Who are placing equity and justice at the center of their work, elevating the perspectives and needs of their own communities, and in so doing, moving our global scientific enterprise forward.
I have metscientists—who are building the largest radio telescope in the world, to power the next generation of space discovery, and doing so in partnership with local communities and by drawing on Indigenous knowledge.
I have met young strivers—who are grabbing hold of the tools of the digital world to seize economic empowerment.
I have met innovators—who are creating the economy of the future, harnessing biological systems to create goods and services for agriculture, health, manufacturing, energy, and more.
I have met dedicated teachers—who are mentoring their students, equipping them with the full range of STEM skills, and helping them plan for lives of growth and discovery.
And I have met their students. Extraordinary students—brilliant students.
Young women and men in Khayelitsha and in Table View, who are learning to code and to program, training in robotics, and developing their talents in STEM.
As a teacher myself—a longtime university professor in the United States—these experiences with South African students have moved me.
They have reminded me of the stories and voices of so many in my own country. And they have inspired me.
Because these students are not waiting for some far-off future to seize these opportunities and to begin acting as leaders.
Instead, they are—like so many young people across the world—leading right now, with great urgency and great optimism, creating answers to the challenges they see in their neighborhoods and their communities.
It should not be taken for granted that here in South Africa, and across the world, it is communities that are serving as the engine for creative and innovative solutions.
Because too often, in our history and our present, science and technology policy exists adjacent to communities, rather than being informed by them.
This disconnect lies at the heart of so many challenges we face as a global community.
We see it in the unprecedented access we now have to data. Data that represents ourselves and our communities. Data that tells our stories in bright and vivid colors. Data that can be marshaled to make life easier and more just.
These data are mobilized in powerful technologies, from artificial intelligence to genomics—tools that can help us answer important questions about who we are and where we come from. Tools that can help solve critical problems in the environment, in agriculture, in healthcare, and beyond.
But too often, these tools are developed without regard to their real-world consequences, unchecked and unregulated, without the input of the people who will have to live with their results, and without their consent.
We have the tools to cure disease, to prevent human suffering.
But too often those tools are out of reach—or accessible only to a privileged few.
These inequities are unfolding in the lives of the most vulnerable among us. In my country, and in yours.
And each one falls squarely to us to solve.
You see, when we have the ability to alleviate suffering, but don’t –– that’s not a failure of science. It’s a failure of imagination.
When we can break the bonds of oppression, but choose not to –– that’s not a failure of engineering. It’s a failure of conscience.
That is the beauty and the burden of this moment. And what we do now, how we resolve these tensions, is a referendum on us––a question of who we are and who we want to be.
Minister Nzimande asked some of us earlier this week to reflect on the question: What do we, and what do our nations, make of the phrase “science for social justice”—the theme that brings us here.
Over the last few days, at the World Science Forum, I’ve been thinking about that question.
To the Biden-Harris Administration, there simply is no science without equity. Equitable outcomes are a marker of true innovation, of true ingenuity, in science and technology.
This is the core of our science and technology vision for the U.S. government.
Under President Biden’s leadership, we’re driving a science policy that sees solutions through the eyes of the vulnerable. We’re executing on a science and technology policy that anchors and advances economic opportunity.
We’re fighting to get technological development right –– to bring that development process into the public square. And to situate it in our values: equity, accountability, scientific integrity, and—indeed—justice.
These are not merely words. We are backing them up with action.
Equity in everything we do is the official mandate of the government of the United States. Indeed, it is what brings me here this week.
Within hours of taking office, President Biden signed an executive order directing every part of our government and every public servant to root out racism, discrimination, and inequity in federal programs and institutions.
This was the President’s very first directive. And what it meant for my team, and those working on science and technology policy across the U.S. government, was that equity was our first mandate, our guiding mandate, for the work that we would do.
So let me take a moment to talk about that work.
Delivering on the President’s directive, to embed equity in all our work, begins upstream. It starts with engaging directly with communities.
Every day, across the Biden-Harris Administration, we solicit information from communities who have long been an afterthought in policymaking.
That is—before we issue a new policy, or advance an initiative that will have an impact on people, we go to the people who will be most affected by it.
We listen. We learn. And then we seek to act on what we have heard.
Take, for example, the Administration’s deep engagement with Indigenous communities.
In 2021, the White House issued a memorandum committing the Federal government to consult meaningfully with Tribal entities and Indigenous Peoples in an effort to prioritize Indigenous Knowledge in the way we make decisions in government.
What came of that engagement was a clear request, from Tribal leaders, for federal guidance on recognizing Indigenous Knowledge.
In short, they made a powerful argument that Indigenous knowledge could make life better for everyone.
So that’s what we did.
Many government agencies in the United States are already doing exemplary work in this area. Some have already taken important steps to recognize and elevate Indigenous Knowledge in their work.
So to build on these efforts—and formalize the voice and wisdom of this long-marginalized community in our policymaking—we developed official government guidance to elevate Indigenous Knowledge in government research and decision-making.
I am proud to share that we released this guidance earlier this month and it will be used across the U.S. government to elevate Indigenous Knowledge.
This initiative is a cornerstone in the Biden-Harris Administration’s broader work to achieve equitable, inclusive public engagement in research and policymaking.
When multiple parties, and not just monolithic institutions, have a say in the process of scientific research, discovery, and innovation; when communities have a voice throughout that process, in everything from the questions asked, to the study that is designed, to the data that is collected, to the findings that are interpreted, to the new information disseminated; when researchers choose a path of joint inquiry, when communities and scientists participate as equals—not just in terms of who’s doing the work, but also who makes the decisions, who sets the priorities, who has the authority—that co-production, that co-creation can be a powerful force multiplier. Shedding light on knowledge and solutions that we might have never known otherwise.
I believe that the work of partnering with communities to co-produce science and technology has rarely been more important.
And that we need to support community-centered and community-led research and innovation.
This is the kind of deep engagement—real, organic engagement—we must lead if we are to build a science and technology policy that works for all people.
Too often, well-intended innovation has been detached from the realities of how it will affect real people.
At the White House, we are actively working to change that paradigm.
Those of us who are speaking this morning have been given the assignment to imagine how to ensure science reflects the society we want.
So imagine with me for a moment what it would look like, imagine the outcomes we could achieve and the disasters we could avert, if governments and companies and researchers and others thought about equity at the start of a design process, and not only after challenges emerged downstream.
Imagine what it would it look like, what kind of society could we have, if all innovation began with ethical forethought.
Imagine what kind of society could we have if we always considered from the very beginning what might happen if new technology fell into the wrong hands, or how a scientific breakthrough might be misused in the global marketplace to deepen inequality.
These are the critical questions we asked at the White House when we set out to write the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights—a roadmap for a society where technological innovation happens without predation.
A society where protections are baked in from the start—where marginalized communities are included in the initial development and design, and not just an afterthought following deployment.
Much more than a set of principles, the AI Bill of Rights is a blueprint to empower people to expect better and demand better from their technologies.
We put out the AI Bill of Rights because in our country, and in societies around the world, artificial intelligence and other automated systems are increasingly shaping almost every part of our lives: the way we work; the way we learn; how we access healthcare; and how we find a good job.
Data-driven tools do tremendous good—as I’ve said, they can empower us and help solve our greatest challenges.
But too often, the use of these technologies results in just the opposite—deepening of inequality and undermining of our rights.
Too often, they are used to limit access to fundamental opportunities around the world.
Driven by our commitment to engage deeply and substantively with communities, even around some of the most complex issues facing society, the White House embarked on a year of public discussion and stakeholder engagement with people from all walks of life.
We heard about the ways artificial intelligence and automated systems are making life easier for people across the world: helping doctors identify disease early; helping farmers grow food more efficiently; helping small business owners save money and serve their communities.
But we’ve also learned, time and time again, about people falling victim to discrimination at the hands of artificial intelligence and machine learning:
Women, who have been automatically sorted out of a STEM job applicant pool, with no way to seek recourse.
Students erroneously accused of cheating by AI-enabled video surveillance.
Entrepreneurs and engineers around the world who recognize these problems, but don’t have all the tools to root them out.
The Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights is a call to make these five core protections a reality:
First, the systems you use should work; they should be safe and effective.
Second, you should be protected from algorithmic discrimination, and automated systems should be used and designed in an equitable way.
Third, you should be protected from abusive data practices via built-in protections, and you should have agency over how data about you is used.
Fourth, you should know when an automated system is being used and understand how and why it contributes to outcomes that impact you.
And fifth, you should be able to opt out and have access to a human being who can quickly help you solve the problem.
The Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights can be used by anyone who interacts daily with these powerful technologies, and every person whose life could be altered by unaccountable algorithms.
But it is also for those who shape these technologies. Those who design them, build them, and in so doing, make decisions that will have serious consequences down the line in the lives of our communities.
Many building these technologies—from businesses to engineers—want to do the right thing.
Some have demonstrated a willful ignorance about the harms of the tools they deploy.
Policymakers want to do the right thing, too, but need support and partnership to help shape laws and regulations to protect their constituents.
We want the AI Bill of Rights to help.
So, for each of the five core protections, we have developed a detailed technical companion, with examples and concrete steps to build these protections into the technological design process.
We offer technical guidance and we provide real-life, proven examples of policies, and practices to drive new actions … developed in collaboration with leading think tanks, technologies, and advocates.
And we’ve taken new actions as a government to bring these principles into practice.
All of us have a role to play to bring tech development into the public square.
To make sure that innovation is rooted in equity, integrity, and our common humanity.
This approach—thinking systematically about the downstream consequences of new technologies—is an approach we are taking across a broad range of emerging policy challenges in science and technology.
Let me briefly mention another example.
The President asked his science and technology advisors to begin to think about the emerging societal and policy issues associated with cryptocurrencies and digital assets.
The White House has put equity front and center in mitigating risks form digital assets.
This includes ensuring that we do not increase environmental harms for underserved communities.
And we are also supporting advances at the technological frontier that prioritize innovation for equity. For example, we are creating a National Digital Assets R&D Agenda that will support cutting-edge research on new technology that can help ensure all people can benefit from the digital economy.
We believe this is a critical model for how all of us can take steps to shift the policymaking paradigm and proactively address the challenges of innovation before it’s too late.
This is one paradigm for how we can ensure science reflects the world we want. But we must go one step further.
We need to make sure that the benefits of science and technology can reach all people, and that all people can contribute to the pursuit of scientific progress.
That begins with tearing down the walls that stand between people and access to scientific knowledge.
When research is widely available to other researchers and the public, it can save lives, provide policymakers with the tools to make critical decisions, and drive more equitable outcomes across every sector of society.
We were offered a window into the great benefits of immediate public access to research at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the wake of the public health crisis, government, industry, and scientists voluntarily worked together to adopt an immediate public access policy, which yielded powerful results: research and data flowed effectively, new accessible insights super-charged the rate of discovery, and translation of science soared.
The shift demonstrated how public access to research publications and data can provide near real-time returns on our investments in science and technology.
That’s why the White House took historic action to make the results of taxpayer-supported research publicly accessible.
People across the globe will benefit from this policy—on issues from climate change to medical breakthroughs.
This is one of the bold changes we’re making to build a fairer innovation ecosystem.
Leadership in science and technology has driven extraordinary change.
But history has shown that new investments in science and technology rarely translate to equitable results for all communities.
The promise of STEM still remains out of reach for too many.
To address these core challenges, the White House launched a first-of-its kind nationwide initiative to examine issues of inequity in the STEM fields.
Our question was simple: What are the structural forces blocking people from participating in the STEM ecosystem and what must we do to ensure every person—no matter their background—can thrive in STEM fields?
We led more than a year of deep engagement with the American people.
We went out—and invited people directly into the conversation.
We spoke with students and teachers, workers in science and technology sectors, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs.
We spoke with education and university leaders, grassroots organizers and community scientists, business leaders, policymakers, and others.
Drawing from these conversations, we’ve identified structural barriers facing people in the STEM fields who have disabilities, or who are immigrants, people without generational wealth, and others who begin their engagement with STEM at a systemic disadvantage.
And we have built a detailed vision—which we will release very soon—for what we must do to make sure women and girls and others long underrepresented in STEM have the tools and opportunities to participate, and empower the innovation ecosystem to achieve its full potential.
In the United States, there has never been a coordinated national effort toward achieving equity in the science and technology ecosystem.
But very soon, we will have just that––supported by action across the private, public, and nonprofit fields that shake the foundations of inequality in STEM and open up opportunities across sectors.
This is how we will ensure that America’s recent historic investments in innovation—from advanced manufacturing and semiconductors, to clean energy and R&D—can open the door to progress, and economic security, for all people.
These critical issues for our youth are some of the topics that will be undertaken next week when President Biden hosts the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
The Administration is focused on ensuring youth in Africa have improved access to a broader range of skills and knowledge—with a special focus on higher education and workforce development, and building partnerships to create a sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future.
As President Biden has said, “We can channel the full talents of all our people into a greater measure of hope and opportunity for our nation and for the world.”
I close by speaking to our efforts to drive equity and opportunity for our young people—because I have been reminded this week that our work across continents is deeply intertwined.
That the values and aspirations that lead us to lift up women and girls in cities and towns across the United States also move those young learners I met in Khayelitsha and in Table View.
I hope, when all is said and done, when the tech has been built, the research budgets have been passed, the policies have run their course, that all of it is done with them in mind.
I hope, when we have made progress in our work, that every young person will look upon the world as they do––and see it not for its limits, but for its abundance.
That they will not be encumbered by the weight of an unequal past, but buoyed by a boundless future.
And when they dream of a life in science and innovation, they will see the well-trodden pathways to get them there.
That is the work, and the vision, of the Biden-Harris Administration—a vision this week has affirmed that we share with so many of you:
A global STEM workforce that reflects all of us, from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the operating room, to the laboratory.
Communities that are engaged in the everyday work of government … and see their needs addressed in our decisions.
An approach to innovation that is rooted in inclusion, integrity, and our common humanity.
We have before us an extraordinary window of opportunity –– a moment of promise and possibility.
A chance to write a new social contract, not just for this moment, but for the decades and generations that lie ahead.
I thank you for the role each of you is playing in this work.
It has been an honor to be with all of you today.
I look forward to hearing from my colleagues and to our discussion this morning.
I thank you for your attention.