Racial Justice Goes Virtual: Reflections on the 2020 National Science Policy Symposium and 2021 Black History Month Celebrations

On November 13 and 14, 2020, NSPN held its first virtual symposium. The theme, Science Policy for Racial Justice: Intersecting paths towards equity in research, government and society, allowed participants to explore science policy topics such as technology, the environment, and community engagement through a racial justice lens. Following the success of the event, NSPN continued to uplift underrepresented voices during a month-long virtual celebration for Black History Month 2021. We are excited to share the outcomes and reflections on these events as we continue to strengthen our commitment to advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

2020 Annual Symposium

The 2020 National Science Policy Symposium brought together over 500 science policy enthusiasts to network, discuss, and learn. Organized by and for early-career scientists and engineers, the symposium is historically the largest science policy gathering for trainees. The 2020 symposium featured virtual keynotes, panels, and workshops which all served to engage attendees in critical dialogue about racial justice in science and policy.

Keynote Lectures

Two keynote events provided the opportunity for participants to learn from experts in racial justice. The opening keynote, “Science by All and for All,” was a conversation between Olin College President Gilda Barabino and AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh. Dr. Barabino and Dr. Parikh highlighted that change, whether in academia, nonprofits, or the private sector, requires persistence. “We've been doing too much lip service and not enough work,” said Dr. Barabino. “Many students know that we need change [in academia], so we need to encourage that. We need people to see that there are multiple pathways to change.”

The closing keynote, “Beyond Buzzwords: Innovation, Inequality, and Imagination in the 21st Century” was a talk by Princeton University Associate Professor Ruha Benjamin. Dr. Benjamin clearly articulated the dangers of techno-determinism and the idea that technology is inherently neutral or color blind. In fact, digital triage has been shown to actually perpetuate racial disparities, but that does not mean that technology is in the driver’s seat. These systems are created by humans with the data and training we provide them, and we must consider this and include those historically marginalized by society and technology at the outset of development and innovation to actively prevent the perpetuation of racism. 


Throughout the symposium, eight panel discussions showcased conversations surrounding key areas of science policy:

A common thread that emerged throughout all panels and the keynote lectures was a critical need to include diverse voices at the table when making any policy decisions. “We don’t know what they need, they know what they need,” was echoed across multiple sessions. 


To give attendees a deep dive into lessons and skill building exercises, NSPN partnered with organizations who hosted eight interactive workshops:

  • Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS): “Building Relationships in Science Policy through the Lens of Power and Privilege”

  • Science and Technology Policy Academy: “Unconscious Bias and S&T Policymaking”

  • Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL): “Scientists as Citizens: Equity Through Local Engagement”

  • Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan: “Predicting the Impacts of Technology to Make Policy Interventions Before It’s Too Late”

  • Issues in Science and Technology: “Writing about Science Policy”

  • Journal of Science Policy & Governance (JSPG): “Writing Effective Policy Memos”

  • California Council on Science and Technology (CCST): “Introduction to Informational Interviewing”

  • Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP), University of Wisconsin-Madison: “Advocating for Institutional Change in Graduate Education: Strategies and Challenges”

Workshops are important for NSPN members to gain relevant advocacy, policy, and communication skills and to connect with our partner organizations. 

Flash Talks

Previous symposia have enabled participants to showcase their work on science policy, diplomacy, and communication at a poster session. In the virtual format, the 2020 symposium featured 5-minute “flash talks” hosted on the NSPN YouTube channel. Flash talk speakers were available on the virtual networking platform Remo to answer questions about their talks.

Congratulations to the following winners of the flash talk competition:

Career Expo

A critical piece of NSPN’s mission is to foster professional development opportunities for our members. As part of this goal, the 2020 Annual Symposium offered a career expo for attendees to learn about and network with fellowships, nonprofits, and other employers. Eighteen employers set up virtual booths to answer questions and meet interested attendees.

Networking, Community Building, and Social Events

Although we could not be together in person, the highly anticipated social aspects of the conference could not be missed! Throughout the symposium, attendees participated in polls, virtual networking sessions, and live entertainment to build a sense of community. “I really liked the virtual networking!” said a NSPN member. “I felt less awkward than in person, and the countdown timer was managing to meet multiple different groups of people.”

2021 Black History Month Celebrations

After the success of the 2020 Annual Symposium, we continued our momentum toward racial justice by organizing NSPN’s first Black History Month Celebrations in February 2021. Hosted by NSPN’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, the month featured four themed weeks of live events and social media prompts to help attendees reflect, learn, and network.

“A large part of the inspiration to have [these celebrations] came in part from the community expressing interest in creating a more prominent space for Black science policymakers and advocates,” said Annabelle Lolinco, a Co-Chair of NSPN’s DEI Committee. “We want to foster empowerment through advocacy for the Black community and hope that they are able to connect with one another through this [event] and beyond.”

Black in Science Policy Week

We began with #BlackInSciPol Week, a celebration of the achievements and contributions of Black members of the science policy community. Inspired by other recent "BlackInX" weeks on Twitter, the week provided a platform for participants to network and learn about history, opportunities, and resources for the Black community in the field of science policy. The week was hosted on the BlackInSciPol Twitter account, @BlackInSciPol.

  • Monday, February 1: SciPol Roll Call

  • Tuesday, February 2 and Wednesday, February 3: Celebrating Pioneers

  • Thursday, February 4: Science Policy Happy Hour

  • Friday, February 5: Getting ready for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Shout-Out Week

  • Saturday, February 6: Getting ready for Afrofuturism Week

  • Sunday, February 7: Getting ready for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Achievement Programs Week

NSPN was also excited to partner with Research!America to curate a series of videos featuring members of the BlackInSciPol community.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Shout-Out Week

We next turned our focus to higher education, celebrating the achievements and contributions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their influence on the Black community. Each day was centered on a particular pair of HBCUs, with prompts encouraging participants to share their experiences and university pride on Twitter.

  • Monday, February 8: North Carolina A&T University, Florida A&M University

  • Tuesday, February 9: Howard University, Virginia State University

  • Wednesday, February 10: Jackson State University, Morehouse School of Medicine

  • Thursday, February 11: Hampton University, Tuskegee University; HBCU College Tour Information Session

  • Friday, February 12: Fort Valley State University, Xavier University

  • Saturday, February 13: Tennessee State University, Delaware State University

  • Sunday, February 14: Texas Southern University, South Carolina State University

Afrofuturism Week

The third week shifted focus to the future with a science and racial justice lens. Afrofuturism Week highlighted the history of the Black community and its relationship to technology both now and in the future. Several live events allowed participants to explore Afrofuturism in the media and consider how this genre intersects with science policy.

  • Monday, February 15: Introduction to Afrofuturism

  • Tuesday, February 16: Movie Night (Fast Color and Black Panther)

  • Wednesday, February 17: Afrofuturism in Science Policy and Education

  • Thursday, February 18: Conversation with Afrofuturism Authors

  • Friday, February 19: Free

  • Saturday, February 20: Afrofuturism and Comics

  • Sunday, February 21: Getting ready for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Achievement Programs Week

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Achievement Programs Week

We ended Black History Month by putting BIPOC Achievement Programs in the spotlight. The week provided a platform for participants to network and learn about the origins, impact, and people who make up programs that uplift underrepresented voices in pursuing their education.

  • Monday, February 22: Ford Fellowship

  • Tuesday, February 23: Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Program

  • Wednesday, February 24: Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation

  • Thursday, February 25: United Negro College Fund

  • Friday, February 26: Achievement Programs Happy Hour

The conversations throughout the symposium and Black History Month were clear reminders of the need for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to permeate everything that we do and be central to policy at all levels. The inertia to change is strong but we can overcome it by persistently making noise, lifting up the voices of those who are underrepresented, and investing in both for a better future.

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