Ciencia y política
Marzo 24, 2022

Captura de pantalla 2016-06-01 a las 16.49.46Science elite ‘wrongly believes it can solve political problems’

Holberg Prize winner Sheila Jasanoff says policy implications of technological progress deserve far greater study

March 21, 2022

In the four decades that Sheila Jasanoff has been urging more serious study of the effects of science and technology on wider society, the need for it has grown increasingly obvious.

It’s a period, after all, marked by social-media-fuelled authoritarianism, relentless invasions of personal privacy and tragic inabilities to confront a global pandemic.

Professor Jasanoff’s persistence in crafting her science-society concerns into an academic discipline, first at Cornell University and then at Harvard University, has now been honoured in its most significant way by her selection as this year’s winner of the Holberg Prize, the world’s top interdisciplinary social sciences award.

Along with its NKr6 million (£520,000) purse, the Holberg gives the 78-year-old native of India a chance to amplify her advice for those – in academia and beyond – stymied by the pairing of dividend and disaster that so often accompanies scientific progress.

Society’s failure to manage its technological bounty, Professor Jasanoff said, was substantially worsened by academic scientists trying to tackle major problems by themselves. Some of her concrete examples include the National Academies in the US and the Royal Society in the UK. Whether contemplating ethical limits for gene editing, electronic surveillance of public spaces or any number of controversial science-society interactions, she said, the tendency among such elites was to gather perhaps a couple of dozen prominent subject experts for a few months of study.

Rarely, said Professor Jasanoff, founder and director of the Science, Technology and Society programme at Harvard, did such efforts truly include voices that reflect public sentiment. The inevitable result, she said, was a set of ideas that lack public support, and fuel longer-term societal unwillingness to accept science-based assessments.

“To some extent,” she said, “I think that there’s been an arrogance on the part of science itself to think that it can solve political problems when in fact it can’t.”

Professor Jasanoff is the 19th annual winner of the Holberg, awarded by the Norwegian government. After her undergraduate degree in mathematics at Radcliffe College, she earned a law degree and a doctorate in linguistics at Harvard. Her career direction gained more clarity in the 1970s as opposition to the Vietnam War and the rise of environmentalism helped to illuminate the tendency of science and technology to advance without proper academic and public attention being paid to the processes and implications.

She arrived at Cornell in 1978, and set about reviving a programme on science, technology and societies that had arisen a decade earlier, then faded. She began with a course – one “that no history department had thought of teaching, and no politics department had thought of teaching” – that explored basics of how science and technology factor into public life.

As the programme grew to the point of awarding doctorates, colleagues warned that her graduates would struggle to find jobs. But by the time she returned to Harvard in 1998, her programme was a department, and it boasted employment success rates better than most others in the social sciences.

Her belief that solutions can usually be found may have played a role in the recent controversy that touched both Professor Jasanoff and her daughter, Maya Jasanoff – part of a family of professors at Harvard and the neighbouring Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both Jasanoffs were among some three dozen faculty who signed a letter last month in defence of another Harvard professor, John Comaroff, over sexual harassment allegations, and then retracted it in the face of public outcry.

The case includes allegations that Professor Comaroff pressured a graduate student by taking steps to ensure she could find no other adviser in her field if she did not comply with his advances. Asked about the case, Professor Jasanoff said she was not convinced “that any single person controls another person’s academic fate”. And as a naturalised US citizen, she said she was concerned that even a teacher in a top-ranked university could fall victim to embedded power dynamics.

“Individuals working in institutions have way less power than one thinks,” she said. “I have tried to change Harvard in my own way, and I have many war stories that I could tell, and many battles that I’ve lost.”

Assessing the legitimacy of evidence, and putting it in proper context, has been a central element of Professor Jasanoff’s career. “On the whole,” she said, “countries that have a longer tradition, or a deeper tradition, of treating policy-relevant knowledge as itself a subject of negotiation – they do better.”

On that score, she said, the US fared especially poorly, with its long-established practice of maintaining significant social separation between scientists and non-scientists. Examples of the resulting dysfunction, she said, include the governor of Michigan being threatened with kidnapping by an armed group over stay-at-home orders she issued in the early days of the Covid pandemic.

In academia, meanwhile, Professor Jasanoff counted no more than two dozen programmes nationwide studying the processes and effects of science and technology, with Cornell’s still the only full-fledged department. “There are more film studies programmes than science study programmes” in US universities, she said.

Decisions involving science and technology hold “enormous power over us”, Professor Jasanoff said. “The void is just so palpable, it’s so obvious.”

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