This video was produced as a companion to The Democracy of Science, an article that appears in the Digital Governing/Governing Digital edition of the HKS Magazine.


Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. A pioneer in her field, she has authored more than 120 articles and chapters and is author or editor of more than 15 books, including The Fifth BranchScience at the BarDesigns on Nature, and The Ethics of Invention. Her work explores the role of science and technology in the law, politics, and policy of modern democracies. She founded and directs the STS Program at Harvard; previously, she was founding chair of the STS Department at Cornell. She has held distinguished visiting appointments at leading universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the US. Jasanoff served on the AAAS Board of Directors and as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the University of Ghent Sarton Chair, an Ehrenkreuz from the Government of Austria, and membership in the Royal Danish Academy. She holds AB, JD, and PhD degrees from Harvard, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Twente.


Since the discovery of the structure of DNA and the birth of the genetic age, a powerful vocabulary has emerged to express science’s growing command over the matter of life. Armed with knowledge of the code that governs all living things, biology and biotechnology are poised to edit, even rewrite, the texts of life to correct nature’s mistakes.

Yet, how far should the capacity to manipulate what life is at the molecular level authorize science to define what life is for? This book looks at flash points in law, politics, ethics, and culture to argue that science’s promises of perfectibility have gone too far. Science may have editorial control over the material elements of life, but it does not supersede the languages of sense-making that have helped define human values across millennia: the meanings of autonomy, integrity, and privacy; the bonds of kinship, family, and society; and the place of humans in nature.

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Alessandra Seiter: In November 2018, the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing was held at the University of Hong Kong. There, Chinese researcher He Jiankui presented something unexpected and what the organizers of the summit called deeply disturbing. He and his research team claimed to have genetically modified two human embryos resulting in the successful birth of HIV free twins, despite the HIV positive status of one of their parents. The worldwide bioethics community was quick to condemn He, who was soon removed from his position at the university. His crossing off an ill-defined yet universally agreed upon line acutely illuminated a set of critical questions on the very definition of life. Not only what it is but who gets to decide what it is. On this episode of Behind the Book, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Sheila Jasanoff discusses a closely related question and a book of her own, "Can Science Make Sense of Life?" Professor Sheila Jasanoff is uniquely equipped to tackle these questions as one of the leaders of the field of science, technology, and society since it's beginnings 40 years ago.

Sheila Jasanoff: We had to essentially figure out, well what is scholarship in this field if one wants to study science, technology, and society. What does one even do?

A.S.: Jasanoff did this by uniting two existing academic methods of understanding and theorizing science's relationship to society.

S.J.: The American movement was about the impact of science and technology on society. The other strand was saying science and technology are social activities like anything else. Making films is a kind of cultural activity, making science is similar via social and cultural activity. So how do you study that activity for itself?

A.S.: This interdisciplinary approach to building the STS field also informs one of the main goals of Jasanoff's latest book, "Can Science Make Sense of Life?"

S.J.: Well I think that there's, you know, deeper problem with the way we've been thinking about life. We've to some degree, secularized to a point where people feel that the kinds of things we do in the problem-solving mode are completely divorced from the kinds of ideas that we might have in a more contemplative or spiritual or whatever setting. I see that rigid separation carves people and their thinking up in somewhat artificial ways and leaves both sides dissatisfied and we have to find a more integral way to think.

A.S.: Jasanoff locates the origins of this rigid separation in the development of modern biology. Biology was once the work of explorers and naturalists like Charles Darwin and the pea plant breeding Gregor Mendel. But by the mid-twentieth century it had transitioned from observing the natural world to redesigning it in a lab. This is where we came to understand the double-helix structure of DNA and later, how to turn it into life, through in-vitro fertilization. Jasanoff describes this transition as having made it increasingly more acceptable for biologists to claim ownership of the meaning of life. But she also says that they tend to claim sole ownership over their work, despite the major implications that life sciences can and do have on society at large.

S.J.: It's very tempting, in the sciences, to think they are in a position to self-regulate.

A.S.: And since the 1980s, US courts have backed up this belief. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that a patent on new microorganisms created in a lab didn't constitute a violation of the patent code. Professor Jasanoff believes this ruling prematurely ended discourse about the ethics of this technology.

S.J.: The problem was that something that might have been opened up for wider public debate never was. Because once the court says the existing law covers it, you no longer need to go back to Congress. But time after time, when questions have arisen about should there be congressional action on whatever it is, science gears up and says if you regulate you will be stifling innovation. And that phrase, stifling innovation, has become code for saying leave us alone and we will develop.

A.S.: Jasanoff likens the self-regulatory model of scientific discovery to the logic of free-market ideology.

S.J.: Just because most of the world has boarded to the automobile as an absolutely necessary functional piece of the way of life, does not mean that for the long-term future of humanity that was the beneficial way to go. And in fact, when we put cars next to climate change we get a very different verdict on whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Science is producing new things through technology, the market loves new things, and people want to experiment and so forth. That partnership does need oversight of some sort and what that oversight should be, I think is a job for us in this school to be thinking about.

A.S.: Jasanoff has focused much of her work on exploring that kind of oversight. Her vision is to develop a model of strong public participation in the process of scientific progress and discovery. She calls this model, the global observatory. It's the ongoing, citizen-driven nature, of this process that distinguishes it from scientific summits that have taken place in recent years.

S.J.: So the leading scientific communities of the world mostly led by America, China, and Britain have now held two different summit conferences. But they're episodic, they're driven by science, the scientists decide who to invite. My idea of the observatory, which I've developed with my colleagues is something that would be much more ongoing, it would be a repository, it would be a place like a library, where people put their knowledge in one place. But it would be accompanied by analysis. It's not something that anyone should have ownership over. It's supposed to be for humankind.

A.S.: It's this forward-thinking forensic mentality that has defined Jasanoff's work since the beginning.

S.J.: I'm trying to think ahead to those moments of confrontation that I know will occur. Then to try to craft some sense of, well how do we repair and when those radical value conflicts in fact arise, instead of to some extent being caught flat footed every single time.

A.S.: The book is "Can Science Make Sense of Life?" Written by Sheila Jasanoff. The Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School. It's published by Polity Press. You can learn more about Professor Jasanoff at This has been Behind the Book a production of library and knowledge services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future Behind the Book videos by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @hkslibrary and visiting our website.