Sheila Jasanoff believes it is time for Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS) to take a leading role in a world where accelerating scientific discovery often seems to be leaving ethics and public values behind.
Part of her vision is what she calls an “observatory” that would monitor and anticipate major advances in bioscience and other emerging technologies. Its purpose would be to start discussions about ethical issues and social implications before those advances start having effects—both anticipated and not—on society.
“The question on so many people’s minds is whether science and technology are operating for public wellbeing,” says Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It’s a democracy question—about who gets to choose and judge the evolution of technological possibilities.”
Two recent developments may indicate that Jasanoff’s moment has arrived. The first, and most welcome, was that the Social Science Research Council awarded her the prestigious Albert O. Hirschman Prize for her work building STS into an important field of study over more than three decades. Past winners included a who’s who in the social sciences, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor.
“It’s a huge surprise, and obviously a great honor,” says Jasanoff, who accepted the award on November 30 in New York. Teresa Caldeira, the Hirschman Prize Committee chair, wrote that Jasanoff “combines research with a commitment to change the world and to innovative theory-making based on illustrations provided by observation and carefully researched empirical studies.”
But another, less welcome, surprise came in the form of an alarming announcement out of the International Human Genome Editing Summit in Hong Kong, where Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that he and his research team had used gene-editing technology to produce a set of human girl twins who were resistant to HIV. Widespread condemnation followed that announcement, including an op-ed in the Washington Post written by Jasanoff with Arizona State University Associate Professor Ben Hurlbut and University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Krishanu Saha.
“It was a highly irresponsible step—an unnecessary and medically pointless experiment conducted upon two unwilling and unconsenting human lives,” they wrote. “There are far less risky ways to avoid HIV infection.” Yet the three went further in the editorial, criticizing the international scientific context in which the experiment took place for effectively enabling the risky experiment through its misplaced priorities and rush to reap commercial rewards.
“In short, it is too easy to condemn the single experiment while letting the rest of the international scientific community off the hook,” they wrote. “The Chinese scientist was responding to an imperative that permeates international science: Do research that gives you a ‘famous first.’”
Even as the op-ed was being published, the Chinese government announced it had halted the “illegal and unacceptable” research and said an investigation was underway. But to Jasanoff, the important point was that officials in Beijing apparently only started asking questions after the twins had already been born.
That’s where her idea for an observatory comes in.
“What we’ve concluded after years and years of looking at this is that there is a kind of institutional structure that’s missing in the world,” Jasanoff says. “It’s an institutional structure where societies coming with very different views of what are good or bad, virtuous or not so virtuous uses of biological technologies will be able to exchange their experiences and their fundamental instincts about how to move forward in this area.”
Jasanoff and Hurlbut—her former doctoral student at Harvard, a former postdoctoral fellow at the STS Program, and now a frequent collaborator—held their first meeting about the observatory at Harvard in April 2017, and got what she calls “a good deal of buy-in” to the idea. This past March they published an article in Nature on what the design might be. Originally, the idea was for the observatory to focus primarily in the area of bioscience, but now Jasanoff says she would like to expand its mandate. “If I had my druthers, it would stop being an observatory for gene editing alone and instead be targeted broadly toward new and emerging technologies,” she says.
Jasanoff says the observatory would have three functions. First, it would be a clearinghouse of information on the ethics and impacts of technological change. Another would be a research function, illuminating what she calls “the areas of greatest similarity, difference, overlap, and misunderstanding among different societies” about issues at the frontiers of the life sciences and technologies. And the third would be a convening function, bringing leaders and theorists together from around the world.
And Harvard, she says, is the perfect place to host it. “I think it’s an excellent function of a leading university to house that sort of capability,” she says. “It really bridges the most fundamental, philosophical questions of what is the meaning of life, and how we should value the human, and issues of that significance.”
Jasanoff believes an STS observatory is possible because the field of study has matured to the point where it is ready to take on global challenges. Since she established the first STS program—first at Cornell, later moving to Harvard where she not only built a program but also an international community of STS scholars called the Science and Democracy Network—the field has become mainstream. Just next door, both Tufts University and Boston College have added STS-like programs in recent years.
“It’s not because people suddenly wake up and smell the coffee and say, ‘Oh, there’s artificial intelligence, and we need STS,’” she says. “It’s because people are acknowledging that students who are graduating even from liberal arts colleges ought to understand the place of science and technology in society. I think people are getting the point that it’s not so esoteric, that this touches on everybody’s lives.”
The next step, she says, is to have STS play a more important global role. Even though the Hirshman Prize Committee lauded her for changing the world, Jasanoff says her role may be more to help humanity embrace a world that is rapidly changing anyway and to guide that change in a more thoughtful way.
“Here we are, more than 400 years after the scientific revolution, and maybe those same ideas of progress are no longer the ones that should guide us,” she says. “The observatory project is part of a new way of moving forward.”
Photo by Martha Stewart