HKS Professor Sheila Jasanoff, a pioneer in the field of Science, Technology and Society studies, says successfully blending science and policymaking requires both an appropriately skeptical society and a scientific community that’s responsive to human considerations.

Featuring Sheila Jasanoff
34 minutes and 6 seconds

With a new administration taking power in Washington, many people who had been alarmed by partisan attacks on science and expertise breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that science would be restored to its rightful place in policymaking. But what is that rightful place? Harvard Kennedy School Professor Sheila Jasanoff says that’s a more complex question than most of us might think. Jasanoff has pioneered the field of Science, Technology, and Society studies — also known as STS. It’s an academic discipline that explores the complex interplay between how science and technology affect our society and how societal forces like politics, commerce, and human nature can shape the pursuit of scientific inquiry and technological development. While rejecting science has serious consequences, scientists are also human, Jasanoff says, and simple faith in experts “is every bit as unwarranted as faith in angels.” She tells PolicyCast host Thoko Moyo that achieving a balance — an informed society that’s appropriately skeptical and a scientific community that’s responsive to skepticism and human considerations — is key with so many complex challenges like pandemics and climate change facing our world today.

Hosted by

Thoko Moyo

Produced by

Ralph Ranalli
Susan Hughes

This episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

(Intro) Sheila Jasanoff: Science itself is a social institution. It's not immune to pressures from society. Somebody funds the science, somebody carries it out, it's a competitive field. People have ambitions, people have desires.

(Intro) Thoko Moyo: Now that there's a new administration in Washington, many people who had been alarmed by partisan attacks on science and expertise are breathing a sigh of relief in the hope that science will be restored to its rightful place in policymaking. But what is that rightful place? Harvard Kennedy School Professor Sheila Jasanoff says that that's a more complex question than most of us might think. Jasanoff has pioneered the field of Science, Technology and Society studies—also known as STS. It's an academic discipline that explores the complex interplay of how science and technology affect our society and how societal forces like politics, commerce, and human nature can shape the pursuit of scientific inquiry and technological development. While rejecting science has serious consequences, Jasanoff also argues that simple faith in experts, who are after all only human, is every bit as unwarranted as faith in angels. She says what's the key is achieving a balance that is an informed society that's appropriately skeptical and a scientific community that's responsive to that skepticism. She says this is key with so many of the complex challenges such as pandemics and climate change that are facing our world today. 

Welcome to Policy Cast.

Thoko Moyo: Sheila, you have been studying science technology and society, looking at how society, politics, and culture affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these in turn affect society, politics and culture. Help me understand why this combination of science, technology, and society matters for public policy.

Sheila Jasanoff: Thanks for the question, Thoko, and delighted to be here with you today. At first blush, a lot of people ask that question because it feels arcane to them. They think that science and technology are often a world where people who really know how to put one wire together with another wire or how to mix chemicals together, those are the techie types. How does that bear on public policy? The realization I came to quite gradually is that the way you should ask the question is really turning that on its head by saying: “Is there an area of public policy today where science and technology do not matter?” I think the answer would end up being no, there's no such area. Does education policy, for instance, involve science and technology? Well, it includes all kinds of questions from what should be the basic level of science and technology that you should teach to children. But that in turn itself depends on science and technology. How much science is important to know? But also the use of technology in the school systems, the ways in which we should do online learning versus offline learning. We've had a year of experimentation now with children being essentially sent home. So we have a huge database that we didn't actually want to have about the merits and demerits of online education. That depended on technology and being able to do that at all, but it created all kinds of problems and distributive questions. What about people who didn't have access to the technology? I just took education because at first blush people might think educational policy does not intersect with science and technology. 

If you instead go to public policy areas like health or environment, it's very clear that certainly they depend on science. That is, whose knowledge is it and where does the right knowledge come from? But also on technology because the solutions to our problems in many, many areas of life are technological solutions. That's where people look to anyway, for solutions. We have growing drought around the world because of climate change. How are we going to cultivate enough food to feed the world's rising population? Well, the answer to that now for 40 years or more has been, figure out how to make plants do more for you. Then that becomes a science and technology question. So if we put the question the other way around, are there any areas of public policy today that do not require an understanding of science technology and society? I would say I've worked at this for many years and I can't think of any.

Thoko Moyo: That's great. In fact, I want to come a little later on to talking about specifically areas that you're working on in public policy. But first I want to go back to something that you said recently, as we were thinking about at the Kennedy School, what our faculty may be advising the incoming administration. And one of the things that you said was that you would like to see the new administration put science back in its rightful place. What does that mean?

Sheila Jasanoff: Thank you for that question. I was actually quoting a former president, namely President Obama, because he came in as president on the heels of an administration, the George W. Bush administration, that had been widely criticized for ignoring science. Particularly in areas like environmental policy and climate change and the accusations were sometimes very focused and specific. Like editing out unpleasant scientific news in reports so that regulatory agencies would not have to deal with them. Sometimes asserting things about the science that would not withstand any kind of reasonable scrutiny by the scientific community. So the George W. Bush administration was already under severe attack for having mounted broadsides against science and technology. And President Obama's promise to restore science to its rightful place was greeted by many scientists as, "Oh, finally, finally, there is an administration there." Well, since then, of course we've had the Trump administration. And if we thought that science was being ignored or in some ways artificially kept out of the picture during the Bush administration, then this was true in spades in the Trump administration. To some extent I was saying, here is an opportunity. We have gone through four years in which people are fed up really with the level of misinformation and disinformation that has emanated out of Washington and out of the administration. And an attitude has grown up in America and American society that you can afford to do without science. So it is an opportunity for the Biden administration to think hard and in a sense, new all over again about how to restore science to its proper position. But I was also saying that that proper position can't just be, listen to the scientists because it's not so cut and dried.

Thoko Moyo: But why not? I mean, you're arguing that blind faith is probably, if I'm hearing you correctly, that blind faith in science is probably as bad as disregarding the scientists. Why do you offer that caution? What is it that you're seeing that makes you want to make that point as well?

Sheila Jasanoff: Yeah, thanks for putting it that way. And to some extent, of course, faith, maybe yes, but blind, ideally no. Blind when you come to doing justice, that you're not unfavorably discriminating against people. But not in terms of what you take on faith. I mean, it was a core idea of the Enlightenment that we all like to believe in, that you should not have blind faith. You shouldn't take things on authority alone. Certainly not on claims of authority. That is, you should always ask the first order question: What lies behind that authority? I think my cautionary note is something that people in my field of science, technology and society share widely. That science itself is a social institution. It's not immune to pressures from society. Somebody funds the science, somebody carries it out. It's a competitive field, people have ambitions, people have desires. Sometimes people do bad things and it's also incomplete. It's always provisional. It's always marching forward or marching in some directions and not others maybe. So it behooves us, it's important for us to question at least where the science that we're being asked to respect comes from. What questions was the science itself told to address and which ones has it not addressed in some sense? I think there's wide consensus in certainly our society in the United States, and probably in many others around the world, that the questions that get put forward are possibly ones uppermost in scientist's minds. And they follow sometimes the conventional wisdom. This is now the hot issue of the day, so there'll be a lot of funding for this, but then maybe not for other things. On the whole, we've tended to go for causal explanations of phenomena that we see, that what is causing climate change, but less so on what will the impacts be and how will they fall discrepantly on different communities?

We've tended to favor and foreground physical sciences, natural sciences, life sciences. We've tended to be much less generous to the social sciences and the behavioral sciences and so forth. This is of course itself, a changing spectrum and science policy doesn't stay still. But it's just an example of how even in the most scientifically advanced and knowledgeable society with high funding for science and technology, we may be ignoring some issues that we really want to know more about in order to have that idea of the rightful place. I mean, the rightful place has to be determined by society. For that, you need to some degree, a skeptical society that asks "Well, are there kinds of knowledge that are not being produced that we care about? Do we have reason to believe all the knowledge that is being produced?" These are questions that we want to keep at the forefront of citizens' minds as they understand these things.

Thoko Moyo: But for citizens to exhibit that kind of skepticism, they need to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the issues. I think most people get intimidated if you're looking at something. Let's take an example of a field of study, which could be, I don't know, cancer research. When you're thinking, "I know nothing about the sort of research that goes into that. I'm going to trust what the scientists are telling me, because I'm assuming this person went to an accredited university and has passed through standards that have qualified them to be an expert. I'm going to trust them to be thinking about these questions." I get what you're saying, that the scientists or the people working in that field will have a certain bias towards what issues that they're concerned with. But on the other hand though, the people that are asking the questions may not be as informed. How do you bridge that gap or is that not really an issue that you're seeing? How do you get to that point of skepticism that's informed and useful?

Sheila Jasanoff: Yeah, that's an excellent question and it makes total sense. From the standpoint of the people at the receiving end of public policy, obviously it's a thing that they constantly have to juggle with. I guess, the place where I would say I may depart from conventional wisdom, though not wisdom in my field, is to say that the resources that people have are not as limited as one may think. We take some really mundane examples like the cancer question that you mentioned. I mean, obviously people, if they think they have cancer, and if they have any resources at all, they will go to the doctor to find things out. But one thing that's important to keep in mind right from the start, is that there are all kinds of cultural phenomena that go into who you consult, whether you consult. Cancer is still stigmatized in some societies, doctors will not talk to their own patients. They may talk to family members. Family members will not disclose things. I'm not saying one is good or bad, but the way in which people even find out about treatments that are going to affect them, these are quite discrepant. One can have research on what makes for a better and more informed relationship. However, the other side of it is that I have known many, many people who either had cancer themselves or had relatives who had cancer. And people's ability to inform themselves should not be underestimated. People have to have a reason to go find out, but even the insurance system, when it tells you, you have to get a second opinion, it's already educating you in a sense about how to be a good consuming citizen of medical advice. People understand that. It doesn't take yourself being the rocket cancer specialist, if I can make up that term, to understand exactly how the mechanism works.

But you can go to two of the leading hospitals in Boston, and we're blessed with some of the best treatment centers, and get very different kinds of advice about how the particular cancer should be treated and so forth. People learn to ask extraordinarily good questions and sophisticated questions. But if you don't give them the opportunity even to ask the questions, then you don't even test their capacity to learn. I think we have lots of evidence that when you do give people that opportunity, people have extraordinary powers of comprehension. Enough so they can weigh the nature of the evidence. They may still not understand fully exactly what the biological mechanism is, but even there, I would say that all the evidence suggests that even that is not right. That people come away, the patient and the doctor come away with much closer to equivalent levels of knowledge, where that relationship is working.

Thoko Moyo: Coming back to your thinking around what the current administration could do. You've talked about this idea of restoring science to its rightful place, and you've helped me understand what that actually means and what that could look like. Another very specific idea that you've put forward is abolishing this idea of an office of science advisor to the president. Tell me about that as well. I mean, it almost seems like the president needs, I mean, the president is not an expert in the science necessarily. He needs someone to advise them of those issues.

Sheila Jasanoff: Well, as it happens, the president did appoint a science advisor. So much for my advice. I think that Eric Lander, who is appointed to serve in that capacity, is one of the most broad ranging scientists in America today, with lots and lots of experience interfacing with government and public policy, so it was a very good choice. But I was being provocative in a sense. I think my observations were based on two things. One is that the role of the presidential science advisor has been profoundly politicized in the last 20 or 30 years. Overall, because we're a school of public policy and we believe that public policy should be done on best evidence and so forth, we have tended to agree with presidential administrations that appointed very knowledgeable experienced people to that position. But increasingly the people in the science advisor role came to be relied on to protect certain forms of ideological positions as well. Particular positions on climate change, particular positions on things like reproductive technologies. I mean, these issues which have science and technology right at their core have become so politicized in our country, that the science advisor has to some extent become a vessel of those ideologies. You can look at the science advisor's profile and say, "That is a democratic advisor," or, "That is a Republican advisor." I think it's not great for science and it's not great for society.

Where I think the Biden administration has done something quite revolutionary and novel and really praiseworthy, is to appoint a deputy advisor. This is Professor Alondra Nelson, who has experience in the relations of science, technology, and society. I think having really educated, broad gauged scientists, engineers, medical experts, statisticians, economists, advising the president, that's obviously key. I just don't think that the relationship of the advice with society is in their domain. Very often, these extraordinary intellects in their own fields are somewhat clueless when it comes to what their relations with society are because they have a simple model. We have the best answers and society should accept it. Which is, I'm afraid, not the right posture to take vis-a-vis something as smart and organic as society. I mean, society has its reasons, and one should listen to those reasons. Today, there are specialists who actually have that understanding and President Biden has nominated one of those people to serve him in that capacity. That is a change and that's really a step forward, I think.

Thoko Moyo: I totally understand why you would call for maybe more than just one perspective around science advising the president, because no one person can be immune from biases or a skew towards a particular view or interest. But wouldn't that be true for any sort of advice to the president, be it economics or anything else? I mean, you really want to have a 360 view of diverse perspectives and views. What specifically about science in this moment makes you feel that that's particularly pressing and maybe separate from this general idea that any president should be hearing from a number of experts around an issue?

Sheila Jasanoff: I think it partly goes back to the very first question that you raised. I mean, it's simply because science and technology is so pervasive that even the moods by which science and technology enter into our lives is not something any single person can control. Regardless how glittering the resume is, any appointee to a committee is only going to represent one slice of the totality of experience. And yet the experience includes the diversity of a country's population. The kinds of things that a farm worker in the Midwest may be confronting with weather changes, the pressures of urbanization, new transport technologies, being undercut by production in other countries, the pressures of globalization and world trade. These are very different from the kinds of things that a Silicon Valley software engineer may be facing when it comes to seeing that cybersecurity, for instance, has suddenly become a huge issue and how do you go about trying to protect an increasingly cyber economy against people who are wielding those same technologies with evil intent? What do you do? I mean, it's a little bit the same as the problem of democracy. I mean, we don't expect the president really to be able to solve everybody's problems. I mean, the president has a cabinet. Yesterday, I believe, the president called upon his vice president to lead against one of the major issues confronting the US at the moment; border security questions. But that border security is very different from vaccination. How to get the American public in the tail end of the, we hope, of the pandemic vaccinated quickly and rapidly involves a different set of understandings. This is why we have large cabinet offices and so forth. I guess all I'm asking for is that science not being regarded as so special.

Sheila Jasanoff: I mean, that it should be regarded as a place of politics and delegation every bit as much as everything else. Then we, as citizens acquire a stake in seeing that the delegations and the discretion that we give to these experts is being wielded the way we would want as a society. Even that it is representative, that it is responsive, that it's actually listening to the relevant voices, that it listens to critique. I mean, I have seen many examples of scientific advisors who become so captive to their own mission that even though they're doing science and doing it with integrity, they don't realize where it's stopping short of addressing the problem that they're really confronting.

Thoko Moyo: You mentioned the pandemic just in your previous answer. Actually, let's maybe take what you're proposing as a way of thinking about public policy. The three elements of science, technology, and society together. If people were thinking that way and applying some of the approaches that you are saying could be quite effective, what would that look like, say, in the response management of the pandemic? If we had used this model, what would it have looked like? Just to make this a little more real with something that we're currently dealing with.

Sheila Jasanoff: Yeah. Again, an extraordinarily rich question. To some degree, we've had to confront this because since April of last year, I've been co-running an international—16 country by one count, 18 country by another count—comparative study, looking at the ways in which different countries have responded to the pandemic. The statistics, to start with, are extraordinary. I mean, at latest count I think America has something like more than 1,600 deaths per million population from COVID. Whereas Taiwan has less than 0.5. These are staggering differences in numbers. You're immediately prompted to ask, "Well, what were the differences? What was different about the expertise brought to bear on the pandemic?" I think there are a couple of really quite profound questions. I mean, one is how do you conceptualize this problem in the first place? And what barrage of measures do you draw forth? One of the things that any public health expert might tell you is that society is the bearer of the disease, when all is said and done, so that you have to look at social issues. Even if the cause is, as the biomedical people would tell you, a particular causal agent, like a virus. Whether you design your public policy to target the virus, or to say that society is the ultimate meeting place between the cause and the effect, and therefore society needs to respond in certain ways as well, those would lead to very different policy measures. 

In the first phase of the epidemic, we found that the US with its penchant for going after cause, and going after specific causal agents, and silver bullet solutions based on good science, did badly. I mean, we were not looking at the societal issues. We didn't want to control our society to the extent that some of the European countries did. Certainly not to the extent that a country like Taiwan did. Taiwan heard the rumor of a disease in Wuhan; immediately closed its borders and the public health system went into high gear. Now, you can't translate what Taiwan does to what the US does. I mean, we're talking about differences of scale, differences of geography, et cetera, et cetera. But by and large, I think one can say that we did not focus on society and the interventions needed there as much as we focused on the vaccine and the virus. Now, I think that if we had, it would have been important to bring the society along with you. You can't just tell people overnight, take your kids out of school, do not go to your workplaces. You may be without a paycheck and we don't know what you'll do. If your insurance was tied to employment, sorry, you don't have it. A whole set of ramifications that came in overnight when we responded. But we didn't tell the people, "Here is how we're taking care of you. Do not be afraid. Go off and isolate yourselves. Understand that there will be painful periods. But we as the government will be back of you and we will be taking care of you in some ways." I think it's not an either/or proposition. In the STS perspective, my field would tell you that hybrid approaches, that not putting all your eggs in one basket is usually a better long term proposition. From my own work, we're learning a lot about how other societies have with varying degrees of success, managed the same, navigated the same set of issues. But the relevance is very clear because we can say here are typologies of responses, and here are some ways that have been shown to work, and other ways that work less well. A very concrete thing I'll say is that in all of the 18 countries we're looking at, this is the only country in which mask wearing has become a article of faith. Do you believe science, or do you not believe science? Most other countries, the citizens have accepted that wearing masks has a depressing effect on disease transmission. They have different rules and regulations, not the same as ours. But nobody has said, "This is the voice of science that if you wear a mask, you are being pro-science. If you don't wear a mask, you're being anti-science." I think that that's a more sensible position, frankly.

Thoko Moyo: In the few minutes that we have left, tell me a little bit about the work that you're currently doing as it relates to public policy.

Sheila Jasanoff: Let me tell you about three strands of work that we're involved in because each of those is a live project, and I'm equally committed to all of those. But in addition to the comparative study of COVID responses. One thing that we're trying to do is what we call the global observatory for genome editing. This is based on the observation that the technologies of the 21st century are going to change the way we think about the meaning of being human. It's going to change lifespans, going to change relationships with each other. There was an article just recently about experiments showing how you can have reproduction without the womb. I mean, we're talking about far reaching technological changes that are going to change our brains, our bodies, our minds. How does one even begin to debate these things? What is the value of being human? So one of my projects funded by a grant from the Templeton Foundation, is to create the forum where people can deliberate on these issues. There's a whole lot more I could say about this, but let's save that for another Policy Cast.

A second project is being undertaken hand-in-hand with the Harvard data science initiative, HDSI. This is a project to look at trust in science, because as we've been discussing, this is a period of time in which there's a lot of hand wringing about how the public has lost faith in science. One way of thinking about that is we should make the science more skepticism-proof, get better checks into the data management systems so that people trust those systems. They know they can't be hacked, they know that their secrets will be safe. That we will not have another Cambridge Analytica type of scandal in which people were getting into the personal records of hundreds of thousands of people and affecting the way they think about politics and issues of those kinds. That project is trying to leverage the broad variety of work going on at Harvard, tease out its policy relevance and integrate it in some sense, so that Harvard itself emerges as a hub for strong and leading thinking on the broad societal problem of trust in science during the stage of revolution we're in. 

Then the third project that I'm exceedingly committed to is the one on sustainability. What makes societies able to do the kinds of transitions that everybody thinks will be required? Transitions in the energy sector, transitions in the agricultural sector, transitions in the way we live collectively in cities. This is a five country comparison. We're looking across a 30-year period at how societies have adapted to three kinds of technological initiatives. One is nuclear power, one is genetically modified organisms or GMOs and the third thing is urbanization and smart cities. What does digital mean for the way in which not just we help our cities, but our cities help us, in essence. This again, is a long term and comparative study. I think one of the things that we do in the Kennedy School that really is pretty unique, is the depth of the comparative research that we bring because we are not saying it's just America, go it alone, learn from your mistakes, but that the world is a laboratory. It's confronting a whole variety of different problems and different kinds of problem spaces. And we can't necessarily learn from others because we have our own institutions and cultures, but at least we can get smarter about where our own weaknesses and mistakes tend to lie.

Thoko Moyo: Actually, you tackle very broad topics. I'm just curious to know, how do you decide which areas you delve into more deeply? I mean, what's your decision-making process or how do you identify them? For instance, in this project that you're doing on sustainability, the long term transitions, how did you end up on energy, culture, and urbanization? How did you end up on those three, when there could be many that you could look at?

Sheila Jasanoff: I think that's an excellent question. It's to some extent, driven by the opportunities at the moment. On that particular project, I'm working with two colleagues who I've known forever, and one is based in Germany and the other is based in the UK. It's a pooling of expertise and what we know about. But that said, what are the biggest challenges confronting the world? I mean, people like to talk about grand challenges. That's a term that's come up over and over again. How you feed the world is a problem that's been with us from the very beginnings of economics. I mean, Malthus: “Population will grow and then we won't be able to feed people.” Agriculture is the heart of how civilization begins. People become sedentary and they grow stuff. This is a problem as long as human history and so it's not accidental that it is also a technologically interesting thing. Energy transition—I mean, if we're killing our planet with greenhouse gases, obviously energy has to be, climate has to be one of the central preoccupations. Then urbanization, if you look at the great demographic shifts of the 20th century, the departure from the rural and the movement into the city has been one of those huge shifts. By any account, these three areas have to be key areas. I think an implicit, if I may detect a slightly friendly, critical edge in what you're asking, is how did the broad topics also land on the ground? Why doesn't this just become am airy, fairy domain of thinking about what these big shifts mean? We could theorize modernity and talk philosophy. I'm totally happy to theorize modernity and talk philosophy. I mean, it's a space I'm happy to be in. But I got into my research by looking at something extremely specific. I was trained as an environmental lawyer after leaving law school. And I was looking at the way people regulate cancer causing chemicals in four countries as it happens. But that was really important and to this day it remains important. What do we do with the chemical industry when it's producing things that are harmful? A lot of the debate today is on endocrine disruption, more so than cancer. But endocrine disruption is the phenomenon that leads to male infertility, for instance. There's lots of evidence that sperm counts dropping and-

Thoko Moyo: Endocrine is related your hormones, isn't it?

Sheila Jasanoff: Right, exactly. These very concrete questions are embedded in the deeper and broader questions. Sustainability has to do for instance, with how do we maintain the life of the planet over millennia? And what we're doing now in very concrete ways in specific sectors, specific types of technological advances will have a bearing on that. It's keeping that dialogue alive between the grand scale and where the problems are. We are totally engaged with policymakers as they are making decisions. So we understand their priorities, but equally we're looking at civil society and the things that civil society worries about. That's one of the beauties of the school, that we're actually democratic and technocratic at the same time, if you will. That we're interested in the concerns of the people as they bubble up to the surface. Then we're interested in how expertise can be marshaled to deal with those questions, including contesting the priorities sometimes. But nevertheless, the nexus of that dialogue between society and between science and expertise, that's where I see my field as sitting. Not just grand questions, but very pointed, what-do-I-do-tomorrow questions, as well.

Thoko Moyo: I just want to say thank you so much for sparing the time. This has been really fascinating. Thank you so much.

(Closing) Thoko Moyo: Thanks for listening. I hope you'll join us for our next episode. And if you'd like more information about other recent episodes or to learn more about our podcast, please visit us at