Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

Science and Democracy Lecture Series

Once a semester, the STS Program, with co-sponsorship from other local institutions, hosts an installation in its Science and Democracy Lecture Series. The series aims to spark lively, university-wide discussion of the place and meaning of science and technology, broadly conceived, in democratic societies. We hope to explore both the promised benefits of our era’s most salient scientific and technological breakthroughs and the potentially harmful consequences of developments that are inadequately understood, debated, or managed by politicians, institutions, and lay publics.

All lectures and panels are free and open to the public.

Martin Rees event poster
Martin Rees
With panel discussion by Sven Beckert, George DaleyJennifer Hochschild, and Daniel Schrag. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
November 6, 2014, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Jefferson Hall, Room 250, Harvard University

Our Earth is 45 million centuries old. But this century is the first when one species ours can determine the biosphere's fate. Threats from the collective "footprint" of 9 billion people seeking food, resources and energy are widely discussed. But less well studied is the potential vulnerability of our globally-linked society to the unintended consequences of powerful technologies not only nuclear, but (even more) biotech, advanced AI, geo-engineering and so forth. These are advancing fast, and bring with them great hopes, but also great fears. They will present new threats more diverse and more intractable than nuclear weapons have done. More expertise is needed to assess which long-term threats are credible, versus which will stay science fiction, and to explore how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones. We need to formulate guidelines that achieve optimal balance between precautionary policies, and the benign exploitation of new technologies. We shouldn't be complacent that the probabilities of catastrophe are miniscule. Humans have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes, and pestilence. But we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that the future can bring. It's an important maxim that "the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable.

Craig Calhoun event poster
Craig Calhoun
With panel discussion by David ArmitageMichèle Lamont, and Orlando Patterson. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
April 15, 2014, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Tsai Lecture Hall, CGIS South, 1730 Cambridge Street, Harvard University

In the last few years, almost every social science discipline has launched efforts to be more "public" in its work. Some of these are framed mainly in terms of communication of research results; others aim to build communication and an orientation to public purposes into every stage of the research process. In most of these efforts, though, the idea of 'public' has itself been underspecified. And at the same time, there have been substantial changes in the public sphere that have challenged older ideas about how academic knowledge might inform public debate or public policy. In this talk I take up questions about changing media, national and transnational arenas, and the extent to which academia is itself a public sphere.

Chris Hansen event poster
Chris Hansen
With panelists George M. Church, Glenn Cohen, Judy Norsigian, and Tania Simoncelli. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.  
November 12, 2013, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Science Center, Auditorium D, 1 Oxford Street

Paul Nurse event poster
Sir Paul Nurse
With panel discussion by Eric LanderLisa Randall, and Charles Rosenberg. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
February 6, 2013, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Pfizer Lecture Hall, Mallinckrodt Chemistry Lab B23, 12 Oxford Street

The discovery of new scientific knowledge and the application of scientific knowledge, are sometimes presented as being very different from each other. The fact is, however, that scientific enquiry has always been concerned both with acquiring knowledge of the natural world and of ourselves, and with using that knowledge for the public good. But science should not be judged solely in a utilitarian manner. Making science work for human benefit requires making good decisions about what scientific research should be supported and giving good scientific advice for public policy. Video available here.

Phillip Sharp event poster
Phillip A. Sharp
With panel discussion by Walter Gilbert, Everett Mendelsohn, and Fiona Murray. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
December 11, 2012, 5:00-7:00PM
Science Center A, 1 Oxford Street

Revolutionary advances over the past half century produced the sequence of the human genome and remarkable advances in the understanding of disease. Perhaps more important, the technology of DNA sequencing has revealed the information of all life forms. This advance can be considered the second revolution in life sciences, the first being the discovery of the structure of DNA. The third revolution will come from the convergence of life sciences with engineering, and computation and physical sciences. Convergence will help mankind meet some of the major challenges of the coming century, i.e. food for nine billion people, better protection of the environment, sustainable energy sources and better quality of healthcare. Video available here.

Anne Wojcicki event poster
Anne Wojcicki
With panel discussion by Archon Fung, Jeremy Greene, Sanford Kwinter, and Jonathan Zittrain. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
April 17, 2012, 5:00pm–7:00pm
Emerson Hall, Room 105

Video available here.

Errol Morris event poster
Errol Morris
With commentary from Elaine Scarry. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
November 29, 2011, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

In this talk, Morris will reflect on his experiences researching and producing four of his most celebrated films — "The Thin Blue Line", on a Texas murder case; "Mr. Death", on capital punishment and Holocaust denial; "The Fog of War", on Robert McNamara and the Vietnam War; and "Standard Operating Procedure", on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Morris' groundbreaking work tackles questions of truth, objectivity, and the role of expert knowledge in modern society. His documentaries are renowned for their innovative use of interviews and archival material.

David Brooks event poster
David Brooks
With commentary from Max BazermanDavid Kennedy, and Steven Pinker.
April 12, 2011, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

For decades we have tried to increase high school graduation rates and college completion rates. We've tried to reduce the achievement gaps. We've tried to depolarize our economy and moderate the financial cycles. These and many other public policy efforts have produced disappointing results. This is in part because the policies were based on a partial view of human nature and a simplistic view of human capital. Neuroscientific research over the past few years has pointed toward a richer view, one in which our emotions and unconscious play a far more important role in everyday decision-making. It is time to apply the findings of science to the world of policy, morality and practice.

Michael Crow event poster
Michael Crow
With commentary from James KloppenbergCherry A. Murray, and Daniel P. Schrag.
November 30, 2010, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

America is a nation of between 300 and 400 million people that is still growing and that has needs that are vastly more complex than any of the designs our historical higher education system has the capacity to address. There are intricacy issues, global competitiveness issues, performance issues, fiscal issues, as well as more fundamental issues associated with the types of knowledge we are producing and how we are transferring that knowledge to students in higher learning institutions. With that in mind, and with a very narrow differentiation between U.S. universities, the basic design and structure of a new class of higher education institution will be outlined, and a specific case study of the last eight years at Arizona State University will be detailed. ASU is America's newest, largest and most nimble research university in terms of the speed of its evolution and its impact. This design review and exemplar analysis will be carried out in the context of designing universities for America's complex future.

Arundhati Roy event poster
Arundhati Roy
With commentary from Homi Bhabha. Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff.
April 1, 2010, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

What happens once democracy has been used up? When it has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning? What happens when each of its institutions has metastasized into something dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be? What we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. Can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?

Raghuram Rajan event poster
Raghuram Rajan
Followed by panel discussion with Suzanne Berger (Political Science, MIT), Frank Dobbin (Sociology, Harvard University), and Niall Ferguson (History, Harvard University, and Harvard Business School). Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School).
December 2, 2009, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

As the world struggles to recover from the economic crisis of 2008, it is tempting to blame the events on a few greedy bankers who took irrational risks and left the rest of us to foot the bill. In Fault Lines, Rajan argues that serious flaws in the economy are also to blame, and warns that a potentially more devastating crisis awaits us if they are not fixed. He traces the deepening fault lines in a system overly dependent on American consumption to power the world economy and stave off a global downturn; a system where America's thin social safety net has created tremendous political pressure to keep job creation robust, because jobs are the primary provider of health and other benefits; and where the U.S. financial sector, with its skewed incentives, is the critical but unstable link between an overstimulated America and an underconsuming world. In conclusion, heoutlines sensible reforms to ensure a more stable world economy and to restore lasting prosperity.

Connected Publics event poster
A panel discussion featuring: Yochai Benkler (Harvard Law School), Antoine Picon (Harvard Graduate School of Design), Lucy Suchman (Sociology, Lancaster University & MIT [visiting]), and Sherry Turkle (STS, MIT). Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School).
March 11, 2009, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Piper Auditorium, Gund Hall, 48 Quincy Street

How do the new forms of connectivity enabled by the internet affect flows of power in society? Does electronic communication create new forms of self-identification, new political sensibilities, or new avenues of empowerment? Or do old hierarchies get reinforced and familiar divisions, such as those between male and female or right and left, get more firmly entrenched through new routines? How do design choices affect relationships of power, for example, by selecting who should be connected to whom and across what sorts of spaces? Drawing on studies of teenagers and professional designers, cities and the blogosphere, this distinguished panel will lead us on a fascinating journey across today's changing public spheres. They will offer tantalizing glimpses into the democratic imaginations taking shape in cyberspace.

Ulrich Beck event poster
Ulrich Beck
Followed by panel discussion with Brian Wynne (Lancaster University), Michèle Lamont (Sociology, Harvard University), and Peter Hall (Government, Harvard University). Moderated by Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School).
November 12, 2008, 5:00pm–7:00pm
Tsai Auditorium, 1730 Cambridge Street, CGIS Building (CGIS South)

Growing certainty that climate change is human-made and will have catastrophic consequences has reshuffled the cards for society and politics across the entire world. But it is a mistake to see climate change as an irreversible path to an apocalyptic future for humankind. Beyond belief and beyond hope, climate change opens up the opportunity to overcome the bounds of national politics and to found a "cosmopolitan realism" in the interests of nation states. Climate change is pure ambivalence. But it is precisely this feature that can be uncovered by the art and practice of the sociologist's methodological skepticism and be publicly turned against the dominant (discourses of?) cynicism and paralysis. In this sense, the sociology of climate change can serve as a heuristic for the productive creativity of uncertain times.

Harold Varmus event poster
Harold Varmus
With panel discussion from David Goldston (Center for the Environment, Harvard University),Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School), and Charles Rosenberg (History of Science, Harvard University). Moderated by Jon Beckwith (Harvard Medical School).
April 3, 2008, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Yenching Institute Auditorium, 2 Divinity Avenue

Many observers have commented on the damage that the current administration has done to science over the past seven years. I will evaluate the effects of this era on the traditional relationship between the scientific enterprise and the federal government, and offer some ideas about what a new administration could do to restore that relationship, increase the confidence of the scientific community in government, and allow the nation to take greater advantage of science and technology. In particular, I will consider measures to strengthen the representation of science in the White House; discuss the possibility of achieving a more predictable, multi-year pattern of funding for science agencies; recommend ways to codify the mechanisms by which the federal government obtains scientific advice and protects the independence of government scientists; and explain why our country should establish stronger roles for science, medicine, and technology in foreign policy.

William Cronon event poster
William Cronon
With panel discussion from David Blackbourn (History, Harvard University), Peter Galison (History of Science, Harvard University), and Mike Hulme (Tyndall Center, United Kingdom).
November 29, 2007, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Science Center, Auditorium A

In this lecture drawn from a book of the same title that he is currently completing, William Cronon analyzes key cultural assumptions about humanity and nature that have characterized modern environmental thinking in the United States for the past several decades, in an effort to understand how these have sometimes undermined the effectiveness of environmentalism as a political, social, and cultural movement. His goal will be to try to imagine how environmentalism might be more effective if is followers did a better job of mingling the natural and the cultural in the service of humane values.

Yaron Ezrahi event poster
Yaron Ezrahi
Followed by panel discussion with Ellen GoodmanJames McCarthySteven Shapin, and Cass Sunstein.
April 9, 2007, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Starr Auditorium, Belfer Building, Harvard Kennedy School

My purpose in this talk is to examine the declining power of earlier imaginaries of science, nature and reality in sustaining modern democratic categories of civic agency, political participation, and conceptions of apolitical constraints. The change that concerns us is in the idea of popular sovereignty between early to late, or post-modern, democracy. Focusing on the role of fictions in modern political history, I ask what kinds of experience, how many facts, or how much publicly accessible evidence, are needed to lend such a fiction as popular sovereignty the status of believable reality. The historical record suggests that established political fictions are actually sustained by a very small number of "facts." What contributes most heavily to the believability of such fictions is the efficacy with which they match or sustain the normative-epistemological frame of a particular political world. I conclude with a brief examination of the decline of scientific or natural reality as components of post-modern political imaginaries of order, and the consequences of that decline for enacting popular sovereignty in our time.