Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University


Below is a partial list of past and current projects conducted under the auspices of the Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Life in the Gray Zone: Governance of New Biology in Europe, South Korea, and the United States

Supported by NSF Award Id: SES-1058762 (Awarded June 2011)

This proposal examines how boundary-troubling developments in three foundational and rapidly moving areas of the biosciences and biotechnologies are being differently accommodated into political and constitutional orders in three geographic regions (US, European Union [and member states UK, Germany, Italy], South Korea). Using an innovative comparative, cross-national research design, the interdisciplinary and international project team hopes to shed light on the evolving relationships between the life sciences and social order in contemporary democracies. Drawing on a unique combination of expertise, research skills, and collaborative experience, this project will examine the developing legal, ethical, and institutional approaches to managing three kinds of novel entities: embryos and embryonic derivatives; “diseases in a dish”; and products of synthetic biology.

Embedded in fast-moving areas of science and engineering, these inventions challenge scientific and policy thinking by crossing three salient conceptual boundaries: life and non-life; human and non-human; person and property. Examples include the products of somatic cell nuclear transfer, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, human-animal chimera, and “biobricks.” These objects are produced in varying moral, legal, and cultural contexts that give rise to different ways of classifying and governing them. As science and technology mature, differences frequently appear in the cross-national treatment of such entities. In an era of globalized scientific activity—the exchange of materials, mobility of scientists, publication, data sharing, and risk assessment—it is critically important to analyze and evaluate such disparate treatments.

Transformative intellectual contributions will be made on three dimensions: (a) Improved political and legal theories of “public reason,” to explicate how reason and reasoning themselves change along with biological characterizations of life. These novel advances in STS theory will also open the way to richer conversations with neighboring academic disciplines. (b) Novel research methods: The study proposes a fully symmetrical comparative analysis, looking in equal and unprecedented depth at aspects of both technoscientifc and normative (legal and policy) change, incorporating STS-style object-centered approaches into policy analysis, deepening the comparison of civil and common law constitutional cultures, and including non-Western perspectives. (c) Empirical knowledge about the governance of rapidly developing areas of biology, including relevant legislation, case law, ethical principles, and regulatory decisions. Comparative information exists on only one of the three study areas (embryo research); the others have not been subjected to comparative study.

In Step 1, the project will review and identify differences in the classification of three sets of novel objects in each country or region. It will map major differences in the classification and institutional oversight of each class of entities in each emerging domain. Step 2 will compare and analyze the justifications for the policies and ethical norms developing around the objects under study, with specific reference to definitions of life, human-ness, and property. Step 3 will include US-EU workshops to promote intensive, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural discussion among scientists, social scientists, and policy analysts; a particular aim will be to assess how cross-national differences in ethics and regulation are affecting scientific practice. Step 4 will produce publications integrating and communicating the project’s findings, both domestically and cross-nationally, an electronic database, and a research platform.

Broader Impacts: Besides training its own staff, as a contribution to human resources development, the project will advance ongoing efforts to build an STS infrastructure at Harvard. It will help strengthen the international Science and Democracy Network founded by the PI. It will create exceptional opportunities for dialogue between STS and other social sciences, law, medicine, and public policy. It will develop new forms of collaboration and dissemination across disciplines, contributing to the training of reflective practitioners in the life sciences and bioengineering. It will support bridge-building between STS research, three major scientific research labs, policy institutions, and professional communities, as well as the construction of a web-based public database and research platform for STS scholars and other users.

Evidence Observed: Daubert‘s Impact on Science and Justice

Supported by NSF Award Id: 0850962 (awarded March 2009)

In 1993, in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the US Supreme Court changed the rules for managing the quality and flow of scientific evidence into federal courts. The Court charged trial judges with the responsibility to act as “gatekeepers” for scientific evidence, ensuring that such testimony was both reliable and relevant before it was admitted. Since then, numerous studies have investigated Daubert‘s impact on legal strategies and outcomes, but it remains unclear how the decision succeeded with respect to its central objective: to keep unreliable or irrelevant expert testimony (popularly labeled “junk science”) out of court, and so to achieve more just and beneficial outcomes. To address this issue, this project examines fifteen years of Daubert‘s implementation to ascertain how judges, attorneys, and expert witnesses have construed the mandate that trial judges should “think like scientists,” and how these interpretations have affected the production (or non-production) of expert evidence.

Several major concerns have emerged with respect to the judicial screening of expert evidence. First,Daubert encourages judges to import their own possibly faulty understandings of what constitutes good science into evidentiary rulings. Second, Daubert impedes the admission of valid science and discourages the production of new and relevant case-specific knowledge. Third, the discretionary nature of trial court judgments about the reliability of scientific evidence produces inconsistent, erratic, and unreviewable results across jurisdictions, thereby undermining Daubert‘s intent to bring greater consistency and reliability to admissibility decisions. Yet, paradoxically, studies also indicate that it makes little difference whether courts apply the Daubert criteria or the earlier Frye rule. This project will evaluate these findings and criticisms by combining largely qualitative methods from STS and legal studies.

Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Science and Technology Policy: A Cross-National Comparison

Supported by NSF Award No. SES-0724133 (awarded September 2007)

This two-year, interdisciplinary, comparative project, grounded in the field of science and technology studies (STS), aims to develop a new theoretical framework for understanding of the global politics of science and technology (S&T). It will examinine the relationship between national political cultures and the production of sociotechnical imaginaries in S&T policymaking in the United States, South Korea, and Germany. Sociotechnical imaginaries are defined, for purposes of this project, as “imagined forms of social life and social order that center on the development or fulfillment of innovative scientific and/or technological projects.” Through systematic cross-national comparison, the project hopes to illuminate how three different democratic political cultures are framing the goals, risks, and benefits of technological innovation, and how they are meeting the associated political challenges of democratic inclusion, ethics, and accountability.

Sociotechnical imaginaries are at once descriptive of attainable futures and prescriptive of the kinds of futures that ought to be attained. As an influential part of the currency of contemporary politics, these imaginaries have the power to shape technological design, channel public expenditures, and justify the inclusion or exclusion of citizens with respect to the presumed benefits of technological progress. Given the globalization of S&T, the political salience of such imaginaries, and the risks and instabilities that inevitably accompany their realization, understanding how they are formed and implemented is necessary to any serious exploration of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck has called a “cosmopolitan” vision of intercultural coexistence.

Phase I of the project will develop nine national case studies, focusing on three specific technologies: nuclear power, stem cells and cloning, and nanotechnology. This design will provide historical depth as well as contemporary insight into national technoscientific imaginations. Phase II of the study will analyze these cases along several dimensions, including the treatment of national needs, solidarity, temporality, competitiveness, and risks and benefits. The research with use qualitative STS methods, integrating approaches from the fields of policy analysis, law, anthropology, and history of science.

The proposed study of sociotechnical imaginaries will advance our theoretical understanding of contemporary S&T developments by shedding light on the following issues:

  • How ethical, social, and political commitments get built into national trajectories of technoscientific development; and how such commitments contribute to national styles or systems of innovation.
  • What it means to “democratize technology” in different national settings; what alternative models of democratization exist, and what are their advantages and disadvantages.
  • How S&T policy functions as a domain of meaning-making or sense-making—e.g., by shaping concepts of citizenship, participation, public good, and public reason.
  • What factors influence the perceived successes and failures of S&T policy, and what new conceptual tools are needed to assist governments and publics in a globalizing world in making better informed, better reasoned, and more democratic policy choices.

By analyzing S&T policymaking in three nations as sites of democratic as well as technical experimentation, the project promises to have two kinds of broader impacts. First, it will improve cross-cultural understanding of the global politics of S&T, thereby building stronger foundations for transnational cooperation and governance. Second, the proposed research will provide new conceptual and empirical resources that can be used to improve S&T policy analysis and implementation, specifically: in assessing the risks and benefits of new and emerging technologies; in standard-setting and the treatment of uncertainty; in the design of new forms of public engagement; in developing new processes of ethical analysis and deliberation; and in highlighting opportunities for and possible modes of international S&T collaboration.

Constituting Nature and Society in the Global Environment

Supported by NSF Award No. SES-0328350 (awarded September 2003 – August 2006).

This project looked at the emergence of the global environment as a site for scientific and social action at the turn of the 21st century. In scientific terms, the global framing has altered the scales at which, and the methods by which, we seek to understand natural and social influences on the environment, as well as interactions between them. In social and political terms, environmental globalization has given rise to new concepts, institutions, actor coalitions, political strategies, and norms that transcend or compete with the politics of nation-states. The project explored the implications of these coupled changes for emerging structures of global governance, focusing specifically on new institutional arrangements around global environmental science, politics, and policy.

The project was motivated by two strands of recent theoretical work in science and technology studies: (1) on globalization and environmental governance; and (2) on co-production. Globalization was seen for purposes of this project as a dynamic process, complementing and interacting with processes of localization. Globalization thus requires, and results in, diverse accommodations between global and local institutions, norms, practices, and technologies. To understand environmental globalization, it is therefore necessary to examine processes operating below the global levels. Co-production is the joint production of natural and social order, or knowledge and forms of life. This framework has proved particularly useful for studying emergent phenomena such as environmental globalism, and for understanding persistent differences in societal approaches to studying and managing the natural world.

The study design was comparative, across nation-states (U.S., Germany, India) and across non-state sectors (science, corporations, civil society). In each research site, the project focused on three anchoring concepts that are both policy-relevant and theoretically interesting: sustainability, vulnerability, precaution. The objective was to uncover how natural knowledge and social response are co-produced through attempts to define and implement these concepts. Methodologically, the project incorporated qualitative approaches (including case and country studies) from science studies, law, anthropology, history of science, and comparative politics.

Principal investigators for this project were Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard), Clark Miller (Arizona State University), and Marybeth Long Martello. Miller and Martello are past fellows of the Kennedy School’s STS Program.

Reframing Rights: Constitutional Implications of Technological Change

Funded by the National Science Foundation, NSF Award No: SES-9906834.
Principal investigators: Sheila Jasanoff and Fred Schauer, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

In 1999, The National Science Foundation funded a multi-year program of research and graduate training at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to look at the concept of constitutional rights from the standpoint of work in science and technology studies (S&TS). The program was unique in its effort to bridge historical and contemporary S&TS research and legal scholarship, and to display the importance of such boundary-crossing for the governance of new science and technology. The program trained nine fellows, all of whom have gone on to further notable successes in their careers. It also produced new theoretical insights, substantial publications, new courses, international connections, and bridges to other training programs.

Many of the grant’s major scholarly achievements can be located within the theoretical envelope of co-production stemming from S&TS research. Briefly, the co-production framework holds that the products of science and technology not only influence but also incorporate social norms and institutions. Technological artifacts and processes are, according to this account, material carriers of human commitments, reasoning, moral judgments, and cultural practices. The deployment of such artifacts engages with and reshapes our understanding of constitutional rights at many levels, going beyond formal legal principles and judgments. The work of the trainees and PIs has shown, for example, that the legal authority of DNA fingerprinting rests on new forms of expertise produced through the joint working of science and law (Jay Aronson); national political cultures shape the framing of scientific questions in biotechnology, including judgments of what is safe and when life begins (Sheila Jasanoff); the building blocks of democratic government, including concepts of transparency and the right to know, are the results, not the precursors, of processes that assume the prior existence of these categories (Stefan Sperling); and rights to participate in genetic diversity research are inseparable from scientific and social definitions of diversity (Reardon).

Research under the training grant has also helped to refine the concept of citizenship which is key to all systems of constitutional governance. More specifically, Jim Dratwa studied competing discourses around the precautionary principle to illuminate the nature of democratic deliberation in the European Union; Sheila Jasanoff elaborated the concept of civic epistemology to explain why citizens in Europe and the US reacted differently to key legal and policy issues around biotechnology; Stefan Sperling showed how public debates around stem cell research and genetic testing redefined the concept of German citizenship; Mariachiara Tallacchini described contrasting US and European ideas of patients’ rights in procedures involving xenotransplantation; and David Winickoff drew on the legal notion of trusts to articulate citizens’ communal rights in data and material stored in biobanks.

The program’s impacts satisfied but also ranged beyond the normal indicators of academic excellence. Books resulting from the program have appeared or are in the pipeline with major academic presses (Princeton, Duke) and articles were published in academic journals representing the more theoretical as well as the more policy-relevant dimensions of the research (e.g., PoliteiaNew England Journal of Medicine,Science as CultureScience and Public PolicySocial Studies of Science, and Yale Journal of International Law). Of note, too, is an amicus curiae brief co-authored by David Winickoff and Sheila Jasanoff with three other colleagues and submitted to the World Trade Organization in 2004 in connection with the US case against the EU on genetically modified crops and foods. A new Kennedy School course on bioethics, law and the life sciences is another tangible result of the training program.

The program was fortunate to attract fellows who received funding from other prestigious sources, including the Fulbright program (Robert Doubleday), the Branco Weiss Foundation (Giuseppe Testa), and the Newcombe fellowship program (Stefan Sperling). Four trainees received tenure-track positions at top American research universities (Jay Aronson in history of biology, Jennifer Reardon in sociology, Kaushik Sunder Rajan in anthropology, David Winickoff in bioethics). Of the European trainees, Robert Doubleday occupies a research position at the University of Cambridge; Jim Dratwa is employed by the European Commission; Mariachiara Tallacchini received a professorship at the University of Piacenza, Italy; and Giuseppe Testa continues to make remarkable progress in a biological research career in Germany. The disciplinary range and institutional diversity of these positions testifies to the extraordinary intellectual richness that the fellows brought to training program and that the program, in turn, helped to consolidate and steer.