Science, Technology and Society at USC

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testThe first decade of the 21st century has witnessed a series of highly charged public controversies at the intersection of science, technology and society: political and religious groups launched an effective campaign to curb human stem cell research despite the promise of impressive medical breakthroughs; skeptics of anthropogenic climate change challenged the claims of leading climatologists in the face of widespread scientific consensus; parents of autistic children led an anti-vaccination campaign despite public health officials’ assurances of vaccine safety; and US states debated the merits of teaching creationism in public school biology classes, to the chagrin of evolutionary biologists.

Such discussions were characterized by widely divergent views on the role of science and technology in contemporary life. From one vantage, science promised to deliver improvements in collective well-being: better health, cleaner energy, improved knowledge of ourselves. But from another perspective, developments in science and technology provoked widespread anxiety and uncertainty: Would synthetic genomics lead to the creation of deadly new pathogens? Did genetically modified organisms pose invisible threats to the environment or to human health? Were developments in neuroscience and psychopharmacology undermining traditional notions of human agency and reason? While public officials routinely sought scientific advice in settling policy debates, they often seemed skeptical of its findings – whether about climate change or about guidelines for breast cancer screening. In many cases, economic interests, scientific advice and ethical reflection pointed in divergent and seemingly incommensurable directions.

Given the promise of continued scientific and technical innovation, on the one hand, and pervasive public anxiety on the other, these tensions are likely to intensify over the coming decade. And in an era of rapid globalization, such debates will extend across political and cultural borders. The stakes for solving our most pressing social, political and environmental problems are high: as we have seen in recent years, lack of trust in the capacity of experts to contribute to political deliberations can result in paralysis, or worse. Indeed, over the next two decades many of the most crucial challenges we face will require the integration of societal values with scientific and technological developments – whether in managing end-of-life care, preserving the environment, or continuing to nurture scientific innovation.

We seek to develop a unique conversation among humanists, social scientists, and natural scientists about the role of science and technology in public life. Our proposal has two overlapping goals: first, to create a vibrant intellectual community comprised of scholars interested in the contexts in which expert knowledge is produced, the processes of its dissemination, and the societal impact of new technologies. And second, to train graduate students to approach these issues within the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of science and technology studies.

One of the foundational premises of the project is that understanding contemporary tensions at the intersection of science, technology and society requires both an historical and a comparative perspective. Whether in Galileo’s 17th century encounter with the Church authorities, or in the recent debate over climate change among US lawmakers, we find specific cultural and political factors at play in societal response to new scientific developments. For this reason, our group includes historians of science, social scientists who have worked in transnational settings, and natural scientists interested in the implications of their work for human self-understanding across cultures. The theme of “science, technology and society” thus presents an opportunity – and a need – to integrate humanistic inquiry, alongside the social and natural sciences, into university-based efforts to address key contemporary problems.

For more information, contact:

Science, Technology and Society Initiative

c/o Prof. Andrew Lakoff
Department of Sociology
University of Southern California
3620 S. Vermont Ave.
Kaprielian Hall 348D
Los Angeles, CA 90089-2539
Phone: (213) 740-3533
Fax: (213) 740-3535
e-mail: sts@usc.edu