Last June (2013), members of the Science & Justice Research Center were interviewed by former UCSC EAP (Education Abroad Program) student Bue Thastum. While the original interview appeared in the Danish Daily Information, below is the translated article.
Should research create a better world?
Science can have other forms of social relevance than just economic. At the University of California Santa Cruz a young research center is trying to create interdisciplinary dialogues on how to practice science and engineering in ways that contribute to a more just world.
The debate regarding the role of research in society has often stood between two different positions. On the one hand voices that speak of the importance of maintaining independent basic research, on the other hand, those who want research that’s more directly connected to society. In the Danish debate the latter, however, has typically been in a rather narrow economic sense – emblematic summarized in former Minister of Science Helge Sander’s (V) slogan of the movement from research to invoice. A political ambition that, as it was recently demonstrated in a report from the think tank DEA, didn’t actually turn out as hoped anyway.
But the way science relates to society can also be on other broader levels than merely economy. An example is the young research center Science and Justice at the University of California Santa Cruz who, based on the fact that science and engineering plays a huge role in shaping our lives and society, are working to create cross-disciplinary conversations about how it can be done in a way that contributes to the creation of a better, more just world.
The group, which has existed since 2006 but only formally became a research center last year, is particularly unique in the way it manages to bring together students and researchers across the gap between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities in its seminars and educational programs.
More than fraud
The center is housed in two humbly furnished rooms on the campus of the university. In one of those, assistant director Jake Metcalf bids welcome and explains that one of the intellectual approaches of the center is a discussion of what research ethics means.
“The understanding of what it means to practice science ethically has been too shallow,” Jake Metcalf says.
He has a PhD in philosophy himself and has amongst other things done research on applied ethics in the life sciences. He believes that part of the problem is the way science students are being educated.
“Most of the science ethics teaching is based on a model named Responsible Conduct of Research,” Metcalf explains.
Academic integrity, avoidance of plagiarism and informed consent from research subjects are typical topics. All this is of course essential, he admits:
“But one of the premises for Science and Justice is that this is not enough. It does not tell you much about the social good that can be achieved by doing science in one way or the other. So we try to create a space to think about what ethics may be beyond the Responsible Conduct of Research.”
One of the ways that space more specifically takes shape is in form of the events the group is organizing, in which they try to get speakers from different disciplines to come together around a common issue, and hopefully bring perspectives that can mutually enrich one another.
Anxiety of politics
Shortly before the summer holidays, for example, there is an event on airborne pesticide drifts and social justice. It’s Tuesday afternoon in one of the new glass-clad buildings in the scientific part of the campus. On the wall hangs a poster with the human genome, and in two rows around a U-formation of tables an audience counting anthropologists as well molecular biologists is seated.
One speaker is an environmental sociologist and has studied bureaucratic and political processes surrounding the regulation of pesticides in the United States, another is a representative of an NGO that teaches poor residents from rural areas to document pesticide drifts from nearby farms, and a third is the biologist Tyrone Hayes, who discovered how the pesticide Atrazine creates hormonal disorders in frogs and subsequently, under great media attention, has thrown himself into a prolonged and spectacular public campaign against the company that manufactures the pesticide.
A central theme in both the presentations and the subsequent discussion is the role scientific evidence plays in facilitating political change.
The NGO representative explains how being able to use scientifically robust methods has helped lay people to push for political change. Conversely, the two other speakers describe a widespread culture amongst scientist of not being interested in engaging in political processes. As the company behind Atrazine tried to discredit Hayes, he found about 60 other scientists in the world, all of which dealt with the effects of Atrazine, but when the US Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing on the pesticide, no one showed up.
Apart from the seminars, Science and Justice’s main activity right now is the training program for graduate students.
The program is being offered across all the divisions of the university and is thus concretely putting future physicists, sociologists, engineers and political scientists in the same room. The background for this is that justice, as Science and Justice understands it, is not something you can define once and for all, and hence not necessarily something that can be kept within the boundaries of a single discipline either.
Kate Richerson is a PhD student in Biology and one of the students who has completed the program. She says that it especially has given her a sense of the complexity of the social life scientific studies gets after having been completed. Many scientists have good intentions, but they lack that understanding if they really want to create a better world.
“There is a tendency that it just gets taken for granted that science can help,” says Kate Richerson, “but the work you’re doing often gets to have its own life, when you put it out into the world.”
A life that’s exactly influenced by economy, social relations or culture, and thus one that other disciplines could help provide a more nuanced image of.
The hope of the program is that the students by gaining an understanding of each other’s language, and by building up a sense of comfort in talking together across disciplinary boundaries, eventually will be better to see possibilities for collaboration.
But it’s not the ambition of Science and Justice to get the students to put their professional identities behind them, says Andrew Mathews, who until the summer was the director of the center.
“It is about building the ability to become diplomats across disciplinary differences,” Andrew Mathews says.
“I actually think ‘interdisciplinary’ is a meaningless word. Everyone says they are, but what does it mean? Instead, it is about providing opportunity for people from different disciplines to have conversations about things that matter to them. That’s our goal. And from there, maybe new research questions can emerge. ”
Thastum, Bue. “Should Research Create a Better World.” Danish Daily Information. Sept. 2013. n. pag. Web. 26 Sept. 2013.