Jenny Reardon and SJRC appear in Le Monde

Jenny Reardon, sociologist between science and justice

Jenny Reardon sitting in the forest

Jenny Reardon, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz on October 11, 2015. (Photo by Maurice Weiss/Ostkreuz for LE MONDE)


Editor’s note:

Below is an English translation of a profile of Jenny Reardon, professor of sociology and director of the Science and Justice Research Center at UC Santa Cruz. It was published Jan. 11, 2016 in the French daily newspaper Le Monde. The original in French may be found at the Le Monde site.


It is 1986 and Jenny Reardon is 13 years old. She lives in Kansas City in Missouri, a Midwestern state of the United States, when a Newsweek article draws her attention. It describes, according to scientific testimony, the consequences for the planet of changes in the ozone layer. Jenny Reardon begins a correspondence with scientific experts, designs experiments to study the effect of ultraviolet radiation on marine ecosystems, and states her results in a scientific paper. In the following year, these experiments earned her the Grand Prize for environmental science in the General Motors International Science and Engineering Fair, a competition that aims to encourage high school students to pursue scientific careers.  “Kansas City was not the ideal place to study marine biology but my father helped me set up a laboratory in the garage of our house. I designed experiments while watching, on a black and white television set, the ‘Oprah’ show, the talk show then in fashion,“ Reardon recalls with laughter.

Despite this early success, it is not in the sciences that this committed, 43-year-old woman excels today.  Rather, she works in the analysis of contexts in which the sciences are practiced. A professor of sociology, she directs the Science and Justice Research Center, created in 2010 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a university known, since the 1960s, for its avant-garde works. The idea? To create innovative forums in which scientists and non-scientists alike are invited to think together about the meaning of common concerns, such as those of race, genetics or ecology. “Jenny has a special ability to listen. This has greatly strengthened her leadership,” says the historian of science Donna Haraway, who works at the same university and who participated with Jenny Reardon in the creation of the research group. “She knows how to gather experts from different disciplines and to get them to think about the deeper meaning of the jargon they use,” she continues. “What I admire in her work is that she is not content with only a critical analysis of what scientists do. Rather, she seeks to open new perspectives with them,” adds the historian of science Joanna Radin of Yale University. “Genetics sheds new light on the definition of the human being, but we cannot let the scientists work alone in their corner.”   “Jenny Reardon is impressive in her ability to build bridges between the social sciences and biology, in order to bring them together to have a broader vision of what they do,” adds geneticist David Haussler of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Initiated in theology

Creating bridges was not always easy for Jenny Reardon. She is the daughter of a former Jesuit priest who was one of eight children of a famous American cartoonist, Foxo Reardon.  A charismatic man, he introduced her to theology and taught tolerance, without disparaging too much its principles. Her mother was attuned to politics after traveling in Eastern Europe right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  She was consequently not satisfied with just studying biology and, at the end of her studies, she was undecided between two directions: molecular biology as practiced in the laboratory led by geneticist Mary-Claire King at the University of California at Berkeley; and, science and technology studies, a new discipline that studies social, political and cultural influences on and of science, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  At this point, we are in the early 1990s and Mary-Claire King, who will later, in 2014, win the Lasker Award, already enjoys a strong reputation. She had just located the region in genome containing the BRCA1 gene, implicated in some hereditary forms of breast cancer. Yet, ultimately, Jenny Reardon chose to pursue the other direction.  “It was a very difficult choice. I declined to study in a prestigious laboratory located in a dream location and chose, instead, studies that do not interest many people. I felt I had betrayed those who believed in me,” she recalls.

A few years later, she returns to genetics, this time with new intellectual baggage. One subject was of particular interest to her: the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a major project launched by prominent geneticists of the time, including Mary-Claire King, and supported by the US government and then, later, abandoned in the 1990s. The geneticists had nothing other than good intentions: to study the genetic diversity of the first peoples to better understand the origins and the intermingling of populations. But those studied did not see it this way. Accusing geneticists of considering them as objects of study and as “material for a patent,” leaders of Native American tribes in the United States vetoed the project. Some anthropologists blamed the project of using modern tools to revive nineteenth century, racist biology.

The history of the concept of race

In her book Race to the finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton University Press, 2005), Jenny Reardon navigates these divisions to reposition the controversy in the history of the concept of race.  She situates the controversy’s origins in unresolved questions between geneticists and the rest of the population concerning the relevant criteria to be accounted for in any study of the human diversity.  “When you look back a hundred years, it appears that the science of the time was influenced by racial representations rooted in contemporary society and leading to the ranking of human groups. Although they deny it, the work of geneticists is still biased by the context within which they work,” says Gisli Palsson, an anthropologist at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. “Jenny was among those who went to the heart of the problem. Her book remains the best analysis of the subject.”

The Science and Justice project is based on that analysis. Promoting “slow science,” its goal is to involve all stakeholders in society to reflect on scientific and technological advances. And, thus, it seeks to lead stakeholders to anticipate the implications of these advances before they define social choices. In addition to multidisciplinary meetings, Science and Justice offers a degree to students from fields as different as sociology and physics, to have them collaborate rethinking fundamental and sensitive issues, such as the commercialization of genetic testing by the company 23andMe; or, the use of drones for military operations. “We try to bring these students together to take into account their respective ways of approaching a problem so that they might think in a way that is not polarizing,” explains Jenny Reardon. “We are living in a time when science exerts incredible power on how people are governed. At the same time, issues concerning equity have become acute. Science and Justice seeks answers to this question: what science do we need in this world?”