Tuesday, October 17, 2006

John Durant and MIT's Science, Technology and Society Program

I met Dr. John Durant, Adjunct Professor in MIT’s “Science, Technology and Society” program (or STS) and Director of The MIT Museum.  He delivered a paper and led a colloquium entitled “What Role for STS?” on Monday the 16th of October, 2006.

This was a perfect event to attend.  I was very interested myself in seeing what role they thought such a group or program should have within an institution like MIT.  In the process I hoped to pick up a bit of history of the field, some important terminology, names, titles and even what you might call, the “Big Questions” in the field.

I was pleased and not at all surprised to learn that it is indeed an entire field – you might even call it a sub-discipline or specialty within the Social Sciences – devoted first to the study of the relationship between Science and Society, and second to practice certain methods and techniques in the field that can manage or even improve that relationship.

In this entry I’d like to summarize what I learned about the research and practice of STS.

John Durant, Director, MIT Museum
The first and most important thing I noticed is a huge flaw in the language I have been using to think about the topic of Science, Technology and Society.  As is often the case, a bit of History tells it all.  It seems that this field grew out of the concerns of natural scientists in the 1970’s over public criticism of Science, its diminished stature and fear of an imminent funding crisis.  They believed, as Durant reminded us, “to know Science is to love it.”  They figured that if the public was simply better informed, they would be more supportive of the physical sciences.

In other words, at the time, the problem appeared to be ignorance.  They called their work “The Public Understanding of Science.”  It was seen as a knowledge ‘deficit’ or a public-relations problem, suggesting that the solution was simply to provide missing information.  Perhaps an advertising campaign would do the trick?

Hmmmm…  at any rate, I was more than a little embarrassed.  I recognized myself at least partially in that characterization.   It is indeed what I am trying to do. I couldn’t decide if it sounded arrogant or naïve or perhaps a bit of both.  I wondered to myself, “Where is he going with this?”  And then, “What do I think?”

He continued.  In the 1990’s, the ‘deficit’ model gave way to what has been called the ‘dialogue’ or ‘engagement’ model.  Crises in GM foods and BSE in Europe and teaching evolution in the US may have precipitated the shift, but leaders in the field soon realized that the relationship between Science and Society could not be fixed with a bit of excellent teaching.  Instead, they called for a public dialogue or bi-directional engagement between the 'Public' and Science.  Both parties need to participate, to formulate questions, define their agenda, reflect and learn from each other. It seems that ‘The Public’, like a young student, is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled.  Well, this is something I know about, thanks to [[http://www.rightquestion.org|The Right Question Project]] and the work of Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana.

While this sounded like this way of thinking about it was an improvement over the deficit model, I became skeptical at once. First of all, I believed that the knowledge deficit was real and it still is a problem: shared knowledge is a prerequisite for communication.  It is just not the only problem.  And it is not just a small problem.  And the deficit is not a one-way problem either:  scientists are not necessarily very sophisticated in their understanding of popular culture, religion, public institutions and so forth.  And calling it a 'deficit' may not be helpful in some circumstances.  But it is still a problem that does not go away because you change it's name.

So the “Public Understanding of Science” has been “retired” and replaced with the “Public Dialogue” or “Public Engagement of Science.”  But more important than language, what about practice?  Words are just symbols, after all.  But what do they represent? Engagement sounds good but I wondered how it actually works in the field.  How exactly is it done?

Durant did not say.  But I had some ideas....

Still, the change seemed like an oversimplification to me.  Why should the engagement model replace the deficit model instead of compliment it?  Why do we waste good, holistic words like ‘understanding’ that include learning, dialogue and engagement?

You loose more babies when you dispose of the bathwater in that way…

Well, I just waited a few seconds and it became clear that Professor Durant had considered and worked through many of my concerns.  I particularly liked the way he talked about practice.  Research in this field is all about understanding and defining the relationship between Science and Society.  Practice appears to be managing relationships and communications on that boundary.  He consistently stated that the best research was “embedded” with practice.  And the most useful practice was “backed” by research.  Interesting.

  • Practice-embedded research
  • Research-backed practice 
I was pleased to hear Durant repeatedly say that a shift in language does not solve the problem if there is not also a shift in practice.  And that is hard.

I’m not sure of this but I also detected a bit of rivalry between the social sciences and natural sciences in his discussion. There were references to certain high-profile individuals in the physical sciences who aren’t really helping the situation with their simplistic, elitist and not-so-flattering perspectives on the so-called public.  Along with the term “Public Understanding” of Science, the physical sciences themselves had been tainted somehow with their oversimplification of the problem.

Why should the social sciences and natural sciences act as if it were a zero-sum game?  Is it?  It all seems so silly, especially when the cost of cooperation is zero and the stakes are so high.  In this global climate of fear and wars of culture, ideology and faith, who is looking after Science as a whole?  Who is concerned for the integrity of scientific evidence and it’s applications in the real world?

In the end, I think that Dr. Durant’s understanding of the situation is right on and his use of his platform at MIT is really powerful.  He knows that he is working on a multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary synthesis of a systemic problem. The dialogue model focused on “engagement” between Science and Society is powerful but it is just as likely to be oversimplified and abused as the deficit model that came before it. The notion that all conflict can be reduced to communication problems is false.  Public interests are multiple, overlapping and interacting in complicated ways. At the same time science and technology are not  not monolithic either.  Academic and commercial interests in science in public, private and government settings have different and sometimes conflicting interests with each other and the public as well.

He also knows that the knowledge deficit is real.  Science education is an enabler, a means to that end but that public engagement -- and I would add transparency and accountability -- are equally important goals to strive for. Both practice embedded research and research enabled practice are important tools that have terrific potential.  Although I wonder if it is merited, that institutions like STS even exist makes me feel cautiously optimistic that, with mutual understanding and better communication, over time, we will tend to fund what we should study, cancel what we should not study, and pay to attention what we learn and then, actually apply the best of science and technology to improve our lives and our world.Maybe we can talk about tools to engage the public in a dialogue....

COMMENTS from the original blog

2006-12-17 21:29:59 stefano
Notes:  Learning Agenda
I’d like to learn more about how the History and Philosophy of Science figure into STS.  History seems to be the lens of choice for the study of the relationship.  I’m not sure I understand what the discipline underlying the practice really is although it seems like it’s a combination of management consulting, business, organizational design, communications, market research, and so forth.  Highly integrated and practical program, case based, typical of what you might find in any professional business school among the avant garde.  

It would be interesting to see what has been done with case studies in this field.  There are a number that he referred to including the ID debate, evolution trials in Little Rock and Dover, stem cells, GM foods, BSE.  I wonder about public health issues like AIDS, tobacco.  What about toxic waste and disease?  Climate change?  

Ask Durant about History in the present policy debates.  What is the role of History?  What about historical studies like the discovery of cholera in London?  Heliocentric solar system?  Can these “stories” impact current debates on evolution, for example?

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