Fifteen Questions: Sheila Jasanoff on STS, Objectivity, and Alternative Facts

The professor of Science and Technology Studies sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss how she came to the field and its unique contributions to today's political landscape. “A way forward is to recognize that disputes of facts are often really disputes over the credibility, the honesty, and the integrity of the body finding the facts,” she says.


Sheila S. Jasanoff ‘64 is the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to establishing and directing Harvard’s STS Program, she served as the founding chair of the STS Department at Cornell University. She recently received the 2022 Holberg Prize — an award akin to the Nobel Prize for the humanities and social sciences — for her contributions to the STS field.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Could you tell me the story of how you came to STS? I’m curious about how your eclectic academic and professional occupations shaped your decision to enter the field or have shaped your thinking within it.

SSJ: I think “decision” is the wrong word. Many things were accidental. I started off on a science/math track because that was the preferred track for first generation or immigrant families. I was sent to Germany to study chemistry after I graduated. And there I met the person who eventually became my husband. From him, I learned that there was a field called linguistics. I ended up switching fields and later came back to Harvard and got a doctorate in linguistics. Then we confronted the frequent problem of two career professionals in the same field. I ended up going to law school, mostly as a practical choice. I had never thought that I would end up being a professor, let alone in the field that I'm in. But then, again due to career pressure, we moved to upstate New York, as my husband got a tenured position at Cornell, and the town was way too small to support anything so specialized as environmental legal practice. That's when I got into STS. STS wasn't yet a thing, really. There was a program called Science, Technology, and Society that had been founded because people felt that science and technology had such profound impacts on society that people should be studying, but there wasn't a field. There was no way of hiring faculty members into STS, and there was not even any idea of what a disciplined study of science and technology might look like. That's where my ultimate discovery process began.

FM: What does it actually take to establish a dedicated track for STS, as you have at HKS?

SSJ: During my time at Cornell, I was too busy to step back and think about the answer to this question. I spent 10 years establishing my own career in this field that in a sense didn't yet exist. For my second 10 years at Cornell, I acquired more of an administrative position, first by becoming director of the STS program and then in 1991, becoming the Founding Chair of a new department. We were very busy, my colleagues and I, crafting the curriculum, thinking hard about what it was that we were preparing students to do. When I came to Harvard in 1998, that was the first time I could look backward and think, “Well, what is the driving reason to have STS represented in academia?”

I’d say STS stands in relation to the practices of science and technology in the same way that many humanities and social science fields stand in relation to other areas of human creativity. We have English because people write, and we have Film and Media Studies because people make artistic things. Science and technology are such central activities of human society, yet we don’t have a dedicated field that reflects [on this process]. We spend more time thinking “Who are we as political beings?” than “Who are we as knowledge-making beings, as experimental beings?” Once you start thinking like this, STS falls into place almost like the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The question then becomes, “Why doesn’t everyone have STS?”

FM: What is your current assessment of the field as it stands, either as viewed at Harvard or more broadly? And where would you like it to go?

SSJ: The place that STS is located in universities has tended to be very varied, partly because there isn't a universal recognition that we should have STS. It’s been a bit haphazard. If you teach STS at an engineering school, you may be emphasizing technologies that have impact, that carry risks. For me, doing STS at a policy school was continuous with things that I had already been thinking about as a lawyer. I’ve always been interested in regulation, governance, and the ways in which power is exercised vis à vis knowledge. The field as a whole should be addressing all of these things.

FM: Many prominent STS scholars buy into the idea of the social construction of scientific facts. Do you believe we can ascertain anything in an “objective” fashion? If not, how can we avoid falling into the dizzying or dangerous relativism of “Well, nothing is real, then”?

SSJ: Social construction can imply that any opinion is as good as any other or that there is no background reality. I think that social construction has to be understood in a different way: people like me are simply interested in how certain things came to be the way they are. There's hardly anything that you can look out at in the world and say, “it had to be that way.” Did we have to have telescopes? Did we have to have the Hubble? Did we have to have Elon Musk [attempt to send] rockets to Mars? Obviously not. These are products of human choice. One can then ask why it is that we construct these realities and not others. The project is not at all about the denial of reality; it actually puts reality right in the center of the gaze. Social construction simply makes us more attentive to the idea that we human beings, as social beings, take the world and parse it in different ways. We look at the kaleidoscope of the world and turn it so that some things pattern one way or another. Things are real, but they're real because there is an infrastructure that supports those characterizations of reality as the ones that matter to people.

FM: There’s a popular idea that science has newly been politicized, but your work emphasizes that science is inherently political. Once you realize this, what are you meant to do with it?

SSJ: One has to take apart the two halves of that question. Political scientists sometimes talk about Politics with a big P, which refers to formal institutions like political parties and what those organs do. They also talk about small politics, which refer to choices that are not made through the official political process but which can still be political. For instance, suppose a citizen boycott takes a product off the market, or drives a company to adopt standards that it didn't think it would adopt. In that sense, science has political dimensions that have to do with orderings of power. If you look at the structure within the lab, as many STS scholars have, you can see that there may be a politics involved in terms of who gets the bench near the window and who gets the corner office. There are questions of hierarchy, of relative wealth or poverty inside of any social organization. These are dimensions of the political in science that I think many scientists themselves recognize and want to do something about. The question about the relationship between science and policy is a bit different.

FM: What sort of relationship should scientists have with policymakers?

SSJ: One of my first books was called The Fifth Branch, and it was subtitled “science advisors as policy makers.” I was trying to point out that it's not science and policy; it’s science as policy to some extent. Society acknowledges a number of things at the same time. It acknowledges that we do need expert knowledge, that somebody ought to have some information about what we're trying to do. It also recognizes that there are profound uncertainties, and that there may be big disagreements over what cause-effect relations you should be studying and about the design of the study, especially in frontier studies. In contested territory, acting as if scientists can come in and offer truthful advice is a little naive. One has to recognize that scientists themselves make judgment calls about what the best way is of studying certain phenomena. The place of STS is to get into the guts of these relationships and think hard about when it is that expertise is overstepping its bounds. When is it that the wrong kind of expertise is being called to the table? When is it that citizens through knowledge of their own experience have a kind of expertise that should be brought to the decision-making table?

FM: Can you give an example of what you mean when you say there are limits to what scientists can offer?

SSJ: The assumption in science policy has been for a long time that science and technology chart the way and decision-making follows. Yet talking to people in situ often produces a different picture of what the problem is and how it should be solved. It's absolutely certain that scientific advances will show us new things, and those things may meet people's needs. For instance, it may indeed be possible to do yet more with agriculture so that we have crops and plants ready at hand that could meet very severe drought conditions. But at the same time, if we take a community and say, “Why are you living in a food desert?” or “Where are your hunger needs likely to come from?” you’ll end up with a different trajectory from the one that begins with the bench and says, “How can I make this discovery more palatable to the world?”

FM: What do you believe are the chief obstacles to efforts to attend to the needs of the public? How hopeful are you that such change is possible?

SSJ: Scientists tend to regard the public as epistemically challenged: they make the assumption that if people knew enough, then they would behave in a more “reasonable” way. The question of whether it’s an optimistic future for science and society begins with how well each side understands the other. Are they imposing characterizations that are not really well fitted to the actual status of the polity? Today we live in political systems where even in many parts of the developing world, there are highly expert citizens. This kind of expertise is not ivory tower anymore. It's widely held by people in the ordinary polity. People have measurement instruments and devices, as well as mechanisms for testing. This has led to a potential for optimism — we have much more knowledge at our fingertips — and also a potential for doubt. If I can go find this out myself, why should I trust this other institution that tells me things? In the vaccine domain, for instance, you see that a lot of people are educated enough to see that there are holes in the evidence they are being presented, and they become skeptical. What to do about this is to work on the politics, [to help] people come to a position where their values are sufficiently aligned that they won't fight over the facts anymore. A way forward is to recognize that disputes of facts are often really disputes over the credibility, the honesty, and the integrity of the body finding the facts. If you could build that faith in integrity, then people would accept the facts as well.

FM: Which technologies, either existing or in development, do you believe pose the largest existential risks to humanity at the moment?

SSJ: I generally avoid questions that ask me to predict the future. The automobile has turned out to be one of the big contributors to existential risk. Of course, people were [initially] more worried about traffic accidents than about carbon in the oceans, though carbon emissions have turned out to be a bigger threat. I’d say technologies that have little room for reflection and get generalized, that impart a one-size-fits-all framing on the world, pose greater risks than technologies that are relatively more adapted and hence, not likely to be transported to a scale where it's suddenly going to harm a lot of people. On the whole, we should be scrutinizing technologies that morph without control, like machine learning; technologies that are extremely small and pervasive, like nanoparticles; technologies that are difficult to roll back, like biological experiments that may cross a line of dangerousness; and technologies that impinge on human values.

FM: How can STS help us think about responsible design practices for technologies that bear some amount of risk?

SSJ: A lot of STS scholars would say that we've been doing this already under the heading of what’s called RRI: responsible research and innovation. If you ask people what they mean by that, they will often say [you should] engage with a wider diversity of people earlier in the design process. This has serious applications where the user communities are well-defined and people already agree on what the aims are — say, the restoration of the body after an accident. But there are other technological pathways where the purposes are not necessarily known in advance. There, what you need is not involvement in the design process — that's already too far downstream—, but rather deliberative mechanisms to think harder about what purposes people might consider reasonable.

Genome editing, a topic my program is doing some work on, is one of these technologies. It has the potential to alter the human gene pool, to affect who we are as human beings. How is that being debated? Our contention is that the deliberative mechanisms we've developed are very narrow. They take genome editing as a given, as an inevitability. Therefore, let’s just debate how to guard people against the risks. I think that that's a narrowing of the vision. Recently, I heard a scientist talk about how we can already engineer people to need much less sleep. But nobody who's tinkering with the genes is thinking about what it means for society to become sleepless. Do we know what rest is good for? What does a society that has no room for reflection look like? And besides, in whose imagination is this an okay way to go? Maybe people who are interested in extracting more labor out of everybody.

FM: What have you found most helpful in facilitating conversations like these with scientists and engineers?

SSJ: I don't really think scientists need to be led to the table. Scientists are extremely aware that they live in a society where they have responsibilities. What they're often looking for is either a language in which to talk about the things that they notice — like the language of responsibility, of RRI — or company. If you're in an individual lab, you may be the only person who's thinking hard about societal impacts. It may be that your lab chief who would like to engineer you with the sleepless gene doesn't actually want you to be spending your time thinking about societal issues and thinks this is a waste of time. But if you took every lab together, you might find a big cohort of people who are actually thinking about these things. I have found it much easier actually to talk to scientists and engineers about STS. It's in some ways harder to persuade my social science colleagues that STS has anything new to offer.

FM: What is your proudest accomplishment as a parent?

SSJ: Having raised two children that are eminently successful but also good, caring people.

FM: Congratulations on the Holberg Prize! How did you feel receiving it?

SSJ: We all know how the Nobel Prize announcement comes typically in the middle of the night or in the morning in a call from Scandinavia. I never thought in a million years that I would be the recipient of such a morning phone call from a country in Scandinavia. It was pretty shocking, in a good way, to be told, “You’re this year’s Holberg Laureate.” I didn’t know of the prize. It’s not the sort of thing one imagines coming out of the blue in a phone call.

FM: How do you plan on spending or allocating the prize money?

SSJ: I have my own plans for institutionalizing STS work for young scholars in another organization I’ve built: the Science and Democracy Network. My hope is that I can put the Network on a footing where it will not just hold annual meetings, but also have some resources with which to foster work, especially from countries that don't currently have the resources to send people to meetings.

FM: Out of the many places you’ve lived, across over a dozen countries, which is your favorite?

SSJ: Cambridge, Mass.

— Associate Magazine Editor Saima S. Iqbal can be reached at