This week at the Chronicle of Higher Education, science writer Paul Voosen takes a look at debates within the history of science field about its continued relevance to the scientific community and society at large. With rapidly depreciating prominence on college campuses and a squeeze on sources of funding, some leaders in the field have argued that it is time for historians of science to shift from obscure topics like centuries past debates over astrology or the reception of Isaac Newton to focus instead on contemporary issues and controversies related to science.
When I was in graduate school at Cornell University; I had the opportunity to engage with faculty and students affiliated with the Science and Technology Studies (STS) program, a closely overlapping discipline with the history of science. An undergraduate and friend who was at Cornell at the time was Joanna Radin, who majored in science communication but then took up history of science in grad school. So I was glad to see her mentioned in Voosen’s article as she starts her tenure-track career at Yale University studying the history of biomedical technology and research ethics, among related topics.
My general thought over the years has been that contrary to many critics, there is outstanding work in STS and related areas of history; which I readily rely on and cite with several of the best works taking up prominent places on my bookshelf. For example, sociologist Brian Wynne’s work as I have written about, helped set in motion a paradigm shift in how we think about science and risk communication. As I recently wrote about in an essay at The Breakthrough, the late Dorothy Nelkin, who helped found the STS program at Cornell before moving on to NYU; inspired multiple lines of high impact research examining the nature of political controversies over science and technology. My colleague at American University Laura DeNardis, who studied STS at Virginia Tech, is among the world’s leading authorities on Internet governance and policy.
In other examples, when I was at Cornell; David Kirby was a geneticist retraining as a post-doc in STS. He has since gone on to a professorship at the University of Manchester (UK) and to do some highly relevant and fascinating work on the role of scientists as advisors to Hollywood films. In the process, he has helped translate, popularize and refine key concepts and theories in the STS field; serving as an influential ambassador for the field; and forging connections to major initiatives such as the National Academies’ Science and Entertainment Exchange. A few years back, Kirby visited American University and I interviewed him about his work. Watch the full interviews here and a highlight reel of excerpts below.
Also studying STS at Cornell during the early 2000s was Josh Greenberg, who now directs the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Digital Information Technology program. During that time, advising or serving on the committee for Radin, Kirby, Greenberg (and for me), was Professor Bruce Lewenstein, a historian of science communication who has played prominent roles as a senior advisor or committee member at the National Academies, the Chemical Heritage Foundation and other major scientific organizations. Another final example with Cornell ties is Sheila Jasanoff, who across decades helped push the field of STS and the program at Cornell into national prominence before leaving for a professorship at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where she directs the Program on Science and Technology Studies and related seminar series, conferences and workshops (from which the image above is taken.)
Still, much of the STS and history of science field has remained focused on relatively obscure topics; which is not unique given the extreme specialization that has happened across social science and humanities fields. The same could be said for communication or political science; but in these fields, scholars can default to the perceived authority of empiricism to justify their work; a trend that some scholars in political science, notably, have critiqued and challenged.
As I tell graduate students, part of the challenge of graduate school and then your tenure-track years is to balance catering to the pressures of becoming highly specialized while also remaining relevant to societal needs and contemporary debate.
For those interested in learning more about the History of Science and STS fields, there was a brilliant CBC radio documentary series a few years back titled “How to Think about Science,” in which journalist David Cayley successfully conquers the challenge of making difficult to comprehend scholars like Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour relevant to broader audiences. The series’ transcripts were also published as an edited book; chapters from which along with the audio podcasts I find highly useful in assigning students.