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While studying at Harvard Law School in the mid-1970s, Sheila Jasanoff spent a long summer practicing at a corporate law firm in Boston. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, if this is what it is about, I don’t want to do it,’” says Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School. She told one of her law professors that she was looking for a job that provided something useful to society; he promptly helped her land a job at a tiny environmental law firm.
It was an exciting time for the field, Jasanoff recalls. “We were really smack in the middle of the ten-year period when all of the environmental laws were being enacted, and nobody had really figured out what these things meant on the ground.” She practiced for two years at the firm before becoming a research associate at Cornell, where she first began to study the relationship between science and public policy, launching what is now a nearly 35-year-long career.
One of the developments Jasanoff has been able to follow from its beginnings is the rise in the politicization of science in the United States—which she says has chilled the relationship between scientists and the American public. She places its start in the Reagan administration’s efforts to purge scientists that it deemed too environmentally minded. Ever since, “there’s been much more of a sense that science itself is not free from politics. For many people, that then leads to the conclusion, ‘Well, if the science isn’t going to be unbiased, why should we rely on it anyway?’”
This has played out recently in episodes like “Climategate,” a 2009 incident in which hackers stole thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia and sent them to climate change critics, who subsequently argued that the messages represented a conspiracy to manipulate data showing climate changes and silence dissent. On a recent visit to the University of East Anglia, Jasanoff perceived a telling message in the CRU office’s location: detached from any other building, only connected to the rest of campus via a bridge. “I saw it as a metaphor for an inward-looking, self-sufficient view of science that carried some risks,” she says. “And we saw what some of those risks were during Climategate.”
There is a way forward, says Jasanoff, who is currently finishing work on “Science and Public Reason,” a collection of essays that explore what makes for plausible public policy arguments. Scientists, she says, need to communicate more freely with the public at large, and show them that they are willing to engage in conversations around the analysis of their data. “Those are the sorts of virtues that you ideally expect from good politicians and also what you should expect from policy-relevant science,” she says. “Believable [policy] arguments are not only believable because you have the best science. In addition to that, a baseline requirement is that there has to be trust in the entire decision-making process.”