Can Science Make Sense of Life?


– [Narrator] In November 2018, the Second International
Summit on Human Genome Editing was held at the University of Hong Kong. There, Chinese researcher He Jiankui presented something unexpected and what the organizers of the
summit called deeply disturbing. He and his research team claimed to have genetically
modified two human embryos resulting in the successful
birth of HIV free twins, despite the HIV positive
status of one of their parents. The worldwide bioethics community was quick to condemn
He, who was soon removed from his position at the university. His crossing off an ill-defined yet universally agreed upon line acutely illuminated a
set of critical questions on the very definition of life. Not only what it is but who
gets to decide what it is. On this episode of Behind the Book, Harvard Kennedy School
Professor Sheila Jasanoff discusses a closely related question and a book of her own, “Can Science Make Sense of Life?” Professor Sheila Jasanoff
is uniquely equipped to tackle these questions as one of the leaders of the field of science,
technology, and society since it’s beginnings 40 years ago. – [Jasanoff] We had to
essentially figure out, well what is scholarship in this field if one wants to study science,
technology, and society. What does one even do? – [Narrator] Jasanoff did this by uniting two existing academic
methods of understanding and theorizing science’s
relationship to society. – [Jasanoff] The American
movement was about the impact of science and technology on society. The other strand was saying
science and technology are social activities like anything else. Making films is a kind
of cultural activity, making science is similar via
social and cultural activity. So how do you study that
activity for itself? – [Narrator] This
interdisciplinary approach to building the STS field also informs one of the main goals of
Jasanoff’s latest book, “Can Science Make Sense of Life?” – [Jasanoff] Well I think
that there’s, you know, deeper problem with the way
we’ve been thinking about life. We’ve to some degree,
secularized to a point where people feel that
the kinds of things we do in the problem-solving mode
are completely divorced from the kinds of ideas that we might have in a more contemplative or
spiritual or whatever setting. I see that rigid separation carves people and their thinking up in
somewhat artificial ways and leaves both sides dissatisfied and we have to find a more
integral way to think. – [Narrator] Jasanoff locates the origins of this rigid separation in the development of modern biology. Biology was once the work
of explorers and naturalists like Charles Darwin and
the pea plant breeding Gregor Mendel. But by the mid-twentieth century it had transitioned from
observing the natural world to redesigning it in a lab. This is where we came to understand the double-helix structure of DNA and later, how to turn it into life, through in-vitro fertilization. Jasanoff describes this transition as having made it
increasingly more acceptable for biologists to claim
ownership of the meaning of life. But she also says that they tend to claim sole ownership over their work, despite the major implications that life sciences can and
do have on society at large. – [Jasanoff] It’s very
tempting, in the sciences, to think they are in a
position to self-regulate. – [Narrator] And since the 1980s, US courts have backed up this belief. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that a patent on new microorganisms created in a lab didn’t constitute a
violation of the patent code. Professor Jasanoff believes
this ruling prematurely ended discourse about the
ethics of this technology. – [Jasanoff] The problem was
that something that might have been opened up for wider
public debate never was. Because once the court says
the existing law covers it, you no longer need to go back to Congress. But time after time, when
questions have arisen about should there be congressional action on whatever it is, science gears up and says if you regulate you will be stifling innovation. And that phrase, stifling innovation, has become code for saying leave us alone and we will develop. – [Narrator] Jasanoff likens
the self-regulatory model of scientific discovery to the
logic of free-market ideology. – [Jasanoff] Just because
most of the world has boarded to the automobile as an
absolutely necessary functional piece of the way of life, does not mean that for the
long-term future of humanity that was the beneficial way to go. And in fact, when we put
cars next to climate change we get a very different verdict on whether this was a
good thing or a bad thing. Science is producing new
things through technology, the market loves new things, and people want to
experiment and so forth. That partnership does need
oversight of some sort and what that oversight should be, I think is a job for us in this school to be thinking about. – [Narrator] Jasanoff has
focused much of her work on exploring that kind of oversight. Her vision is to develop a model of strong public
participation in the process of scientific progress and discovery. She calls this model,
the global observatory. It’s the ongoing, citizen-driven nature, of this process that distinguishes it from scientific summits that have
taken place in recent years. – [Jasanoff] So the leading
scientific communities of the world mostly led by America, China, and Britain have now held two different
summit conferences. But they’re episodic,
they’re driven by science, the scientists decide who to invite. My idea of the observatory,
which I’ve developed with my colleagues is
something that would be much more ongoing, it
would be a repository, it would be a place like a library, where people put their
knowledge in one place. But it would be accompanied by analysis. It’s not something that anyone
should have ownership over. It’s supposed to be for humankind. – [Narrator] It’s this forward-thinking forensic mentality that
has defined Jasanoff’s work since the beginning. – [Jasanoff] I’m trying to think ahead to those moments of confrontation that I know will occur. Then to try to craft some sense of, well how do we repair and when those radical value
conflicts in fact arise, instead of to some extent
being caught flat footed every single time. – [Narrator] The book is “Can Science Make Sense of Life?” Written by Sheila Jasanoff. The Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at
Harvard Kennedy School. It’s published by Polity Press. You can learn more about
Professor Jasanoff at sheilajasanoff.org. This has been Behind the Book a production of library
and knowledge services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future
Behind the Book videos by subscribing to Harvard
Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @hkslibrary and visiting our website.

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