Road to STS

The Road to STS

People often ask how I became an STS scholar. It happened almost by chance. That very fact says a lot about the field’s early history, but also about two-career academic marriages, the political economy of American higher education, university administration and interdisciplinarity, the crucial role of funding organizations, and the challenges of institutionalizing new fields. It is a story of knowledge-making outside classic disciplinary paradigms; it is thus in its modest way a contribution to STS’s basic intellectual project.

Border Crossings

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, I was pushed by my parents toward a career in the sciences. This was fairly typical for an Indian child of my generation from a highly educated family. Following graduation, at my father’s insistence, I went to do doctoral work in chemistry at the University of Bonn. There, I met my future husband, Jay Jasanoff, and first learned of the field of Linguistics – in which he had concentrated as a Harvard undergraduate.

German universities at the time were still recovering from wartime losses, and studying chemistry in particular turned out to be a bleak prospect, even without the added complications of youth, gender, a new language, and ethnic otherness. I quickly realized that this was not the right course for me. Linguistics offered an attractive alternative for someone with a facility for languages and inclined toward formal rather than interpretive analysis. After completing an M.A. in Linguistics in Bonn, I returned to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in my chosen field.

In the mid-1960s the revolution of generative grammar, centered around Noam Chomsky at MIT, was well on its way. I, however, was drawn to the field of historical linguistics, which offered concrete problems of language change with a promise of demonstrable solutions. Indian languages, among the most widely spoken in the world, had received very little attention from linguists trained in the West. I was lucky to find, and solve, an important morphological puzzle in Bengali: why did the participle-based past tenses (the l- and t- forms) have idiosyncratic personal endings not found in Bengali’s two closest Sanskrit-derived, eastern relatives, Oriya and Assamese?

Finishing a Ph.D., however, did not lead to a career. By the early 1970s, I was caught in a double bind. India occupied a marginal place in American higher education, and no jobs were on offer for a Bengali historical linguist. Jay by then was an assistant professor at Harvard. Jobs for academic couples, never plentiful, were especially scarce in esoteric fields in competitive academic environments. Retooling for more pragmatic options became increasingly appealing. In 1973, I entered Harvard Law School, supposing correctly that a J.D. would not hurt my job prospects. My Ph.D. defense took place three weeks after I began my legal education.

Gateways to Interdisciplinarity

Law school made it clear that corporate practice was not for me; yet, for me, the law opened intellectual gates I could not have imagined. Immediately on receiving my J.D., I joined a tiny environmental law firm in Boston and got caught up in a field that became central to my subsequent research. The architecture of U.S. environmental law was just falling into place. Major federal laws were being enacted every other year, and my firm was involved in making sense of those novel and complex texts. My colleagues were working for state and federal agencies, overwhelmed by their new obligations, as well as for citizen groups attempting to block threatening developments with newfound legal instruments.

For me, however, environmental law practice, along with historical linguistics, remained a road not taken. In 1978, barely two years after I entered law practice, Jay’s path to tenure took us to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. An upstate community of 30,000 residents, Ithaca offered exceptional natural beauty but not much scope for practicing environmental law. It was in many ways a company town. Cornell provided most of the jobs in Tompkins County, as well as a passage point for the university’s nearly 20,000 students. In Cornell’s “centrally isolated” environment – as local myth-making termed it – I found an academic voice and, ultimately, a field of my own.

My Cornell years began with a half-time postdoctoral fellowship in the Program on Science, Technology and Society (STS). The program was established in 1969, an outgrowth of the era’s social activism and disenchantment with the harmful effects of technology. Founded by three eminent scientists and a philosopher, the STS Program initially had no profile in the social sciences, although by the time I arrived Dorothy Nelkin’s prolific writings had created a niche for the study of public controversies involving science and technology. With Dorothy’s consistent support, and under the benevolent directorship of Walter Lynn, a civil engineer, I started my research career in a field that, as yet, lacked a name. It speaks volumes for Cornell’s intellectual and administrative flexibility that, in 1987, I was awarded tenure in the College of Arts and Sciences, without an official department, through an ad hoc review process.

NSF and the Growth of STS

My career could not have taken the directions it took without the backing of a federal institution, the National Science Foundation (NSF). From my first research project on chemical regulation to all of my subsequent research and training grants, NSF consistently provided the funding that supported unconventional approaches and made them acceptable. By far the most important of these grants came to Cornell in 1991. It was a substantial award designed to encourage interdisciplinary graduate training in the social relations of science and technology. Our proposal looked at the “Social Implications of Changing Knowledge in the Life Sciences.” It was one of only three program-building grants of similar scope that NSF awarded in the early 1990s (the others were to the University of California San Diego and the University of Minnesota).

The Cornell training grant arrived at a moment when the topmost levels of the university administration were occupied by scientists who never seemed to doubt the importance of social studies of science and technology. Under a physicist dean, Geoffrey Chester, the anomalously located and administered STS Program, with its non-departmentalized faculty members such as myself, was normalized in 1991 as a new Department of Science and Technology Studies (S&TS) within the College of Arts and Sciences. That step, striking enough in the intensely conservative culture of university politics, proved enormously important for STS at Cornell and beyond.

For seven exhilarating years I chaired the Cornell S&TS Department, from 1991 to 1998. During that time, a heterogeneous group of academics trained in widely divergent fields worked together to produce a coherent vision of a new field for graduate and undergraduate students. It was an immensely creative project, as we experimented with a core curriculum and new teaching and training practices. NSF support, along with backing from the University, allowed us to move beyond what I have called the “interstate highway” model of interdisciplinarity, and to operate instead on the riskier but more gratifying model of “charting the high seas.” By the end of the century, Cornell had established a highly successful approach to teaching students from diverse backgrounds how to think and write about science and technology as profoundly human undertakings – in the past, in the present, and to some extent even in the future.

Transplantings: STS and Lives 

Making STS at Harvard

As a lawyer, as an academic with experience of department-building, and as an STS scholar sensitive to the social character of knowledge, I knew that STS could not be moved to new institutional settings without respecting and adapting to local contexts. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the practical difficulties of importing STS into Harvard, where (in contrast to Cornell and MIT) contemporary studies of science and technology did not have longstanding roots. Help came from unexpected quarters, often in incredibly generous and encouraging forms. The history of building STS at Harvard, with its rewards and its complexities, will have to be told in some other time and place, and not solely from one person’s perspective. For me, that effort remains a consuming and fascinating work in progress.

The core of that effort is the Program on Science, Technology and Society that I established in 2002 with support from then dean Joseph Nye. Its official home is in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, where I hold my primary faculty appointment, but its intellectual connections are dispersed throughout the university.

A second effort, aimed at nurturing a community of STS scholars working on democratic politics and policy, is the Science and Democracy Network (SDN), also formed in 2002. Through its annual meetings and follow-up activities, SDN identifies issues relevant to the governance of science and technology, strengthens the theoretical and methodological approaches for investigating these, and disseminates the Network’s products to wider audiences.

Family Connections

Coming back to Cambridge brought personal rewards unrelated to my research and writing or to rebuilding STS in a new institutional home. As in all of our major professional moves, my husband Jay Jasanoff and I returned together to Harvard, where he rejoined the faculty of the Department of Linguistics. Our son, Alan Jasanoff, was already living in Cambridge, having completed his Ph.D. in biophysics. He remains in Cambridge as professor of biological engineering at MIT, together with our daughter-in-law Luba Katz and our grand-daughter Nina Jasanoff. In 2007, our family circle in Cambridge was unexpectedly and delightfully completed when our daughter Maya Jasanoff, a historian of Britain and the British Empire, joined the Department of History at Harvard.