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Sheila Jasanoff, LMSAI Steering Committee member and the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology. 

Going to high school in Scarsdale, New York, Sheila Jasanoff was exposed to the functioning of diplomacy from a young age. Her parents were both trained economists, and her father joined the United Nations in 1956 as part of the Technical Assistance Board. Just as he engaged in negotiations to aid developing countries in growing their national economies, so did Jasanoff draw on diplomacy as she worked for the past four decades to build an intellectual program – Science and Technology studies (STS) – from the ground up.

Jasanoff, the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a pioneer of the STS field, who says she worked at the “forefront of making things visible that were not yet visible to others.” Her discipline examines the relationship between science, technology, law, and political power, and it was Jasanoff who brought this field to Harvard in 1998. Now, the program she founded offers a Science, Technology and Policy Studies (STePS) track for Public Policy Ph.D candidates at Harvard Kennedy School, and a secondary field for other students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

It is in recognition of these decades of dedication that Jasanoff was recently honored with the prestigious Holberg Prize, an international award from the government of Norway bestowed upon an outstanding scholar in arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology.

“As one of the world’s most influential scholars in developing the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), Jasanoff has forged a unique, interdisciplinary body of research at the intersection of the Social Sciences, Humanities, Arts for People & Economy (SHAPE) and STEM disciplines,” says Heike Krieger, Committee Chair on behalf of the Holberg Committee. “Jasanoff is a significant public intellectual, offering timely comments on topics of public concern such as fake news and climate change. Crucially, Jasanoff combines a high level of conceptual creativity with empirical rigor and accessible writing. Indeed, Jasanoff is read not only by humanities and social science scholars but also by natural and medical scientists and policymakers, her work being truly wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary.”

To understand the significance of such an accolade to Jasanoff, one must journey back to the beginning of her work, when STS was little more than a ‘blank slate’.

Charting Her Own Course

Jasanoff’s journey to STS was an eclectic path of intellectual exploration. She earned an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Radcliffe College, then a Master’s in Linguistics from the University of Bonn. She returned to Harvard to earn a Ph.D in Linguistics, where her interests in historical linguistics focused on a study of the Bengali language. After graduation, Jasanoff pursued a J.D. from Harvard Law School, and landed her first professional position with a small environmental law firm – a field that resonates with her work even today. But it was a relocation to Cornell University in 1978 that first laid tracks for the evolution of STS, after she accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in the Program on Science, Technology and Society. It was there that she learned how to question science and technology’s role in society – and set out to redefine this emerging field.

“I think not having a fixed map that already set down the directions, the landing points, the routes made a serious imprint on the way that I think about academic work, and also how to train people in doing academic work,” Jasanoff says, thinking back on those first years of forming STS. “If you’re brought up inside of a discipline, it’s already charted territory… but I came with much more of a blank slate, so I could ask questions like what’s interesting to ask about the subject? How are other people approaching these questions? And how can I frame them in a fresh way that is different?”

At Cornell, Jasanoff and colleagues built a foundation for the program, ultimately creating a Ph.D degree program and an undergraduate degree in STS. Two decades later, she brought the discipline to Harvard and has since led it to flourish more widely.

Finding a Home at Harvard  

One of the ways Jasanoff grew STS was by using her strong diplomacy skills. In 2002, she founded the Science and Democracy Network, an international community of STS scholars dedicated to improving our understanding of the relationships among science, technology, law, and political power. She also points to two other vehicles for advancing the growth of STS at Harvard: the weekly STS Circle and the bi-annual Science and Democracy lecture series.

STS Circle provides a conversation space for contemporary issues in science and technology. It began in 2006 as a specific attempt to showcase the work of junior scholars, explains Jasanoff, who often solicits participation from researchers from a variety of adjacent fields to involve a wider community.

“There are many people who are actually doing STS without being aware they’re doing it, and part of encouraging that work is making people critically disposed; criticism in its best sense,” explains Jasanoff. “I take young minds in the making very seriously, and I want them to feel that they are being taken seriously in return.”

There are many people who are actually doing STS without being aware they’re doing it, and part of encouraging that work is making people critically disposed; criticism in its best sense.

Jasanoff sprinkles the involvement of junior scholars with that of senior scholars to create robust conversations. Ultimately, she believes in the symbolic ethos of the circle. “I guess this is where being Indian comes into play,” she says. “To me, the ideal academy is where we’re all sitting on the ground under the tree, and there’s not a great deal of hierarchy…when it comes to the plain give and take of ideas, we are seekers in the same field.”

Jasanoff also hosts the bi-annual Science and Democracy lecture series, a university-wide discussion of the place and meaning of science and technology in democratic societies. It endeavors to explore the promised benefits of our era’s most salient scientific and technological breakthroughs—and their potentially harmful effects. The series, funded by John McQuillan, hosts a main speaker, whose talk is juxtaposed by three-to-four additional speakers with different experience and perspectives. “I have not only invited prominent scholars, but also speakers who are not typical STS scholars,” she says. “STS is a way of thinking about the world that is pervasive, and we benefit from having interlocutors who discuss things with us, not necessarily as STS researchers themselves, but as people who see the centrality of science and technology and are grappling with it in various ways, which we can then interrogate.”

Over the years, Jasanoff has hosted a number of preeminent South Asian speakers, ranging from Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who reflected on developments that benefit the economically powerful but may not benefit everyone; to former Head of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, who spoke about the American welfare state and its relationship to debt; to Sunita Narain, one of the most prominent environmental voices in India, who explored why Indians are more concerned about localized pollution than they are about climate change – a novel take on the topic, recalls Jasanoff.

“Through my work, it’s hard to pick one thread and say, for example, I work on labor markets in South Asia, or I work on linguistic diversity…that’s not my beat,” says Jasanoff. “But does my origin as someone who is of a different place, India, and yet lives and makes her home and intellectual life in America matter? Yes, of course – it matters all the time.”

Claiming a Seat at the Academic Table

After four decades of work in the field, earning the Holberg Prize is something that Jasanoff views as a sort of vindication. “People don’t really see the work it takes to make something appear out of nothing…and once it’s there, people take it for granted, like it’s always been there,” explains Jasanoff. “I think this award, coming after decades of all these building efforts, shows that STS is a field that has a seat at the academic and intellectual table, and that it deserves to be taken as an essential companion to other fields.”

People don’t really see the work it takes to make something appear out of nothing…and once it’s there, people take it for granted, like it’s always been there. I think this award, coming after decades of all these building efforts, shows that STS is a field that has a seat at the academic and intellectual table, and that it deserves to be taken as an essential companion to other fields.

Looking back on her work, she acknowledges how far the STS field has grown, “The field now has recognition in a way that it didn’t before. A lot more people at Harvard understand the letters STS, which wasn’t the case when I came. And I think that’s true of the world at large: President Biden appointed the first person in charge of science and society relations in his office of Science and Technology policy. That really is a famous first.”

Jasanoff notes that STS training has led Harvard students and fellows to decision-making positions in the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and various bodies of the US government. The field has become a lot more visible – but it still does not have the foundational structures to support it in universities, says Jasanoff. That, she jokes, will be the focus on “in her next lifetime.”

Returning to Her South Asian Roots 

For now, Jasanoff intends to turn her attention to issues that she considers to be significant for the world, including South Asia. She is concluding a sustainability project with Leo Saldanha, founding Trustee of Environmental Support Group India. She is also tracing the idea of Silicon Valley as a model of urban and regional innovation in different cities of the world, including Bangalore – dubbed the “Silicon Valley of India.” With a colleague from Cornell, Jasanoff is carrying out a 16-country comparative study of policy responses to COVID, which features India as one case study. Finally, she recently published her new book, Can Science Make Sense of Life?, which closes with a reference to end-of-life observances in Bengal. “I think anybody from South Asia who reads my work will recognize something about the spiritual reality, the cultural immediacy, and the vibe of a different way of life,” she reflects. “In many ways, a foundationally different way of life from the one we lead in North America.”

Although Jasanoff acknowledges that her scholarly work does not specifically focus on South Asia, she often finds a way to recognize her heritage, whether it be personally, through her continuing to wear a sari, topically in her writing, or in her involvement with the Mittal Institute as a Cabinet member. She says, “The connection to South Asia, for me, has remained a touchstone throughout my life. I try to bring South Asian perspectives into my writing, even if I am not personally doing the research. And by interacting with people from the region, it just so happens that South Asian examples always find their way into my work.”

This article was written by Kellie Nault, Writer/Editor at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute.