Nomination statement (unsuccessful)for 2019 Infrastructure award of Society for Social Studies of Science
“Consistently working on [a] decentered approach to infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses of the ecological-like complexity of influences shaping science as agents combine a diversity or heterogeneity of components or resources as they establish knowledge and technologies…” Continue reading
“Science in a Changing World” (SICW) is a constellation of initiatives aimed at “facilitating learning & teaching innovation, research & public engagement, discussion & collaboration regarding scientific developments & social change.” SICW is linked to what is now a Master’s program of the same name at the University of Massachusetts at Boston (UMass Boston), but the decentered approach to SICW infrastructure building began developing much earlier in the work of its coordinator, Peter Taylor. This statement sets the scene with a brief account of the principles that animate the decentered approach, describes the prehistory before UMass Boston and the strands that make up SICW, and closes with some remarks about the ways that this kind of infrastructure development follows from and feeds into STS analyses. (read more)
This briefing conveys the need for critical examination and understanding of the financialization of risk before proposing improvements to science-policy connections around extreme climate events. Continue reading
Five offspring of a couple in a remote area of Turkey grew up walking quadrupedally on their hands and feet, as portrayed in the popular science documentary ‘Family That Walks on All Fours.’ Among the various angles of research on the siblings was genetic analysis identifying a mutation in a gene on chromosome 17 influencing cerebellum development and the work of certain evolutionary biologists try to link this gene to the evolution of human bipedalism 3 million years ago. Indeed, other deleterious effects of the gene are depicted as reversing the progress in fine motor coordination and intelligence that accompanied human evolution. Continue reading
The trip from Chicago to Ann Arbor on Day 17 took us through Kalamazoo, where we had late afternoon tea (or coffee) with Lynne Heasley, an environmental historian who teaches at Western Michigan University. She’s also an accomplished photographer and recently created a web portal for her work. Lynne described the campaign to prevent a proposed private development on the dunes of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
We arrived quite late in Ann Arbor. Our host, Paul Edwards, was leaving early in the morning to teach then to fly to Madison. The conversation time was short but generative. A side comment of Paul’s about using Splintered Urbanism in his teaching led me into his writing on infrastructure and that of Leigh Star and Geoff Bowker (see here and here and here). Given that I have been intoning on the need for discussions about genomics to pay more attention to the social infrastructure implied by their grand claims, I need to learn more about this line of work in STS (science and technology studies). Genomicists know a lot about building (or growing) infrastructure to develop their results, as Joan Fujimura reminded me two days before, so I need to revise my argument.
(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 18)
Joan Fujimura, a sociologist of molecular biology, convened a group of graduate students and a post-doc for me to talk with. She let me know that some people had read a recent Biology & Philosophy paper of mine (but it turned out they meant my commentary on race and genetics, not my critique of heritability studies) and said “most of us are interested in genomics and complexity. Presenting the PKU example may be good.” I decided to try to get discussion of the implications of heterogeneity for understanding problems that concern me in heritability studies and in STS (science & technology studies) more generally. To introduce myself, I’d connect heterogeneity with the 3-angle approach to heterogeneous (or unruly) complexity that has run through my work, that is, critical thinking about science, interpretation of science in its social context, and bringing these back into science through refelctive practice and participatory pedagogy.
In the spirit of the last term, after introducing the term and two examples I asked participants how people deal with heterogeneity, where people might be researchers in natural sciences, in social sciences, or in STS—their choice. Contra the spirit of participatory pedagogy, my themes may have come across more clearly if I’d given a standard presentation on one part of my work.
Anyway, out of the discussion came the pertinent objection from Joan that people are building infrastructure based on new genetic knowledge and STS scholars are study this. (This was said to moderate my contention about heterogeneity, control and social infrastructure.)
(back to Start of road trip; forward to Day 16)
Human quadrupeds: Social infrastructure (or its absence) makes genetic conditions hardwired
‘Family That Walks on All Fours’ is a popular science documentary on the United States Public Broadcasting Network (2006). Five offspring of a couple in a remote area of Turkey have grown up walking quadrupedally on their hands and feet. The documentary describes various angles of research on the siblings: MRI brain scans show a reduced cerebellum, the region of the brain controlling balance and movement; genetic analysis identifies a mutation in a gene on chromosome 17 influencing cerebellum development; and evolutionary biologists try to link this gene to the evolution of human bipedalism 3 million years ago. Indeed, other deleterious effects of the gene are depicted as reversing the progress in fine motor coordination and intelligence that accompanied human evolution. Scientific disputes arise over these interpretations. But then it is also observed that no medical treatment or physical therapy has been available since the children failed to shift from crawling to walking upright. Following the introduction of a simple walking frame, then exercising between parallel bars, the quadrupedal adults learn to walk upright.
The quadrupedal condition may have been genetic in origin, but it was the social infrastructure—or lack thereof—made it hardwired. Adjustments to that infrastructure then softened that wiring. Could the corollary also hold: The application of genetic knowledge to reshape human life will always involve reconstruction of the social infrastructure? Under what conditions—or crises—will that reconstruction become possible?
Another excerpt from P. Taylor, “Infrastructure and Scaffolding: Interpretation and Change of Research Involving Human Genetic Information,” Science as Culture, 18(4):435-459, 2009