“Pesky environmental crazies?" For fifteen years, Rachel Schurman says, that was how many in the biotechnology industry referred behind closed doors to activists who opposed the use of emerging technologies to modify the genes of organisms like plants and fish.
Photo by Karl Krohn
That label may seem harsh, but Schurman, a sociologist studying the “culture" of science, isn't surprised by it.
“Biotechnology workers—particularly the scientists—have a sense of themselves as apolitical and activists as political, which has made it easy for them to dismiss activists as ‘crazies,' she explains.
But while they may not realize it, scientists are embedded in culture too, Schurman says. “Their ways of thinking and responding to the work they are doing are as much shaped by the norms of scientific culture as the activists' views are shaped by their own norms."
In their very first science courses, Schurman notes, scientists begin to internalize a conception of science as a pure, objective, value-free enterprise beholden to nothing but the truth. It's not difficult to see why, Schurman says: science courses rarely include sustained inquiry into the economic demands, cultural desires, and historical contingencies that make science more than just a pristine quest for knowledge. Instead, students are immersed in the nitty-gritty tasks of designing experiments, collecting data, and conducting analyses.
Not surprisingly, that trend continues once they've earned their degrees and start working in laboratories full time. “They are thinking about the particular scientific problem they are working on, the scientific puzzle of the day," says Schurman.
Over time, the boundary between doing science and thinking about its repercussions in the world has become rigorously patrolled. “In the professional world of science," Shurman explains, “it is heretical to ask questions about the possible social, political, and economic effects of technologies such as genetic engineering and the ethical concerns they may generate."
Schurman is quick to note that many scientists do think about the values that infuse their work. They worry about new technologies and their applications, and some even advocate for broader, more democratic discussion of the applications of scientific knowledge. The 100,000-member Union of Concerned Scientists, formed at M.I.T. in 1969, for instance, speaks out regularly about misuses of science and technology in society.
Still, those scientists who do want to think and write about values and politics risk ostracism from the larger scientific community, Schurman says, if they go too far in their criticism, publish in non-scientific journals, or, worse yet, move into public policy work full time. “Those who interact with the public are seen as tainted by political and cultural forces," she explains.
Schurman hopes that her work will prompt increased attention among scientists to ethical concerns. Acknowledgment of their susceptibility to social and cultural influences, she says, is a crucial prelude to ethical thinking—and even, it can be said, to good science.
“Because we live in a social world, it makes no sense to think of new knowledge and technology as coming into a neutral environment. Political, economic, and social relationships, as well as cultural norms, forged out of history, shape every new technology and every scientific development."