Guided tour of my service and institutional development work VIII: New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

VIII. New England Workshop on Science and Social Change

(completing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)
“Most workshops are dysfunctional—this one wasn’t!” read one evaluation of the first New England Workshop on Science and Social Change (NewSSC) in 2004. As mentioned earlier, NewSSC has become a primary focus of my recent efforts in promoting “innovative, transdisciplinary sessions” and “fostering informal, co-operative exchanges and on-going collaborations.” The following excerpt from a recent blog post (based on a forthcoming article written with ISHPSSB’ers Chris Young and Steve Fifield) conveys the flavor of these workshops:

  • Group processes not only need skillful and effective facilitators; they also need participants or collaborators who are skilled and effective in contributing to the desired outcomes. To develop skills and dispositions of collaboration requires researchers (and researchers-in-training) to make opportunities for practicing what they have been introduced to and to persist even when they encounter resistance. What moves them to pursue such development?
  • I have had an opportunity to address this issue since 2004 through an annual series of experimental, interaction-intensive, interdisciplinary workshops “to foster collaboration among those who teach, study, and engage with the public about scientific developments and social change.” The workshops are documented in detail on their websites, but a thumbnail sketch would be: They are small, with international, interdisciplinary participants of mixed “rank” (i.e., from students, to professors). There is no delivery of papers; instead participants lead each other in activities, designed before or developed during the workshops, that can be adapted to college classrooms and other contexts and participate in group processes that are regular features of the workshops. The group processes are also offered as models or tools to be adapted or adopted in other contexts. The themes vary from year to year [see note], but each workshop lasts four days and moves through four broad, overlapping phases—exposing diverse points of potential interaction; focusing on detailed case study; activities to engage participants in each other’s projects; and taking stock. The informal and guided opportunities to reflect on hopes and experiences during the workshop produce feedback that shapes the days ahead as well as changes to the design of subsequent workshops.
  • The ongoing evolution of the workshops has been stimulated not only by written and spoken evaluations, but also by an extended debriefing immediately following each workshop and advisory group discussions, such as one in 2008 that addressed the question of what moves people develop themselves as collaborators. Our conjecture was that this development happens when participants see an experience or training as transformative. After reviewing the evaluations we identified four “R’s”—respect, risk, revelation, and re-engagement—as conditions that make interactions among participants transformative (see Taylor et al. 2010 for elaboration and supporting quotations from the evaluations).

Through paired NewSSC workshops in Woods Hole and Portugal in May and June 2011, I look forward to continuing collaborations that help “articulate and develop the role [of NewSSC] as a valued open space for participants, some of whom return many times for a recharge and affirmation of aspirations that are not well supported in home institutions and day-to-day interactions.”


Note: Themes span science and technology studies (STS), science, and educational innovation: social shaping of the use of genetic knowledge; complexities of genes-environment-development; social implications of ecological restoration; collaborative generation of environmental knowledge and inquiry; teaching and public engagement beyond disciplinary boundaries; heterogeneity and development; social theory and critical engagement; and problem-based learning.


Guided tour of my service and institutional development work VII: Transdisciplinary Development–A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions

VII. Transdisciplinary Development: A Context for ISHPSSB and Related Contributions

(continuing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)

Excerpted from — but this version has added notes in brackets.

  • My environmental activism during the early 1970s in Australia led me to switch from medical studies to ecological science. I had a mathematical disposition, so I chose to focus less on field studies and more on quantitative analysis and modeling, with a view to planning to prevent problems from emerging. I soon developed an interest, which continues to this day, in ecological complexity as a challenge to conventional scientific ways of knowing. Although ecological and environmental researchers partition complex situations into well-bounded systems and backgrounded or hidden processes, such moves tend to be confounded by “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time. These cannot be understood from an outside view, I concluded; instead positions of engagement must be taken within the “unruly” complexity. Knowledge production needs to be linked with planning for action and action itself in an ongoing process so that knowledge, plans, and action can be continually reassessed in response to developments — predicted and surprising alike.
  • As I developed this picture, my work in ecology and environmental studies opened out to interpretive studies of science [thanks, in no small part, to opportunities opened up through ISHPSSB] and then to facilitation of critical, reflective practice. The integration of these three levels or angles is evident in my book, Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005). This work not only examines the problematic boundaries of the complex situations studied by scientists, but also interprets their efforts to build social support for adopting explicit or implicit boundaries and studying what is inside. Similarly for the complex situations interpreted by sociologists, historians, and other scholars in the area now known as science and technology studies (STS). Moreover, I explore ways to stimulate researchers (and students training to become researchers) to examine self-consciously the complexity of their social situatedness so as to change the ways they address the complexity of the situations they study. In recent years, I have transferred this three-level engagement with complexity from ecology to social epidemiological approaches that address the life course development of health and behavior. This has resulted in new critical angles on heritability studies underlying nature-nurture debates (Nature-Nurture? No…: A Short, but Expanding Guide to Variation and Heredity, book ms.) and forms the focus of a current book project, Troubled by Heterogeneity?
  • This project on complexity and change had its beginnings, as mentioned above, in environmental and social activism in Australia that led to studies and research in ecology and agriculture (B.Sc., Monash University, 1975; research positions at Universities of Queensland and Melbourne, 1976-79). I moved to the United States to undertake doctoral studies in ecology (Ph.D., Harvard University 1985), with a minor focus in what is now called STS [1]. Subsequently, I combined scientific investigations with interpretive STS inquiries, my goal being to make STS perspectives relevant to life and environmental students and scientists (MIT, New School [2], U.C. Berkeley [3], Cornell University [4], 1985-96). (Historical, sociological, and pedagogical cases have included the origins of systems ecology, socio-economic analysis of the future of a salt-affected irrigation region, systems dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers mapping the conditions in which they work [5], and political ecological critique of the tragedy of the commons framework.) Critical thinking and critical pedagogy/reflective practice became central to my intellectual and professional project as I encouraged students and researchers to contrast the paths taken in science, society, education with other paths that might be taken, and to foster their acting upon the insights gained (Biology & Society program, Cornell, 1990-96 [4]; Eugene Lang Professor for Social Change, Swarthmore College, 1997-98 [6]; U. Mass. Boston 1998-present [6]).
  • My work at the intersection of STS and environmental sciences has been supported by Mellon, Wantrup, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships (1985-86, 87-90, 96-97, respectively), and by visiting professorships at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas and the Centro de Ecología, U.N.A.M., Mexico (summer 1992, 1993) and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University (2003). My work at the intersection of STS and health sciences has been supported by NSF grants (2003-05, 2006-09), and as a visiting scholar at the Pembroke Center, Brown University (2002-03) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria (2008 & 2010). My work on educational innovation and interdisciplinary workshops has been supported by the Academy of Finland (1988) [5], the University of Tampere (1996-2000), NSF grants (2004-05, 05-09), and the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching at my university (2009).

[1] I chose to study with Levins and Lewontin (who influenced many of the early HPSSB’ers) because they were explicit about their intellectual work being simultaneously a political project. Two essay reviews reflect on their influence: “Dialectical Biology as Political Practice. An essay review of R. Levins & R. Lewontin The Dialectical Biologist” Radical Science 20: 81-111, 1986 and “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins (An essay review of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health),” Science as Culture, 19 (2): 241-253, 2010.

[2] Founding member of Science, Technology, and Power Program at Eugene Lang College, 1986-87.

[3] I organized a semester-long seminar series, “Shifting frames in interdisciplinary studies,” 1988.

[4] As the second faculty member appointed full-time to the Program in Science, Technology & Society in 1989, I played a consistent supporting role to the Director, Sheila Jasanoff, in making new hires, securing a major interdisciplinary graduate training grant in the life sciences, and bringing the Department of Science and Technology Studies into existence. I taught the core course in the large undergraduate Biology & Society major and shepherded through changes in the Major that strengthened the interpretive (H, P, and S) side of the students’ studies. I also organized a multi-year seminar series in “Social Analysis of Ecological Change,” a title chosen to reflect both environmental change and change in the field of ecology.

[5] The idea that “STS perspectives [should be made] relevant to life and environmental students and scientists” led me to co-host with Yrjö Haila (a regular IHSPPB participant from the late 80s through the late 90s) a workshop in Finland in which participants mapped the “heterogeneous resources” mobilized in their scientific work. This led to another workshop at U.C. Berkeley in 1989 and an ongoing exploration of workshop and group processes that enhance people’s capacity to summon resources needed to change the direction of their work. In 2000 I analyzed my experience of four interdisciplinary workshops concerned with environment, science, and society to try to understand the conditions for successful workshops (unpublished ms.).

[6] At Swarthmore I organized a faculty discussion group on “New biology: New and old questions,” and a 3-day workshop on “What we can do to help each other with ‘agency’,” which was a precursor of the series of science-in-society workshops I organized after moving to UMass Boston ( that led to the New England Workshop on Science and Social Change.

[7] Besides the sessions that I organized at ISHPSSB that have resulted in anthologies, I have participated in many other transdisciplinary workshops leading to publications, including: M. Dore and T. Mount (eds.), Global Environmental Economics: Equity and the Limits to Markets. Oxford, Blackwell, 1999; S. Oyama, P. Griffiths and R. Gray (Eds.), Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001; “Critical Reflections on the Use of Remote Sensing and GIS Technologies in Human Ecological Research,” Human Ecology, 31 (2), 2003; How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition , ed. Y. Haila and C. Dyke. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006; M. Turner, M. Goldman, and P. Nadasdy (eds.) Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming; A. Belgrano, C. Fowler (eds.) Ecosystem Based Management for Fisheries: Linking Patterns to Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming; Revisiting ecology. Reflecting concepts, advancing science, ed. K. Jax and A. Schwarz (eds.), Berlin: Springer, forthcoming; The Reshaping of Human Life [provisional title], Lisbon: Gulbenkian Foundation, forthcoming).

Guided tour of my service and institutional development work VI

VI. Promoting interdisciplinary connections between history, philosophy, social studies, and biology

(continuing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent) Read more of this post

Guided tour of my service and institutional development work V

III. Leadership in Regular Service

(continuing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)
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Guided tour of my service and institutional development work III

I. Building a Basis for Interdisciplinary Science, Health, and Environmental Education and Research

(continuing a guided tour of my work presented in the spirit that service and institutional development can also be practically and theoretically coherent)

B. At UMass Boston

1. Science, Technology & Values Program. Since becoming STV director in January 2004, I articulated and pursued many concrete steps grouped under four overall goals:
• build the students numbers in the Program;
• maintain a regular and rich set of courses to fulfill STV requirements;
• build a community of faculty and students around the program; and
• build external recognition for the program.
Community-building is the goal I have made most progress towards. I helped initiate monthly discussion meetings of interested faculty while assistant STV director, then built on this in organizing a semester-long thematic Inter-college faculty Seminar in Science and Humanities, which started in spring 2004 and has continued most semesters since. ISHS is a “forum for discussion and interaction among faculty at UMass-Boston. Faculty from different disciplines and colleges come together to focus on topics of common interest, exchange ideas, renew their intellectual energy, and advance their work in a spirit of adventure and collaboration.” As well as building community around the STV program, ISHS was designed to bridge the Humanities/Sciences gap after the separation of the College of Arts and Sciences into two colleges. As an early and regular participant noted: “This is the only game in town.” (This statement is no longer strictly true, as the Center for Urban Cultural History, the Center for Science and Math In Context, and the Community Engagement Research Cluster have begun the sponsor cross-college seminars and discussions.)

2. Curriculum development for Education for Sustainability. In fall 2002, Chancellor Gora and Dean Kibel reactivated Education for Sustainability initiatives at UMB and appointed me chair of the committee to Infuse Sustainability into the Curriculum, assisted by Steve Rudnick of Environmental Studies. The committee developed a vision of sustainability that integrated an environmentally sustainable (“green”) economy, with just and equitable governance, and an engaged populace. The corresponding teaching mission was that curricula should seek to develop students’ ability to:
• appreciate and monitor the state of the environment, social structure, human health —to become “environmentally literate”;
• understand and analyze the complexities of phenomena that link economics, politics, culture, history, biology, geology, and physical processes;
• be involved in dynamic, vigorous exchange across the traditional disciplinary boundaries within and between natural and social/human sciences; and
• work within specific communities to facilitate self-conscious, reflective engagement with linked socio-environmental processes.
The plans of this committee progressed as far as hosting a pair of faculty curriculum development workshops, from which some new curriculum units or courses arose. Since these workshops, however, we were not able to sustain our efforts; my judgement was that we needed to pause until the reorganization of the Environmental Science and Studies units was completed and until what became called the Center for Environmental Health, Science, and Technology had taken shape. While this was happening, the administrators who had sponsored the Education for Sustainability initiative left the University. When I was made director of STV, Steve Rudnick took over primary responsibility for further work of this committee.

3. Health in Society Research Discussion Group. While I was developing a doctoral course on epidemiological thinking for the Public Policy and Nursing programs, I came to see that there was a critical mass of UMB faculty and doctoral students who had (or were developing) an epidemiological focus (broadly construed) to their research and teaching. Given our diverse institutional locations (and distracting administrative demands), it seemed we might benefit from regular exchange with each other. This discussion group took the form of a monthly meeting of 1.5-2 hours from November 2007 through Spring 2009, where we took it in turns to share a manuscript or grant proposal, lead a discussion on a published paper, or discuss a syllabus. Distracting administrative demands for several members, unfortunately, led to HisReDG going into hibernation.

4. Transdisciplinary Research Workshop Proposal. In the proposal, which I initiated in spring ‘08, a group of faculty and graduate students would have sustained interaction about their research interests over a semester (like ISHS), but with topics shaped to support the University’s research cluster initiative. The motivation was that University’s research cluster initiative should build in support for transdisciplinary interactions that draw in personnel not directly involved in externally- and internally-funded cluster-based research. Depending on the mode of such interactions, they could have all or some of these benefits:
a. Generating novel ideas and initiating collaborations to pursue them and submit funding proposals;
b. Maintaining a pipeline of personnel from outside any cluster into its projects. (Doing this for junior faculty is an important component of mentoring them);
c. Acknowledging the intellectual work of faculty who are not well aligned with the clusters (and preempting any insider-outsider ill-feelings);
d. Facilitating work at the overlap of clusters (e.g., public health and developmental science); and
e. Promoting critical, social contextualization of new research developments (without making the common move of placing such discussion into a separate “Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications” box).
The proposal was well-received by the incoming Provost, but got left on hold until the research clusters were launched. In the meantime, the Provost convened a cross-college working group to initiate a cross-college Science and Society graduate program.

5. Science in a Changing World. The initiative to create a cross-college Science and Society graduate program ended up taking the form of a graduate Certificate and M.A. track within CCT on “Science in a Changing World,” which was approved in spring 2009. Steps are being taken towards certification as a Professional Science Masters, create visibility for the track (through twitter, a blog, a “Changing Science, Changing Society” Expo of Boston-area groups, and international collaboration with Science, Technology and Society Research Group at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra in Portugal (with seed funding from the OITA at UMass Boston). In the fall of 2010, University College agreed to fund a 50% assistant coordinator position for this track contingent on the Program scheduling more sections of required courses and electives so that the Master’s degree in the new track could be completed by students entirely by taking sections offered through University College.

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