Science, Technology, and Environmental Perspective

There is no single Science, Technology and Environment (STE) approach. Instead, there are many different STE perspectives that researchers can adopt, including science policy, Science and Technology Studies, ethnography, public policy, law, political science, and history. Technologists (e.g., chemists, nanotechnology engineers, and biomedical researchers) can also combine their disciplinary backgrounds with insights about the societal influences on, and impacts of, their work.

STE perspectives share a common thread: taking a broadly constructivist approach to understanding and evaluating scientific and technological developments. Traditionally, scholars and practitioners have treated science, policy, and politics as separate domains, viewing policy processes as linear and one-way, and relying on technological determinism as an explanation of why, how, and what they are doing. Conversely, STE researchers pay attention to how scientific and technological developments are intertwined with the societal situations in which they occur. They can think about how policy processes are interactive and multi-layered. They can also question how technology takes form over time, space, and societal life.

STE scholarship offers many methods, tools, and concepts to investigate environmental issues that affect everyone’s lives. Using an example from my research - on chemical issues but germane to nanotechnology and other emerging technologies – students might wonder: Why have toxic chemicals been used so pervasively in contemporary societies, and why and how are demands for greater chemical industry sustainability appearing after decades of acquiescence? Making chemistry more sustainable could reduce human diseases, protect wildlife, and limit resource wastage.

To address such environmental questions more broadly, my personal approach is to investigate why and how S&T developments take on specific trajectories over time and space, and how alternative technological systems can take form. Rather than treating these developments as inevitable and immutable, I examine their emergence and character through the lens of science-politics interactions. I look critically at how and why science, technology, regulation, democratic politics, and institutional arrangements for overseeing STE emerge, take on specific forms, change, and atrophy over time and space.

I do not just look, for example, at regulating nanotechnology risks, but at the underlying processes of knowledge production and politics that create “nanotechnology” as an emergent industrial and scientific domain; the resources that are invested in producing environmental health science on the risks; the norms and practices of regulatory agencies in dealing with nanotechnology; and the development of societal discourses about risks that may support or undermine different forms of intervention. In my vision, these dimensions are intertwined, reflecting institutional and societal patterns of power.

Other scholars take different perspectives and approaches to STE, including at S&E and across UC Berkeley. I personally embrace this diversity and encourage STE scholars to engage with these perspectives. Students can look at topics including how different societal actors such as companies and NGOs construct STE knowledge, changes in the regulatory roles and philosophies of governments, how and why technologies become established or alter, how agency is intertwined with learning and information, how and why standards become influential in structuring S&T, and whether and how political systems experiment with new institutions and participatory processes to corral emerging S&T developments. Students can also examine closely the meanings of concepts such as “transparency”, “information”, “experts”, and “accountability”. Current environmental policy-making and research efforts discuss these concepts, yet pay little attention to their genesis and varying practices in contexts including the US, Europe, and developing countries. Students, scholars, policy-makers, industry and citizens can achieve insights that can feed into current debates and activities and into future S&T building efforts.

Students can study the various multi-directional modes of societal input associated with S&T developments; and in unpacking the processes by which technology options are considered, ratified, or potentially put out-of-bounds for societal critique. They can also explore how new institutions and civic participation – and information and public health technologies – may transform the politics of S&T developments.

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