New program examines the impact of science on our lives

Science and technology shape our world and play a role in virtually everything we use or do. From the hand-held smart phone that delivers our daily e-mail fix through to the stain- and crease-resistant fabrics we wear everyday, how are we to understand the powerful sets of theories, ideas and practices that have played such an enormous role in developing and defining these innovations? 

Over the past 15 years, scholars in the humanities and social studies have been developing new intellectual and methodological tools to study the role of science and technology in our lives. This fall, the first group of students enrolled in York University’s new Graduate Program in Science & Technology Studies will join this growing academic cohort when they embark on a quest to consider the influence of science and technology from sociological, anthropological, historical, philosophical and other perspectives.

The Science & Technology Studies Graduate Program is an interdisciplinary program of study focused on the critical role of science and technology, both past and present. Researchers in this field apply the methods and theories of the humanities and social sciences to the examination of technology and scientific knowledge and practice. Science and technology studies (STS) is a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that seeks to expand our understanding of science and technology by exploring its historical, social, cultural, philosophical and material dimensions.

Why is this important? "You can’t escape the impact of science on contemporary life – we are so used to seeing it everywhere that it becomes almost invisible to us and we don’t even notice it," says York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman (left), the program’s founder and director. "The Science & Technology Studies Graduate Program is devoted to understanding this role, why this has happened, how it happened in the past and what kind of consequences we are living with as a result of this, both good and bad.

"The program examines science from outside science and looks to see if the same tools used by social scientists, philosophers and historians can be applied to understand the role of science in human culture," says Lightman. "In a sense, we are adopting the anthropologist’s perspective when they approach foreign cultures – we try to treat science as if it were strange and unfamiliar."

The first of its kind in Canada, York’s program differs from other programs in history and philosophy of science because it employs broader interdisciplinary perspectives. While there are other similar programs in the United States, including offerings from Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lightman says that with a cohort of 35 faculty, York’s program has the strongest concentration in the world of scholars in this field of study. "We have a young and very dynamic faculty that is first-rate," he says. "Some are graduates of the top notch programs at MIT, Cornell and Harvard."

Students in the program will pursue four areas of study, which include the history, philosophy and social studies of: biosciences and biotechnologies; human-machine interactions; public science; and physical systems.

The biosciences and biotechnologies field examines living organisms. Psychology, medicine and the life sciences have long been rich domains of inquiry for historians and philosophers, and have more recently become preoccupations for sociologists and anthropologists of science and technology. Students in this domain will explore such areas as the geopolitical significance of epidemics, the use of model organisms as instruments of investigation, or the specific ways in which the ambiguous concept of life is made visible, legible and tangible in the biological sciences.

In the human-machine interactions field, students will draw on the analytical resources of history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy to understand the historical and contemporary interactions between humans and machines. From scientific instrumentation to wearable technologies, cyborgs and mind-controlled devices, this field explores the far-reaching and futuristic field of humanity’s relationship with machines.

Students in the public science domain will explore the interactions of science and the public sphere. Drawing on scholarship in scientific education, science policy, and the legal and ethical dimensions of scientific and technological issues, students will examine how scientific innovation is communicated to the public and its effect on social and cultural realities. They will also address topics relating to science, technology and various forms of elite and popular culture, including art, literature, the Internet and museum display.  

And finally, the physical systems field examines the connections between astronomy, physics, chemistry and related disciplines as systems designed for analysis, experiment and intervention in the inorganic world. Students will examine through philosophical, historical and social science approaches how matter, energy, ideas, communicative strategies and technological processes have converged to create physical systems and the disciplines that probe them.

The ties that bind all of these fields together not only reside with the program’s dynamic faculty, says Lightman, but also with many extra opportunities. York is home to two prominent journals in the field – ISIS and Journal of the Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. The University is also one of six regional nodes in the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded Strategic Knowledge Cluster in Science & Technology Studies. As a regional node, scholars at York receive funding for collaborative research projects and hold small conferences and summer workshops. Activities such as these provide rich opportunities for graduate students to build networks, develop their own projects and share their insights with the STS community outside of York. 

In addition to continuing in the academic field as professors of STS, graduates of the program will also play important roles in government policy making. As well, an increasing focus on interdisciplinarity in elementary and secondary school education has created a demand for STS graduates in teaching and curriculum development. Lightman foresees that society’s increasing understanding of the enormous role of science and technology plays in our lives will create a growing need for experts in the field who can explain and translate complex scientific nomenclature into plain English. He expects some of the program’s graduates will play significant roles in science journalism and in the media. 

For more information, visit the Science & Technology Studies Graduate Program Web site.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor