Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL ECONOMICS, ENERGY STRATEGIES, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

The Increasing Value of Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS)

Posted on | August 27, 2023 | No Comments

I regularly teach a course called Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS). It investigates how science and technology both shape and are shaped by society. The course seeks to understand their cultural, economic, ethical, historical, and political dimensions by investigating the dynamic interplay between these key factors of modern life.

Below I outline class topics, list major universities offering similar programs, and introduce some general areas of STS research. The scholarship produced by STS is used worldwide by engineers, journalists, legislators, policy-makers, as well as managers and other industry actors. It also has relevance to the general public engaged in climate, health, digital media, and other societal issues arising from science and technology adoption.

In class, we cover the following topics: Artificial Intelligence, Biomedicine, Cyberspace, Electric Vehicles and Smart Grids, Nanotechnology, Robotics, and even Space Travel. Tough subjects, but just as challenging is the introduction of perspectives from business, cognitive science, ethics, futurism, humanities, and social sciences like politics that can provide insights into relationships between science, technology, and society.[1]

STS is offered by many of the most highly-rated universities, often in Engineering programs but also in related Environment, Humanities, and Medical programs.

Although I teach in South Korea, the program was developed at Stony Brook University (SBU) in New York as part of the Department of Technology and Society (DTS), offering BS, MS, and PhD degrees at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS). The DTS motto is “Engineering has become much too important to be left to the engineers,” which paraphrases James Bryant Conant, who wrote after examining the results of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima that, “Science is much too important to be left to the scientists.” DTS programs prepare graduates with the technical and science capacity to collaborate productively with sister engineering and science departments at SBU and SUNY Korea while applying social science expertise and humanistic sensibility to holistic engineering education.

Our DTS undergraduate program at SUNY Korea has an additional emphasis on information and communication technologies (ICT) due to Korea’s leadership in this area.

Here is a list of other major universities with notable STS programs:

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a Program in Science, Technology, and Society and is considered the initial founder of the field in the early 1970s.

– Stanford University’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society explores scientific and technological developments’ social, political, and ethical dimensions.

– University of California, Berkeley’s Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society Center addresses the social, cultural, and political implications of science and technology. It is known for its engagement with critical theory and social justice issues.

Harvard University’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society is part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and provides a platform for examining the societal impact of science and technology through various courses and research opportunities.

– Cornell University, New York: Cornell’s Department of Science and Technology Studies was an early innovator in this area and offers undergraduate and graduate programs focusing on the history, philosophy, and social aspects of science and technology.

– The University of Edinburgh’s Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies Department in the United Kingdom is known for its research and teaching in the field.

University of California, San Diego’s Science Studies Program is part of the Department of Literature and offers interdisciplinary courses that examine the cultural, historical, and ethical dimensions of science and technology.

– The University of Twente in the Netherlands has a renowned Science, Technology, and Society Studies program emphasizing a multidisciplinary approach.

– In Sweden, Lund University’s Department of Sociology offers a strong STS program that covers topics such as the sociology of knowledge, science communication, and the ethical aspects of technology.

– York University in Canada has a Science and Technology Studies program that encourages critical thinking about the role of science and technology in contemporary culture.

While this list is incomplete, let me mention the Department of Technology and Society (DTS) and its history at Stony Brook University, which also dates back to the early 1970s. The Department of Technology and Society at SUNY Korea offers its degrees from DTS in New York, including BS and MS degrees in Technological Systems Management and a PhD in Technology, Policy, and Innovation.

Many engineering programs have turned to STS to provide students with conceptual tools to think about engineering problems and solutions in more sophisticated ways. It is often allied with Technology Management programs that include business perspectives and information technology practices. Some programs feature standalone courses on the sociocultural and political aspects of technology and engineering, often taught by faculty from outside the engineering school. Others incorporate STS material into traditional engineering courses, e.g., by making ethical or societal impact assessments part of capstone projects.

So, Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS) scholars study the complex interplay between these domains to understand how they influence each other and impact human life. Key research inquiries of STS and their applications include:

Historical Context: STS scholars often delve into the past developments of scientific discoveries and technological innovations, as well as the social and cultural contexts in which they emerged. They readily explore the historical development of scientific and technical knowledge to uncover how specific ideas, inventions, and discoveries have emerged and changed over time. This exercise helps to contextualize the current state of science and technology and understand their origins.

Social Implications: STS emphasizes the social consequences of scientific and technological advancements. This examination relates to ethics, equity, power dynamics, and social justice issues. For instance, STS might analyze how certain technologies disproportionately affect different groups within society or how they might be used to reinforce existing inequalities.

Policy and Governance: STS researchers analyze how scientific and technological innovations are regulated, legislated, and governed by local, national, and international policies. They explore how scientific expertise, public opinion, industry interests, and political considerations influence policy decisions. They also assess the effectiveness of these policies in managing potential risks and benefits.

Public Perception and Communication: STS studies also explore how scientific information and technological advancements are communicated to the public. These inquiries involve investigating how public perceptions and attitudes towards science and technology are formed. They recognize that media narratives and communication channels influence these perceptions.

Public Engagement and Input: STS emphasizes the importance of involving the public in discussions about scientific and technological matters. It examines how scientific knowledge is communicated to the public, how public perceptions influence scientific research, and how public input can shape technological development.

Social Construction of Science and Technology: STS emphasizes that science and technology are not solely products of objective inquiry or innovation but are also influenced by social and cultural factors. It examines how scientific knowledge is constructed, contested, and accepted within different communities and how economic, political, and cultural forces shape technologies.

Ethical and Moral Considerations: The STS field often addresses scientific and technological advancements’ ethical and moral implications. This analysis includes discussions on the responsible development of new technologies, the potential for unintended consequences, and the distribution of benefits and risks across different social groups.

Innovation Studies: STS scholars also study innovation processes, including how scientific knowledge translates into technological applications, how creative ecosystems are established, and how collaboration between researchers, policymakers, and industry actors contributes to technological progress.

Environmental Analysis: Science, Technology, Society, and Environment (STSE) Studies interrogate how scientific innovations, technology investments, and industrial applications affect human society and the natural environment. Education is an important component as people make decisions that often guide the environmental work of scientists and engineers. STS also investigates how scientific and technological tools can help create more climate-resilient urban and rural infrastructures.

Technological Determinism: STS often confronts the idea of technological determinism, which suggests that technology significantly drives social change. It investigates the institutional factors and human agency that significantly shape technological development and its impacts while recognizing science and technology’s driving forces.

Digital and Network Ecology: Some STS scholars study the overall media environment, considering the interaction and interdependence of various media forms and linkages within and between networks. They explore how communication speed, information storage, and digital processing influence human perception, culture, economics, and the environment. These inquiries include raising questions about privacy, censorship, propaganda, and the responsible use of media technologies.

Energy and Carbon Dependence: While engineers study the chemical, electrical, electromagnetic, mechanical, nuclear thermal, and sound thermodynamics of energy, STS scholars examine the central role of these energies in modern life. Again, they take various multidisciplinary, social-scientific perspectives on energy and environment, analyzing the economic, political, and social aspects of the production and consumption of energy, including the controversies, domestication, and innovation of new forms of energy.

Interdisciplinary Approach: As mentioned throughout this post, STS is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on insights from sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, political science, and more. This multidisciplinary perspective allows for a comprehensive examination of the complex relationships between science, technology, and society.

In conclusion, STS is relevant in addressing contemporary issues such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, environmental challenges, privacy concerns, and more. It encourages a holistic understanding of the complex interactions between science, technology, and society, crucial for making informed decisions and policies in an increasingly technologically driven world. It is research-driven, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. By studying STS interactions, it aims to contribute to more informed decision-making, responsible innovation, and a better understanding of the role of science and technology in modern societies.

Notes

[1] I have previously described how I use the 4 Cs of the cyberpunk genre for techno-social analysis.
[2] Some of the categories and text for this essay was generated by Chat GPT and edited with the use of Grammarly in line with additional knowledge from my teaching the STS course for six years.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2023, Aug 27). The Increasing Value of Science, Technology, and Society Studies (STS). apennings.com https://apennings.com/technologies-of-meaning/the-value-of-science-technology-and-society-studies-sts/

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University where he started programs in Digital Communications and Information Systems Management while teaching digital economics. He also taught in the Digital Media MBA at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in the Republic of Korea.

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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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