Hypothetical Research Project, UCSC Science & Justice Training Program

A hypothetical research project produced in the training program could look something like the following, which is based on actual research problems encountered by members of Science & Justice Working Group (SJWG):

A biomolecular engineering (BME) student working in human genomics and a sociology student interested in racial categories meet in the introductory seminar. The BME student wants to use comparative genomics tools study the evolution of a trait related to cognition. This student has expertise on how comparative genomics collects, interprets, and represents data about human genomes. She recognizes that racial categories have a problematic role in the history of biomedical sciences, but she has not had much opportunity to study that history and is wary about stepping on toes when her data gets published. The sociology student wants to study how racial categories get constituted in biomedical sciences. His expertise lies in the history of racial categories in the social and natural sciences, but he lacks the expertise and access to track those categories in the making.

Contrast this approach with a more traditional interaction between these two students: The sociology student acts as an observer to the collection and representation of the BME student’s research. The sociologist’s research is then used to critique (or praise) the BME student’s sensitivity to the ethics and justice issues raised by the use of racial categories. Their work would be treated as fundamentally oppositional, even if they had common concerns.

An experimental model that treats their knowledge production as collaborative could be profoundly more productive and avoid some of the acrimony and disjuncture that have dogged the Human Genome Project, the Human Genome Diversity Project, and the Haplotype Map Project (Reardon 2005; Reardon 2007). If the BME and sociology students were given the intellectual space for collaboration and had the chance to create shared literacy, unexpected results could ensue. Rather than presuming that we know in advance what the ethics and justice issues are (and thus also presuming that such issues stand outside of the scientific enterprise itself) a collaborative project that tracked the production of sensitive human categories as they are made could generate surprising opportunities for the integration of ethics, social justice, and science.

 

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