Center for Science in Society:
A Planning Document
November 30, 2000

Prepared by Paul Grobstein
Planning Director
Center for Science in Society


As part of campus wide discussions initiated by President Vickers during academic year 1999-2000, the Center for Science in Society was proposed by an initial group of twenty-seven College faculty and staff, representing a diverse array of disciplines and programs both within and outside the sciences, to " facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to … continuing explorations of the natural world and humanity's place in it, of the nature of education, of the generation, synthesis, storage, and retrieval of information, of technology and its potentials, and of the relationships among forms of understanding". The proposed Center was subsequently included in the President's Plan for a New Century, which was approved by the Board of Trustees in March, 2000. During the spring semester of 1999-2000, the developing Center sponsored an initial series of talks and discussion groups, as well as a series of coffee klatches for further conversation about the directions the Center might take in the future. These conversations, involving an expanded group of faculty, staff, and students, continued during the summer and fall semester of 2000-2001, with the appointment President Vickers of Paul Grobstein as Planning Director for the Center, and the formation of an initial steering committee including Peter Briggs, Mary Luisa Crawford, Alison Cook-Sather, Kim Cassidy, Victor Donnay, James Martin, Deepak Kumar, Elizabeth McCormack, George Weaver, and Susan White. Additional faculty actively involved in one or another component of the Center's developing programs are named below. The present planning document reflects the extensive conversations that have occurred over the past year, together with experiences gained from initial program development initiatives. These conversations are continuing, and hence this document is an interim status report of an ongoing planning process from which will emerge, in early spring, 2001, a formal description of Center objectives, organization, and program initiatives.


As specified in the Plan for a New Century, the overarching objective of all the Centers is to assure the existence of " flexible ways to develop and maintain an innovative edge in the extra-curricular intellectual life of the College and in the curriculum itself … to prompt ongoing change … to encourage innovation between and within existing departments and programs." Within that broad objective, the terrain of the Center for Science in Society is that of science, broadly conceived as a continuing inquiry into the nature of the natural world and place of humans in it, and the relationship between science and the broader human enterprise of which it is a part. It follows from this that the more specific objectives of the Center for Science in Society include:


In addition to a number of talks by outside speakers cosponsored with various departments and programs, the Center has been active in a number of other initiatives, including those briefly sketched below:

The Center has also begun to put together a series of "working groups". It is anticipated that each of these will involve faculty/students/staff from varying backgrounds who come together around an area of common interdisciplinary and/or academic/applied interest. In addition to bringing outside speakers to the campus, and having discussion meetings, each group will be creating a web resource page or set of pages in its area of concern. These working groups are expected to vary from year to year. The following (with names of some involved faculty) are currently in various states of development:


During the past semester, the Center has also been involved in a variety of conversations about graduate education in the sciences, and about potential new faculty appointments. These conversation are at an earlier stage than those described above, and represent additional directions in which the Center might move if such developments were of interest to others.

With regard to graduate education, a number of science departments have expressed interest in a reconception and renewal of science graduate programs, one which would preserve the traditional core of mentored research training and disciplinary expertise, but supplement this with additional experiences in science education, in technology, and in interdisciplinary thinking and synthesis. The goal would be to produce graduate students, at both the MA and Ph.D. levels who would, in addition to having strong disciplinary expertise, have as well a distinctive ability to communicate and work with people outside their discipline. Such students, depending on their training level, would be attractive candidates not only for traditional academic positions but also for a variety of other significant positions in the education, industry, and public policy arenas.

The Center for Science in Society (working with other groups, such as the Education Program) could provide support and a venue for the supplementary graduate work. In so doing, the Center could also help with the "critical mass" problem associated with small, entirely discipline-based graduate programs, by providing significant activities and an arena within which students from different disciplines could meaningfully meet and productively work together.

The needed activities for graduate students are entirely compatible with those which the Center would be undertaking for other reasons, and so new graduate programs along these lines would serve as well to better integrate the College's undergraduate and graduate programs, and further contribute to the Center's objective of bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Finally, reconceived graduate programs with a clear and distinctive focus on both disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary breadth would help to attract a larger and stronger pool of applicants, which would, in turn, help to strengthen both the departments and the Center.

With regard to potential new faculty appointments, two suggestions have arisen, one related specifically to science education and the other to additional Center objectives as well. While the College has able and committed people, both in the sciences and in the Education Program, who can and are promoting "hands-on, exploratory, and transdisciplinary teaching approaches" to science education, these are largely people who themselves have "hands-on" experience with such approaches and people who have other competing disciplinary obligations. "Science education" is increasingly an area of professional expertise in its own right, with a substantial significant literature and an array of growing points with which current faculty are, and can be, at best only weakly familiar.

The appointment of a faculty member with specific background and commitment in the area of science education would both facilitate ongoing developments in our undergraduate programs and contribute substantially both to graduate education and to Center activities generally. Such an appointment might be made jointly between the Education Program and one or another science department, depending on a candidate's area of interest (an arrangement of this kind is being used in the current search for a Mellon post-doctoral fellow in History of Science). Alternatively, such an appointment might be made between the Education Program and the Center for Science in Society. While the Plan for a New Century suggests that faculty will not, in general, hold appointments in the Centers, the circumstances associated with an appointment in "science education" may make it an exceptional case. This position is intended to be one which serves all of the science departments, rather than any one, and which bridges between all of them and the Education Program. And many of the activities of the position are associated, more or less closely, with the Center. In this context, it may make sense, both for recruitment and for subsequent evaluation, to have the Center for Science in Society play a more direct role.

The Center has also been to varying degrees involved in discussion of a number of other "interdisciplinary" appointments, which might be made jointly by several departments and/or programs. These include possible appointments in philosophy of science, environmental science, behavioral genetics, and the biology of gender. All of these are, of course, appointments which would further the programs of the Center and, in turn, support the Center's objective of assisting the departments and College to assure "an environment within which there is ongoing, meaningful, and productive inquiry into the reciprocal relationships between science/technology and broader human culture". At the same time, there is some concern that not only is it difficult to resolve conflicting priorities among competing "interdisciplinary" appointments but that "locking in" several such appointments will diminish the " continual encouragement and support for trying out new things" which is an overriding Center objective.

The Center can certainly help to evaluate competing proposals for interdisciplinary appointments, as well as assist in recruitment and evaluation of such people. However, to assure that the College has, into the indefinite future, the ability to continue to adapt to changing circumstances, a more direct role of the Center in interdisciplinary appointments might be worth considering. One might, for example, permanently designate a certain number of faculty positions in the Center for "interdisciplinary exploration". Groups of departments and/or programs could make proposals to the Center for an initial appointment term in one of these positions, with the understanding that, on the successful completion of the term, the involved departments/programs would be committed to maintaining the appointment using their own resources. This arrangement would make available a renewable pool of resources for existing academic units to explore new intellectual developments and alignments, and give them time to make needed and appropriate adjustments in their own programs. It would, at the same time, assure that similar opportunities are regularly available for the necessary explorations and adjustments in the future.


There is substantial interest in, as well as need and enthusiasm for, the kinds of activities which the Center has been supporting and plans to support in the future. While a large and diverse array of faculty and staff have been involved in planning and activities to date, there is a need to broaden the base to include greater involvement by students (both undergraduate and graduate) as well as alumna and other interested parties from outside the campus. During the upcoming semester, the Center will be making special efforts in this regard. The Center will, in addition, sponsor a regularly scheduled series of talks, organized by its working groups, and establish, based partly on their work, a clear web presence.

Based partly on this planning document and subsequent discussion, the Center will also late this winter make a formal organizational and needs proposal to the President, for transmission to the Board of Trustees. This proposal is expected to largely follow the outlines sketched for the Centers in general in the President's Plan for a New Century, with a few additions reflecting the activities/experiences summarized here: