We have to note, with sadness, that in its budget-cutting effort, Penn State has decided to close its STS (Science, Technology, and Society) program. This is a group of faculty members who were expert and/or interested in the history, philosophy, or societal impact of science. Among other things, STS was to be at the heart of a bioethics degree program here, and we have a number of really first-class faculty who would have provided it. This may have complex reasons, but at its core it is another sign of the corporatization of universities, dumping things that don't bring in money.
STS doesn't bring in a lot of money, and it may in fact have little if any influence on what goes on here, much less in wider society, but that's not really the point. It has the potential to remind us that science is not as detached or objective and society-neutral as scientists like to fancy they are and to show us the evidence and the way science is a part of our culture.
STS here deals with issues of many kinds, including disabilities, food and agriculture, evolution, climate and environment, and genetics to name but a few. This field should help foster a better societal understanding of science among students and future citizens, especially in contentious areas. At best, perhaps, STS work on the context of science and the history of its effect on society, could help advise on policy in regard to research priorities, and perhaps help put some brakes on what scientists do where that is relevant. Of course, scientists don't like anyone looking over their shoulder; nobody does, and we naturally want to be able to do whatever we want to do. Certainly some studies of the context of science are done by meddlers with little understanding of science. But most of the work is informative and informed, and there are good reasons for any field to be under scrutiny not just for its inherent interest and technical ethics, but its societal ethics as well, though our STS program here is not a Gotcha! operation.
All scientists are vulnerable to self-promotion, to selective study design and data interpretation, and to advancing their particular worldview or vested interests. It's part of life. Part of education of scientists and citizens alike should be to understand these things. But in some areas, science directly impacts people far beyond the laboratory. Proper understanding of evolution and climate change are examples where science should have a positive influence, and STS people could help. Proper understanding of the limitations of the role of genes in our normal as well as health- and agriculture-related lives is also important, in an era of fervid enthusiasm for genetics, even in social sciences, when genetics has a long history of being used to justify major societal abuse. Yet universities are trephaning their humanities programs .
The implications of science for the society that pays for it should be scrutinized carefully. To us this is a sad reflection of loss of mission by universities in their desperate hunt for money (even in a time of acknowledged belt-tightening), this kind of program, that might help faculty and students to understand their world should be cut. We wonder if a biochemistry, electrical engineering, economics, or chemistry department has ever been cut in this way. The walk away from these important core areas of university life, and of what it means to lead an informed life, should be resisted where that's possible.