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‘Birthplace of science studies in America’ turns 25

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Cornell Chronicle
Wed, 09/14/2016

Faculty, staff and students gathered Sept. 9 in Morrill Hall for an Open House to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Department of Science and Technology and the department’s move into new space in Morrill.

In her remarks, Marilyn Migiel, senior associate dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of Romance studies, pointed out that STS had been the first new department in Arts and Sciences in 20 years and began with affiliated faculty from 23 departments and six colleges. “STS is truly arts and sciences, sometimes seen as social sciences or as humanities, with ties to science,” she said. “STS scholarship and teaching are central to the liberal education mission at Cornell.”

Deputy Provost John Siliciano, professor of law, quoted from the 2013 field review of the department in his remarks. These in-depth reviews are done every 7-10 years, he explained, with input from external experts. The report said Cornell’s program was “the lynchpin for the development of this interdisciplinary field, and continues to define its agenda” and called STS “the birthplace of science studies in America.” 

STS began as a program, in space carved out of the physics department in Clark Hall. The program eventually moved to Rockefeller Hall and also had offices elsewhere on campus, with graduate students and faculty in separate buildings. Faculty praised the new space in Morrill Hall, noting how much easier it was to interact with graduate students when they were on the same floors as faculty.

“Klarman Hall is being rightfully celebrated for being the first new Humanities building on campus in 100 years, and while we're not in that building, the game of departmental dominoes that it enabled has finally brought us all together here in Morrill Hall,” said Bruce Lewenstein, STS chair and professor of science and technology studies and communication. “So while the ‘humanities’ is only one part of how we define ourselves, we're glad to be part of the physical improvement that building brought.”
STS was initiated in the mid-1960s with a group of scientists interested in thinking about science and society, who eventually founded the "Science, Technology, Society Program.” In the 1980’s, the historian of science L. Pearce Williams joined with astronomer Martin Harwit and others to create a graduate program in history and philosophy of science technology (renamed science and technology studies in 1991), now ranked among the best in the nation.

The first director of the STS Program, Frank Long, was a chemist long active in the arms-control movement, and many of the early STS faculty also focused on arms-related issues. In 1970, the Peace Studies Program was established through the joint sponsorship of STS and the Center for International Studies (now the Einaudi Center for International Studies). STS faculty continue to be involved with Peace Studies, which was renamed the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. As STS Professor Emerita Judith Reppy explained, “The original thrust of Peace Studies was on technical issues of arms control, while the STS program had a broader emphasis. Once the Peace Studies Program was established, the arms control issues migrated to that program.”

Another change in STS in the last fifty years, said Trevor Pinch, Goldwin Smith Professor of Science Technology Studies, is that “by the time STS became a department, many faculty were no longer primarily scientists interested in the social impact of science, but people with backgrounds in history, the social sciences, and the anthropology of science – as well as the sciences.”

The Sept. 9 Open House celebrated another anniversary as well: the creation of the biology society undergraduate major 40 years ago in 1976. The interdisciplinary, cross-university major is now a collaboration between Arts Sciences, CALS, and Human Ecology. Lewenstein noted that the department today has almost 300 students in its biology society and science technology studies majors. “We’ve graduated more than 1,600 students since the department was founded in 1991,” he said.

Lewenstein listed some of the highlights of STS’ two and a half decades including being home to some of the field's most prominent journals; faculty serving as presidents of the Society for Social Studies of Science, the Society for History of Technology, and the Ecological Society of America as well as being on the governing boards of the science studies sections of groups like the American Sociological Association, the American Anthropological Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “We’re on the editorial boards of a wide range of journals and book series, as well,” he added. 

“STS graduate students teach at places like Harvard, Penn, Oxford, Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere,” said Lewenstein, “and they've also gone to non-academic jobs, as foundation executives, museum curators, leaders of industrial research groups and business development organizations, founders of high-technology start-ups, and staff members in government agencies. Our undergraduates go into medicine, law, pharmaceuticals, social work, healthcare administration, NGOs, government agencies, teaching – and some into STS academic positions."

A version of this story appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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