At life’s frontiers: the case for epistemic subsidiarity



Sheila Jasanoff, Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government

Date and Time

May 7, 2018 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


William J. Perry Conference Room, Encina Hall, 2nd Floor, 616 Serra St, Stanford, CA 94305

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Abstract: International cooperation has long been founded on the idea that securing a common factual understanding of things in the world is a prerequisite for deciding how to act in concert. However, in recent decades the very possibility of such agreement on the facts has come under attack both empirically, through persistent technical controversies around issues such as climate change and crop biotechnology, and theoretically, from demonstrations that facts and norms are co-produced to build alternate, coexisting worlds. The divergent self-understandings of these worlds, in which epistemic and normative order are interdependent, cannot be bridged by simply insisting on a singular “reality” that must be accepted by all.

In this talk, I use the longue durée case of international biotech regulation to suggest a different basis for long-term cooperation. Using epistemic subsidiarity rather than harmonization as the basis for making progress, I suggest how biotechnology risks might be handled in three regimes of subsidiarity: coexistence, cosmopolitanism, and constitutionalism. The advantages and limits of each regime will be exemplified and reflected upon.

Speaker bio: Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School. A pioneer in her field, she has authored more than 120 articles and chapters and is author or editor of more than 15 books, including The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, Designs on Nature, and The Ethics of Invention. Her work explores the role of science and technology in the law, politics, and policy of modern democracies. She founded and directs the STS Program at Harvard; previously, she was founding chair of the STS Department at Cornell. She has held distinguished visiting appointments at leading universities in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the US. Jasanoff served on the AAAS Board of Directors and as President of the Society for Social Studies of Science. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Ehrenkreuz from the Government of Austria, membership in the Royal Danish Academy, and the Humboldt Foundation’s Reimar-Lüst award. She holds AB, JD, and PhD degrees from Harvard, and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Twente and Liège.