LSC faculty awarded USD 1.5 million to bridge science-society divides

LSC Professor Dietram Scheufele (left) and LSC Chair & Professor Dominique Brossard (right).

A new, $1.5 million research grant from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), led by UW -Madison LSC professors and Morgridge Research Institute Investigators Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard, will study more effective ways of facilitating cooperation and compromise across diverse societal stakeholders, especially in the context of controversial science.

Rapid advancements in fields like artificial intelligence (AI), human genome editing, and brain organoids are forcing the global community to grapple with questions that science alone won’t be able to answer. Are we prepared, for example, for a world in which algorithms assign scarce medical resources, or parents try to optimize the genetic makeup of their unborn children? In the U.S., scientists, policymakers, and many other stakeholders will inevitably disagree about the values or belief systems that should inform pathways for moving forward. Unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, we are also ill-prepared to navigate value-laden conflicts over science.

Scheufele and Brossard’s research has long focused on facilitating societal dialogues at the intersection of science and values, in which participants are likely to strongly disagree on moral grounds. “AI or human genome editing are scientific breakthroughs that will exacerbate value-based disagreements about science and technology in the U.S.,” says principal investigator Dietram Scheufele, “and this project lays the social scientific foundation for a meaningful and sustained infrastructure for overdue societal conversations.”

LSC researcher Nicky Krause.

Along with researcher Nicky Krause, the project is designed to foster sincere science-society engagement in which scientists, like other stakeholder groups, must grapple with the possibility of compromising on their value systems and beliefs in service to functional democratic decision-making related to science. “Scientific expertise is an important North Star for how society innovates,” Krause says, “but in the end it functions as just one of many considerations that inform societal decision making.” The three-year research program will also include close collaborations with John H. Evans, a professor and sociologist of religion at the University of California – San Diego (UCSD), who co-directs UCSD’s Institute for Practical Ethics.

“This collaborative effort will prepare society for an era characterized by unprecedented growth and transformation in the sciences, particularly in the realm of emerging technologies,” says Brossard, who currently serves as the Chair of the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavior, and Economic Sciences. At a time when our country is torn apart by political polarization and an inability to find compromise across ideological fault lines, this new project builds on decades of social scientific research in the Department of Life Sciences Communication examining how individuals and societies navigate emerging technologies.