Jason Silverstein, an anthropologist in training at Harvard, was looking for feedback on his research into the role of physicians as border police in French refugee asylum policy. Under the policy, medical evaluation is a key element of the asylum process—if refugees can prove they suffered trauma, they can stay. If not, they must leave.
The policy creates an array of seemingly unanticipated consequences in the refugees’ health and psychology, in French policy, and in human rights, and it’s a flashpoint for political argument. But to get new perspective into the policy, and his own work, Silverstein felt like he needed to move beyond the bounds of the anthropology department.
He found the audience he was looking for at the 12th Annual Conference on Science & Technology in Society. It is an international, interdisciplinary program organized by and for graduate students in programs of S&T studies or S&T policy, through the STGlobal Consortium, with support from AAAS and the National Academies.
“Immigration and border control tends to be a volatile topic, so it is very nice to hear people who are coming from a lot of different backgrounds interrogating the project in ways that I am not going to get in the anthropology department,” Silverstein said.
“Too often, interdisciplinarity gets lip service, but we don’t have a lot of opportunities to have conversations with people from different backgrounds and specialties. This seemed like a very unique opportunity…. I think this is a fantastic forum to meet a lot of people who you might not normally cross paths with. I think that is only to the benefit, certainly of my work, and I think everyone else’s work.”
Similar sentiments were expressed frequently among some 300 graduate students and mentors at the STGlobal Consortium conference, held 30-31 March in Washington, D.C. Attendance was up from attendance last year, said organizing committee chair Zita De Pooter, perhaps because “for the first time we allowed people to submit an abstract on research that is still in progress. It gives them the opportunity for feedback.”
Edward G. Derrick, director of AAAS’s Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs, said that is among the key reasons that AAAS supports the program. “The meeting is a great opportunity for scholars from a variety of disciplines to come together for cross-disciplinary learning and networking as well as professional development,” he said.
Leavening the dozen panels that formed the core of the conference were keynote speeches, sessions addressing career development, and ample opportunity to network and socialize.
Silverstein’s 15-minute presentation prompted a wide-ranging discussion—and that was just what he wanted.
French asylum policy creates a situation where “there is an advantage from being damaged,” he explained. “The difference between persons deserving and non-deserving of relief from persecution often ends up being a medical certificate [verifying] that it is true when you say that you have suffered trauma.”
Because refugee status often is granted on a temporary basis and must be renewed periodically, sometimes quarterly, “people basically have to stay sick—they are committed to a lifetime of suffering, in order to maintain their resident status,” Silverstein said. “A refugee has to get a medical decision that is effectively a border-control decision. Getting better is, technically, out of the question.”
Ari Novy, a plant biologist with a freshly minted Ph.D from Rutgers University, came to the conference with a similar interest in multidisciplinary, international insight. “My main research is on plant population genetics,” Novy explained, “but, on the other side, I also work on agricultural-societal kinds of issues, including agricultural economics and agricultural policy.”
His paper looked at how the European perspective on genetically modified organisms and organic agriculture influenced policy in Africa.
“I tend to come at it from a more technical agronomic background and I’m always interested in hearing how social scientists tell me what I am forgetting to think about, the deep traditional components of things, the political component, the societal component that agronomists and geneticists don’t always remember to think about,” he said. “So I’m always looking for venues where I can talk with social scientists and scientists in a combined environment.”
Nadine Levin, a Rhodes Scholar and Oxford University Ph.D candidate, is twinning a background in immunology with her current study in anthropology in observing how the emerging science of metabolomics is being applied to colon cancer.
“The social context, the technologies, and the people within which that new knowledge is being developed really matter,” she said. She illustrated that with an example of how choosing to use a lower resolution machine to measure markers of cancer, because it was cheaper and faster, affected how the research question was answered.
Levin believes combining the case study approach of anthropology with the new tools of science that allow for observation and quantification at a finer resolution will yield a deeper understanding of the phenomena than would relying upon technology alone.
The STGlobal Consortium conference “has been a really great opportunity to come bounce some ideas that are a little bit more science and technology studies off of other graduate students,” she said. “It’s a really great forum to get a lot of feedback from peers and also get my feet wet in a discipline that I draw upon but don’t have a lot of professional experience in.”
Learn more about the STGlobal Consortium, an interdisciplinary organization of graduate programs in science and technology studies and policy.