Holberg Laureate Sheila Jasanoff's Acceptance Speech


Holberg Laureate Sheila Jasanoff's Acceptance Speech is published here in full.

Your Royal Highness, Madam Rector, honored members of the Holberg Committee, eminent colleagues, and cherished family and friends: It is a humbling experience to stand here today as the 2022 Holberg Prize Laureate, not only because I follow in the footsteps of so many distinguished predecessors, but because I am called upon to represent a set of concerns and a field of study of such immediacy and salience that no one person could possibly be up to the task of expressing what this award means for us at this time in our collective history.

On March 14, Rector and Professor Margareth Hagen announced this year’s Holberg and Nils Klim awards against the backdrop of the then three-week-old Russian invasion of Ukraine. She described it as “the largest military attack in Europe since [the] Second World War.” “Events such as this remind us,” she said, of “our academic duty to promote critical thinking, independent research and understanding in line with the ideas of the Holberg Prize.” Importantly for me, as for my honored predecessors, this is a research prize, bestowed in recognition of work in the social sciences, humanities, law and theology—in short, all the branches of scholarship that strive to understand not only how the world works, a task we have chiefly delegated to the natural sciences, medicine and engineering, but why we should care to understand, and what we should do with the fruits of our hard-won knowledge. 

In a time of war, our work asks not what makes the engines of destruction work, but why we turn our knowledge and know-how to making swords and spears when, just as easily, we could be making pruning hooks or ploughshares.    

Fulfilling our role as critical thinkers and as purposive, moral agents has never seemed more urgent or challenging than now, as we confront the layered catastrophes of a receding pandemic, climate change, resource depletion, economic inequality, political polarization, and the rise of extremism and violence. Yet, confront them we must, and as problems of our own making all of them have special resonance for STS. In my brief remarks here I want to speak about how these challenges have affected some of the work that my colleagues and I are doing—in keeping with the four lines of ethically engaged scholarship that I believe the Holberg Prize seeks to recognize and reward.

To look usefully forward, it often makes sense to first look back. How is it that our little field of Science and Technology Studies, or STS, became so central to critical thinking in this century that I am by one count the third STS laureate, together with Bruno Latour and Ian Hacking, to have been honored with this prize? I think it is because the problems of our time require us to revisit the fundamental questions of what we know and how we know it every bit as earnestly as during the great periods of religious reform in the past, only this time from a free-thinking, secular perspective. We are, after all, questioning the foundations of collective knowledge—not only how do I know, but how do we as social formations know, from family to ethnic group to nation states and the entire globe? How, across the world’s dizzying socio-cultural divides, can we know the same facts well enough to act in concert upon them? These questions I believe would have been congenial to an Enlightenment mind like Holberg’s.

The shorthand that many accept is that we know things because science tells us. Science is simply our shared knowledge of the world as it is. The more my field has looked into the matter, however, the less it seems that this answer is adequate. We must press deeper. And when we do we discover that it was our insistence on the specialness of science that led us astray. Enlightenment now tells us that science does not stand apart from society, but grows out of it. Making scientific knowledge is a collective enterprise that draws on politics and culture. At the same time what we know and how we use our knowledge influence how culture and politics reimagine themselves. I call this duality co-production. The simplest definition, from my 2004 edited volume States of Knowledge, is this: “The ways in which we know and represent the world (both nature and society) are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it.”
For me, the relations between what we know and how we choose to live became evident from my very first research project. The focus was mundane, the regulation of cancer-causing chemicals. Our team’s findings, however, were anything but. We discovered that four countries, very similar in terms of wealth, scientific knowledge, and political preferences, did not regulate the same chemicals in the same ways. One example was asbestos. In philosophical terms it was an invariant substance, a “natural kind,” but in the dynamics of disparate political systems asbestos split into a multiplicity of kinds that called forth different technical and policy solutions. 

In America, we did our best to remove asbestos from all the built environments in which we found it, whereas British authorities concluded by and large that asbestos should remain undisturbed where it was already fixed in place. The result: more cost and upheaval for property owners in the US, but also more technological innovation of diagnostic and protective equipment; and more differentiation of asbestos fiber types and greater attention to cancer epidemiology in Britain. Attributing agency to asbestos could not explain these subtleties. At stake, it seemed, was not what we know in common, nor what objects we bring into the world, but what forms of life, with their costs and benefits, we think are worth living in the first place—and how those commitments play out in the trajectories of invention and discovery that our societies, in all their rich diversity, embrace. I turned to interpretive social theory as my intellectual habitat of choice because that was where I could pursue these sorts of questions. Unexpectedly, but to my delight, I found fellow travelers and eager students to teach in the process.

Fast forward, then, to the 2020s. For me, the social science pillar of the Holberg quartet of ideas has been about trying to understand systems of collective meaning-making that help make sense of science and technology. I am not primarily interested in turning society into an object of cold scientific scrutiny, as if it is an object driven by natural laws. Rather, what interests me and my close colleagues in STS is how actors in the world perceive, rationalize, and act upon their understandings of what affects or afflicts them. How, in short, do we as social groups find our way in worlds of new or changing knowledge? 

From this intellectual standpoint, the Covid-19 pandemic provided an immediate and urgent site for asking STS questions. Early in the outbreak, we were fortunate enough to receive funding from the US National Science Foundation and a private source, Schmidt Futures, to launch a comparative study of national responses to Covid-19. With my colleagues Stephen Hilgartner and Ben Hurlbut, both of whom are happily in the audience today, we launched a study that expanded to include 16 countries and 60 researchers, almost all of whom found their own resources to join our study. It was an exhilarating experience to see how quickly and enthusiastically our STS community mobilized to ask fundamental questions about knowledge and social action. How did our respective societies frame the pandemic, where did they turn for evidence, how (and how well) did they resolve disputes, and how did they take care of their members when so many of the supports of our lives, from schools and hospitals to offices and social spaces, were suddenly rendered off limits?

This still ongoing study has propelled our research toward a second pillar of the Holberg quartet: the law. In my own work, I have been for some time rethinking the idea of constitutionalism, to take account of a tacit constitution that supports and enables political life in the twenty-first century. This is the constitutional agreement our societies have forged with the institutions of science and technology. I call these accommodations constitutional because, in many ways, we have allowed science and technology to govern our lives. These arrangements remain tacit because we have never fully interrogated the principled basis for delegating authority to the expert few to rule for the many who do not know as much.

Our research on the pandemic made visible aspects of modernity’s constitutional compact that had not been so plain before. Soon after the virus struck, I found myself writing about “public health sovereignty,” to capture the principles by which we have ceded power to health authorities to restrict our freedom in states of emergency. What is the nature of this sovereignty? The fascinating thing from an interpretive standpoint was to unpack how differently the delegations have played out from country to country. Striking differences appeared not only in the degree of conflict or consensus around public health regulations, but also on the discourses of contestation, the knowledge claims advanced to resolve them, and the details of policy responses. 

One tiny example from Norway and the US is illustrative. In our preparatory discussions for Holberg week, I mentioned to my colleague Roger Strand that my husband and I had succumbed to Covid in mid-March. Roger replied, well now you don’t have to worry about your Covid status for six months. That surprised me because, in the US, we are exempt from testing requirements for only 90 days. How can we make sense of such a discrepancy? Here again is the same kind of difference that I observed between asbestos policies in Britain and the US so many years ago. It seems that in Norway, the body speaks through clinical knowledge and medical understanding. If you have had Covid, you are not infective for six months. In the US, we would sooner trust the test, a technological device, to tell the truth about our bodies. Ninety days is the period our authorities picked because that is the range within which tests are likely to produce false positives. As in the case of asbestos, we Americans would sooner outsource our safety to supposedly objective technological devices than to the clinician’s subjective human judgment!

That brings me to the humanities—the third, and for me most important pillar of the Holberg quartet. I have already suggested that the kind of social science that is most revealing to our school of STS is also the most human-centric. It is the form of self-knowledge that Max Weber referred to as Verstehen or understanding. As an interpretive social science, STS is not content to treat people as if they are just so many beans to be counted and sorted by the empirical methods of the natural sciences. STS asks how we and our institutions make sense of things, not simply how we behave. The pandemic, with its array of new ways to monitor and discipline populations, opened up a sea of questions for STS. But the need for humanistic analysis reaches further and wider than the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. 

We are living in an era of convergent technologies whose combined effect is to increase our powers of centralized control, at the expense of faculties that our ancestors considered essential for preserving human integrity, dignity, and personal autonomy. In the past half-century, we have gained unimaginable information processing speed and efficiency, along with a deep knowledge of the molecular make-up of life and how to manipulate it. We now have tools to monitor every aspect of a person’s day to day activities. No one is free from the all-seeing eyes of our digital environment. There are no crevices to hide in, much as we might tinker with the privacy settings each time we visit a new site on the internet. And by combining biological data from the human genome with the power of the information sciences and technologies, we have gained the potential, many biologists claim, to correct any perceived genetic defect and even to steer the course of evolution itself. 

But what does it mean to fulfill one’s potential as a human being if everything about us is knowable, if we no longer retain control over how much is revealed of our preferences, or how long those traces can be retained? And what does human autonomy mean if the physical matter of our genes can be manipulated in the light of such knowledge? To address these questions, my colleagues and I launched a wide-ranging program that we call the Global Observatory for Genome Editing. Our aim is to use STS insights to reflect more deeply on the ethical implications of these new technological powers. We hope to develop a “cosmopolitan bioethics” that is welcoming to diverse ideas of what it means to be human, and how to protect the essence of human-ness against the assaults of a newly overwhelming machine age.

Ethics, finally, can be seen as a bridge to theology, the last of the Holberg Prize’s four intellectual pillars. Theology does not feature formally in the canon of STS or of my own current frontiers of research and teaching—not if it is understood as a study of canonical texts on the nature of god or religious belief. Indeed, I myself was brought up by progressive parents in an unobservant, secular household in Calcutta. The sacred, however, always had its place in our lives, from my grandmother’s personal shrine that she prayed at during the months she spent in our home (it was shrouded the rest of the time) to the exposure to Christianity engendered by our education in English-speaking schools to the songs of the famed Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore that remain a spiritual refuge for me in times of loss or sorrow.  

Maybe that early ecumenical upbringing also colors my interest in the limits of the scientific and technological imagination, a recurrent concern in my work on “sociotechnical imaginaries” over the past decade. By dominating so much of what humans imagine and desire about their futures, science and technology have taken over territory that traditionally belonged to theology. It is not a death of god that we are witnessing in our contemporary era, but rather an appropriation of the realms of the sacral by the material means that science has placed within our grasp. In biology, in the earth sciences, and at the frontiers of the information and communication technologies, we see a displacement of the sense of divinely ordained futures by a powerful urge to shape and design our futures as we see fit for ourselves.

Whether these ambitions are the logical outgrowth of the Enlightenment’s drive to know, or frightening acts of hubris based on overestimations of our knowledge and capability, our community’s research on imaginaries has a critical role to play. We can trace the origins of diverse imaginations of the good, point out important erasures and exclusions, shed light on alternatives, and open up discussions on aspects of the human condition that the seemingly inevitable advances of science and technology have left out of their ken. STS offers in these respects a kind of necessary companion to classical theology. With its gaze fixed firmly on the secular, our field helps delineate how our societies can still preserve spaces for a sacral inner world, in domains where what is possible is not necessarily taken as what is inevitable.

I hope I have said enough to indicate why the award of the Holberg Prize carries such deep significance for my personal work and for the work of my entire field. It gives me the courage to keep moving forward into new territories with questions that have not been sanctioned by the traditional disciplines, and yet are grounded in the realities of human experience, the insecurities of changing knowledge and the material difficulties of living on a planet of unequal and dwindling resources. I accept this award on behalf of a generation of inquirers who will dare to step outside the strictures of the old disciplines and ask what truly matters and how we can try harder, as individuals and collectives, to bend our scientific and technological ingenuity toward the greater good. 

In thanking you once again for this extraordinary honor, which it is my great privilege to accept, I would like to close with an invocation from a song of Rabindranath Tagore that is also a prayer for peace. Composed in 1927, and translated by Tagore himself from the Bengali original, I feel it has special resonance for this time and for my field:

Thou giver of immortal gifts
Give us the power of renunciation
And claim from us our pride.
In the splendour of a new sunrise of wisdom
Let the blind gain their sight
And let life come to the souls that are dead.
O Serene, O Free,
In thine immeasurable mercy and goodness
Wipe away all dark stains from the heart of this earth.


Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies Sheila Jasanoff 
2022 Holberg Laureate 


The speech was delivered at the University Aula in Bergen on 9 June, 2022. The Holberg Prize was conferred upon Professor Sheila Jasanoff by HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.