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Preparing tomorrow’s researchers for technology’s fallout

This summer, North­eastern led a pilot doc­toral fel­low­ship pro­gram to sup­port schol­arly study of social and eth­ical issues asso­ci­ated with emerging technologies.

The pro­gram was funded under a multi-​​year National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) project on nan­otech­nology and public policy that is directed by Christo­pher Bosso, pro­fessor of public policy and asso­ciate dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

Bosso brought together six advanced doc­toral stu­dents and early-​​career researchers for 10 weeks to work on their research, learn from one another and pro­duce indi­vidual papers on the project for future publication.

Topics included the ethics of geo­engi­neering to address global cli­mate change; use of genetic testing in employ­ment deci­sions; the use of repro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies to select the sex of one’s chil­dren; the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for prop­erty rights over dig­ital goods; the use of genetic ancestor pro­filing in crim­inal jus­tice con­texts; and the testing of cog­ni­tive enhance­ment tech­nolo­gies on non-​​human animals.

Even as they sharp­ened their schol­arly skills, fel­lows were advised on how to make their work acces­sible to non-​​specialists and to com­mu­ni­cate the impor­tance of the eth­ical issues posed by a range of emerging technologies.

“The pro­gram embodies the University’s com­mit­ment to being a leader in respon­sible tech­no­log­ical inno­va­tion,” said Ronald San­dler, asso­ciate pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy, who led the summer pro­gram and will direct a new Ethics Insti­tute at North­eastern. “The fel­lows we worked with are the next gen­er­a­tion of col­lege and uni­ver­sity faculty.

“Since tech­nology is now the pri­mary driver of social change, it is cru­cial that we encourage grad­uate stu­dents and early career fac­ulty to study the eth­ical issues that emerging tech­nolo­gies raise. The point of this pro­gram is to pro­vide them an oppor­tu­nity to do just that.”

Bosso and San­dler hatched the idea for the summer fel­low­ship pro­gram out of a desire to foster a com­mu­nity of shared inquiry on the eth­ical and policy aspects of emerging tech­nolo­gies, and after having both worked with stu­dents brought to North­eastern in pre­vious sum­mers through the NSF-​​funded Research Expe­ri­ence for Under­grad­u­ates (REU) program.

“We saw such value in the shared expe­ri­ences of the REU par­tic­i­pants that we decided to create a sim­ilar com­mu­nity of inquiry for a select number of doc­toral stu­dents,” Bosso said. “It went so well, and par­tic­i­pants came away with such pos­i­tive feel­ings about their time here, that we are seeking funding to repeat the pro­gram in the years to come.”

Two summer fel­lows, John Basl and Valentina Urbanek, are former North­eastern under­grad­uate stu­dents who recently earned PhDs in phi­los­ophy from the Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-​​Madison and MIT, respec­tively. Urbanek is cur­rently a lec­turer in phi­los­ophy at Tufts Uni­ver­sity and Basl joins the Bowling Green State Uni­ver­sity fac­ulty this fall as an assis­tant pro­fessor of philosophy.

– by Samantha Fodrowski

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