Sometimes it seems as though scientific advancement occurs at such a rapid pace that its effects on society are barely considered until they have already happened. A new center established at Caltech seeks to examine this intersection of science and society, provide a forum for the discussion of scientific ethics, and help shape public science policy.
The Center for Science, Society, and Public Policy (CSSPP) will be affiliated with The Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economic and Management Sciences in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), and it counts two of the division's faculty members as its co-directors. They are R. Michael Alvarez, professor of political and computational social science; and Frederick Eberhardt, professor of philosophy. The center has also hired two postdoctoral scholars.
"We represent different aspects of HSS in an initiative like this," Alvarez says. "I come from the social sciences, and in the social sciences, we've had a long history of faculty who have been directly involved in various types of public policy over the years. That includes me, in particular when it comes to elections and election administration. I've got some experience and a little bit of academic understanding about how politics and the public policy process works."
Eberhardt, whose own work has examined the philosophy of science, says he began to consider science's responsibility to the public several years ago when he realized that although Caltech had courses on artificial intelligence (AI), it had none on the ethics of AI.
"I was very concerned that this is something we needed to teach our students," Eberhardt says. "This is something they need to know and think about, especially nowadays. So, I put that course together. It has been extremely well received over the years.
"I think there's a feeling of responsibility among the philosophers at Caltech that we need to do our part in helping people consider these issues," Eberhardt adds. "What brings me to the table is this obligation that something needs to be done, quite apart from the fact that there is a wealth of tricky and interesting topics to work on in this space."
Eberhardt's experience with the ethics of AI may be helpful as the center launches. Artificial intelligence has been a topic of interest lately because of the release of ChatGPT, a chatbot with advanced linguistic abilities that often produces factually incorrect material. Besides its lack of veracity, ChatGPT's ability to "write" lengthy papers and essays from a prompt has caused concern among educators who say it may enable students to produce assignments without doing the work themselves.
"The whole debate around ChatGPT and the large language models has people in academia asking what do we do with this? What can we do with this? And how will it change the way students can and should write papers? It's obviously a difficult discussion to have, and it's not obvious what the solutions are."
Eberhardt adds that concerns about how AI is used go beyond its potential for abetting plagiarism. These AI systems have also found a home in the legal system, where they have been criticized for automatically providing harsher sentences for Black people convicted of crimes than white people convicted of similar crimes.
"These automated decision processes are being used in incarceration and for granting parole," he says. "We didn't have a discussion about them in time as a society, and now we're scrambling to find out what sort of recourse we have for decisions made by these automated procedures."
Similar discussions should be held, Eberhardt and Alvarez say, about when and how biological tools like gene editing are used, and about other ethical issues regarding biomedical research.
For those kinds of conversations to happen before a new technology becomes entrenched, perhaps in an irresponsible way, Eberhardt and Alvarez say scientists and researchers need to understand the process of how scientific results are translated into policy. Having such conversations with policy makers would also help the public understand why research is important, and in turn, it would help the policy makers decide what kind of rules or priorities to lay out.
"There's this huge gap between doing the scientific research, considering the impact of that sort of scientific research, communicating that scientific research out to the public, understanding what the regulations are, and how to shape those sorts of regulations," Eberhardt says. "The underlying goal of this center is to make students, postdocs, and faculty literate in this disconnect and make them able to bridge it. I think the hope is that we might actually have some influence on policymaking."
Alvarez says students will be a vital part of that effort.
"It's very clear that there are a lot of Caltech students who want to make a difference in the world. They want their science to matter," he says. "What we hope is that, through public events, connecting students with policy makers, and helping them understand how to communicate their research in policy-relevant and public-relevant ways, more students will get involved directly in policy making and be better equipped to be consumers of policy information. Whatever career path they pursue, we hope they will be better able to make their science relevant to the world around them."
Eventually, the center will offer courses for students, a discussion forum for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students on science policy careers, as well as research projects for students and faculty members. The center's public programming efforts will begin May 5 with a panel discussion on generative AI.