Sheila Jasanoff Receives 2022 Holberg Prize

Sheila Sen Jasanoff
Sheila Sen Jasanoff

Sheila Sen Jasanoff, one of the world’s foremost theorists examining the interaction of science and technology with human society, has received the 2022 Holberg Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious prizes in the humanities and social sciences.

The University of Bergen, acting for the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, awards the prize annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the humanities, social science, law or theology or through interdisciplinary work. Named after the Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg, who excelled in all of the sciences covered by the award, the prize comes with an award of 6,000,000 Norwegian kroner, or roughly US$675,000.

Jasanoff is the Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the founder and director of Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology and Society. Her writings on law and science, risk management, the comparative politics of regulation, and science in environmental decision-making figure as foundational texts.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Jasanoff has come to be regarded as a pioneer in the field of science and technology studies (STS), which examines the creation, development, and consequences of science and technology in their historical, cultural, and social contexts. Her research puts her at the nexus of science, technology, law, democratic theory, and public policy.

Holberg Prize Committee Chair Heike Krieger explained to the Harvard Kennedy School that Jasanoff’s “theoretical contributions to the political sociology of scientific governance are transformational,” with a key insight “that science, technology and modern society are co-produced. Her work is distinctive in analyzing how practices of expert knowledge production and background beliefs about science impact on the modes of argument and persuasion that count as good justification, not only for public policies and legal decisions but also within scientific practice itself.”

Holdberg Prize logo with line drawing of Ludvig Holberg
Ludvig Holberg was born in Bergen in 1684, but lived most of his life in Copenhagen. He played a crucial role in bringing the Enlightenment to the Nordic countries and in modernizing several academic disciplines and teaching methods. Holberg held the Chairs of Metaphysics and Logic, Latin Rhetoric and History at the University of Copenhagen. He also laid the foundation for international law as an academic subject in Denmark-Norway. He’s perhaps best known as a playwright and an author, and is remembered for, among other works, his Introduction to Natural and International Law, the plays Jeppe on the HillThe Fidget and Erasmus Montanus, and for the novel Nils Klim’s Subterranean Journey. (Image: The Holberg Prize/University of Bergen)

Jasanoff’s idiom of “co-production” states that the ways in which we know and represent the world are inseparable from how we choose to live in it. She argues against the separation of natural and social orders that underwrites much of the sciences, a stance that reveals taken-for-granted questions of ethics, culture, and power.

A central theme of Jasanoff’s research is public reason, or how ruling institutions justify exercises of power and authority in contemporary democracies. Fundamental to this is how their practices of argumentation, delegation, and transparency are shaped by commitments to particular ways of knowing, visions of progress, styles of reasoning, and ideas of adequate representation.

In the 2005 edited volume Dreamscapes of Modernity she describes “sociotechnical imaginaries,collectively held visions of desirable futures that societies hope to attain through advances in science and technology.

“Possibly the most basic question I have tried to address is what difference it makes that we humans live in scientifically and technologically advanced societies,” the Holberg Prize Board quotes her. “This is fundamentally a question about the meaning of science and technology in the everyday lives of individuals, social groups, and nations.

“I find it odd that we have armies of scholars working on the evolution and meaning of literary, artistic, musical, and other forms of cultural creativity, but not on how it affects us to examine nature, learn to control its functions, and make tools that have the potential to change what it means to be human.”
Jasanoff holds AB, JD, and PhD (in linguistics) degrees from Harvard University. She was the founding chair of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, ushering in a new interdisciplinary field in the U.S. academy, before returning to Harvard as a professor in 2002. That same year she founded the Science and Democracy Network, an international community of STS scholars.

She has received many national and international honors for her research, including the University of Ghent Sarton Chair and the Reimar Lüst Award from the Alexander von Humboldt and Fritz Thyssen Foundations, a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010, and in 2018 the Albert O. Hirschman Prize from the Social Science Research Council. She is an elected foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where she served on the board of directors.

Jasanoff has written a number of influential books for both the academy and the public such as 1990’s The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymakers, 2012’s Science and Public Reason, and Can Science Make Sense of Life? In 2019.

“Through sharing her work in both academic and popular forums” said Krieger, “Jasanoff is a significant public intellectual, offering timely comments on topics of public concern such as fake news and climate change.”

She will receive the award on June 9 – during Norway’s Holberg Week –  in a ceremony at the University of Bergen.

In addition to the Holberg Prize, the prize committee also awards the Nils Kim Prize -named after the protagonist of Holberg’s most famous novel – for a scholar under age 35 and from or working in a Nordic country who excels in one of the areas covered by the Holberg Prize. This year’s Nils Klim Prize goes to to Finnish theologian Elisa Uusimäki, for her outstanding research into the literary and cultural history of Judaism in antiquity. Uusimäki is associate professor of Biblical studies at the Department of Theology, Aarhus University in Denmark.

The Holberg Prize and Klim Prize were established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2003 and awarded for the first time the next year. Past recipients of the Holberg are:

Martha C. Nussbaum(2021)
Griselda Pollock (2020)
Paul Gilroy (2019)
Cass R. Sunstein (2018)
Onora O’Neill (2017)
Stephen Greenblatt (2016)
Marina Warner (2015)
Michael Cook (2014)
Bruno Latour (2013)
Manuel Castells (2012)
Jürgen Kocka (2011)
Natalie Zemon Davis (2010)
Ian Hacking (2009)
Fredric R. Jameson (2008)
Ronald Dworkin (2007)
Shmuel N. Eisenstadt (2006)
Jürgen Habermas (2005)
Julia Kristeva (2004)

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