STEM work and social effects

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Sonic#
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STEM work and social effects

Post by Sonic# » Sun Apr 15, 11:14 2018

This is a typical tutoring session or poster presentation I engage in with someone:

"Tell me a bit about your research."
They're doing something that sounds interesting in itself. That said, if successful, that thing may mean changing work structures, cutting jobs, harming pedestrians, reducing the amount of affordable housing, or some other social effect, big or small. (Simple example: an autonomous car could hurt or kill someone. It could severely limit or eliminate jobs in the taxi industry or the rideshare industry.)
I ask about that effect.

The answers vary. Most often, I'm struck by how little attention has been put into the social repercussions, or those items that a community member or member of the public would be more likely to ask about. I'm not even expecting solutions - yes, any technological change has a number of implications we may not work through immediately. I'm expecting some basic acknowledgement and awareness of potential problems.

I don't think this is a problem unique to STEM (so many projects have blind spots). That said, I'm struck by how social impact often isn't a part of the impact analysis of these projects, by how people can nerd out about developments, processes, financial instruments, and other tools but miss the effects these have on other people. Have you encountered this issue? What do you think works to highlight what those researchers/engineers/designers might be missing?

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Re: STEM work and social effects

Post by DarkOne » Mon Apr 16, 5:43 2018

I've tackled the question in a different context. One of my humanities/social sciences electives in college was a course titled "Philosophy of Technology." In fact, my course very closely followed this syllabus. In any case, a large chunk of the class was spent trying to answer the questions "What is the impact of technology on society and ethics?" "How should we think about this impact?" "Where is technology beneficial, and where is it problematic?", among other broad topics. It was an interesting class, and not just because the makeup of the students was almost equally split between engineering and philosophy majors, who always derailed the class into a "technology is awesome vs technology is evil" debate. In any case, anyone who took that class was at least exposed to the question and the value of posing the question. But this class was an elective out of hundreds of choices, so I would estimate maybe 5% of the engineering student population took it, tops.

Another context under which the question might be posed to folks in STEM would be in the valuation of intangible assets/liabilities. My husband took a Risk Analysis graduate course, and his personal course project was to generate a method to determine if skydiving was worth the risk. Of course, the answer to that depended, among other things, on the value one assigned to the thrill of the experience. I can imagine introducing Social Impact as a potential intangible cost/benefit to consider. And I know there are analysts out there whose area of expertise is monetary valuation of social cost/benefits.

I'm not surprised this gets missed a lot, especially if it's not taught to students that social impact is worth looking into. It's so easy to get lost in the technical detail. Students are bombarded with so much technical analysis requirements that I can understand how one would not volunteer to add on more, particularly if there isn't a nice equation to wrap it up. I don't fault the students, I fault the formation.

So my short answer to your question "What do you think works to highlight what those researchers/engineers/designers might be missing?" (assuming I didn't misunderstand it) is: Make "social impact" a standard part of cost/benefit analysis in STEM curricula. Close the gap at the source. It seems to me it would be fairly simple to add another bullet to the standard template of the Cost/Benefit Analyses required for many engineering projects. Environmental impact analysis is already commonly found in these statements, even if the students aren't asked to assign a monetary cost/benefit. I'm not sure how long it would take for this to gain traction in engineering academic circles (if it's possible at all), but I strongly suspect the academic cultural climate will only become more receptive to social awareness issues in the near future. I'm not in academic circles anymore, and this wasn't something we regularly addressed in engineering analyses when I was in school 18 yrs ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's already becoming "a thing" now.
"Winston Churchill once said 'The eyes are the windows of your face.' " -A man who's very scared of plants.

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Re: STEM work and social effects

Post by rowan » Mon Apr 16, 8:41 2018

DarkOne wrote:
Mon Apr 16, 5:43 2018
Make "social impact" a standard part of cost/benefit analysis in STEM curricula.
100% in favor of this

more later when I am able to someday drive home from being trapped in another state
spacefem wrote:All your logical argue are belong to us!

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Re: STEM work and social effects

Post by DarkOne » Mon Apr 16, 10:42 2018

rowan wrote:
Mon Apr 16, 8:41 2018
DarkOne wrote:
Mon Apr 16, 5:43 2018
Make "social impact" a standard part of cost/benefit analysis in STEM curricula.
100% in favor of this

more later when I am able to someday drive home from being trapped in another state
A fix like this is relatively easy. The culture shift, maybe not so much.
"Winston Churchill once said 'The eyes are the windows of your face.' " -A man who's very scared of plants.

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