science under scrutiny

Reposting below an overview of some of my work on endangered species, regulation, and ethics, which I wrote in December 2012 for the web site of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Original version is here.

Science under Scrutiny: How Endangered Species Protection Reshaped Twentieth-Century Field Biology

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since the 1970s, studies that involve attaching radio-tags to whales and other wild animals have been subject to rigorous ethical and environmental regulations. Photograph by Brandon Southall. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists played a central role in the emergence of a movement to protect endangered species from extinction in the twentieth century. This movement, in turn, reshaped scientific practices, communities, and personas and reoriented research toward new goals. Among other things, vast databases of species were constructed that both reflected the state of the art in biological knowledge and helped to determine the future paths of, and legal constraints on, biological research. Endangered species became objects simultaneously of intense epistemological interest and of special ethical care. This entanglement of ethics and epistemology, social movements and scientific knowledge, is the subject of ongoing research affiliated with the Sciences of the Archive project in Department II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
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science vs. paperwork

Scientists get frustrated with paperwork. No surprise there — we all do. But when the paperwork has to do with the very conditions under which new knowledge can be produced, its consequences are more significant than a mere waste of time or the emotional anguish of deciphering bureaucratese. Science can be risky in a number of ways, and in the past half-century or so there has been an efflorescence of efforts to formally manage that risk without undermining scientists’ ability to do what we value them (and pay them) for: find out new, fascinating, and potentially useful things about the world. That balancing act hasn’t always been easy — rather, hasn’t ever been easy — to perform. Continue reading

searching for polar bears in the federal register

Polar bears have been a hot topic lately, and it’s not just because of Knut, may he rest in peace. Ursus maritimus is one of the species that has come to symbolize the threat of global climate change. In the United States, that means controversy. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the historic step of listing the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 because of the likelihood that global warming would lead to shrinking habitats for the species — specifically, less ice. The decision was highly contested and remains so. Continue reading