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Preparing tomorrow’s researchers for technology’s fallout

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

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.

Written by Samantha Fodrowski.