We report on a variety of industry engagement areas at the BEC. Sometimes they are active research projects or creative partnerships that provide unique advantages for our corporate partners. Sometimes, as in this case, it is because we come across a program at U-M that is doing work we think all our industry partners should know about and support.
Read on to learn more about how the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy works to train students on eliminating bias in technological and scientific advances.
In the news every day
You don’t have to go further than the news headlines most days to find ways technology and AI have an impact on current events. The FBI using facial recognition to identify people who stormed the Capitol, amidst concern that the technology might extend surveillance over law-abiding citizens. Physicians who use AI can be less liable for medical malpractice, but researchers have found that these technologies can reproduce racial biases.The thorny application of AI to science, technology, medicine, and the laws and policies around how they do or don’t get integrated in a fair and just way, are very complicated.
Shobita Parthasarathy is hoping to inform the science and technology, and related policies, behind that. She runs the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy (STPP) at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Founded in 2006, the program has grown significantly in the last few years as more engineers and scientists seek training on ethics, equity, and policy to accompany their core skill set.
“Science and technology is ubiquitous in our lives, but they are not necessarily benefiting society. To benefit society, we actually have to be deliberate about developing and using it in particular ways. Our program aims to provide people with the tools to be deliberate,” Parthasarathy says.
Initially offering a graduate certificate program, STPP attracted primarily science and engineering students who wanted to think about science and tech in social, ethical and political context. The program grew from there, developing a postdoc fellowship program drawing a very interdisciplinary group: from social sciences and humanities to law to computer science.
STPP currently has a postdoctoral fellow developing a toolkit to take this training to undergraduate programs on campus.
Parthasarathy comments, “I have envisioned this innovative model not just for graduate students and postdoc fellows but for mid-career people and undergraduates. There is hunger for this type of training. We want to expand those opportunities and this is the first step.”
Policy briefs on big themes
The culmination of this is STPP’s think tank activities. Motivated by the idea of translational work from the scientific bench to bedside or the business school case study model, STPP faculty and students develop policy briefs through think tank activities that address a significant challenge in technology and society through its Technology Assessment Project.
Last year, their policy report provided an analysis on using AI in school settings (link) (spoiler alert: don’t do it). “This was very well received; it hit at just the right time for good press. We were raising issues that weren’t getting raised and did so in a scholarly way.”
These reports can help address the unknown or unanticipated challenges, as each new technology raises new concerns and developers or scientists often don’t know how to anticipate these concerns or issues. They can help predict implications and develop better governance mechanisms.
Their next very timely report deals with vaccine hesitancy, examining beyond superficial surveys to understand where distrust in science and medicine comes from,how it differs in cost to different communities, and what we can do about it.
Corporate interest, not enough solutions
“People are paying attention to equity issues and there’s not a set of standard tools on what to do about that. You see many companies have responsible AI practices, bioethics, and corporate responsibility efforts that acknowledge the need to think purposefully about public good. We are developing those tools and practices to help them get there.
Industry has an interest in supporting the creation of computer scientists who think about ethics centrally, for example, down to the specific implications of the code they are writing.”
Just a news scan makes evident there’s a great deal of concern that, by and large, science and technology fields are not diverse, don’t include marginalized communities and tech doesn’t properly service historically disadvantaged communities.
STPP hopes to help. “Our students want to think about science and technology in social, ethical and political contexts. They want to address big questions: How can they build technological advances to build a better world? How can they create better, more effective public interest oriented policies? By adding ethical and equity dimensions in coursework and exposing them to academic literature in social science, humanities and public policy thinking, they leave here with an interdisciplinary toolkit and a unique experience.”
STPP students go on to jobs in the policy arena, congressional offices, industry, consulting, tech companies, patent lawyers, academia. (And increasingly can work for companies like yours.)
Research and support for STPP will help the program grow to serve new audiences and cover a greater number of research topics though increasing think tank activities. Organizations interested in partnering on this research can fund grants or partner for specific applied industrial consulting that is linked to the Technology Assessment Project (link) for more targeted research projects.
Parthasarathy adds, as any great faculty member would, “And of course, internship partnerships for applied experience, hiring STPP students into new practices that think about these issues, would be a win-win for all of us.”