Daniel Lee Kleinman and Jo Handelsman first sparred in 1995, when the University of Wisconsin, Madison sociologist spent six months as a guest in Handelsman's plant pathology lab. The sociologist's goal was to find out how financial incentives - say, profits from selling microorganisms as therapeutics - might shape the day-to-day workings of a laboratory.
Immersing himself in lab culture, Kleinman did some experiments of his own, looking for an antibiotic resistance gene in bacterial samples. In his interactions with Handelsman and her research team, he was struck by a disconnect between the work scientists do and its social implications. During lab meetings, for example, he remembers when Handelsman would segue from a discussion on a public scientific debate by asking her group to turn to the science itself. At the same time, he documented his observations on the scientists' motivations.
At the end of the six months, when Kleinman passed out an article preceding the book he would later write from the experience, Impure Cultures, he recalls Handelsman looking horrified. For one thing, she thought he hadn't fairly captured their passion for the science. In the margin of one manuscript, Kleinman found a scribbled note from one of her graduate students: "So you think except for the bacteria, we're all a bunch of moneygrubbers?"
He wasn't surprised. Anyone might bristle under the cool scrutiny of a sociologist, but Kleinman says that scientists, raised on the merits of individual achievement, may be particularly sensitive to charges that their work is influenced by social and economic forces beyond their control - the idea that grant funding sources help determine research directions, for instance.
But Kleinman talked through their concerns, incorporating some perceived omissions (including their passion for discovery) into the final book. And while he pushed their buttons, Handelsman says they needed to be pushed. "This was just a fabulous experience for my students," says Handelsman, "because whether he was right or wrong, or his work was good or bad, or they liked it or they didn't, there was no question that he provoked graduate students in the biological sciences to think differently about who they were as scientists, and what objectivity in science is and what external forces shape what we do." Several picked up books by science philosophers, says Kleinman, and elevator rides prompted conversations about how the scientific method differs from social science approaches.
So when Kleinman called her six years later with an idea for a book series, one that sought to expose scientists to the plurality of opinions on science and technology issues, she was immediately on board. Without understanding all the arguments, says Handelsman, researchers can't enter a debate. It didn't hurt that the two had become close friends.
The first volume, Controversies in Science & Technology - From Maize to Menopause, tackled everything from smallpox and bioterrorism to hormone replacement therapy. The second book, scheduled for release early next year, will explore the NASA space program and the genetics of gender. Though the book is meant to be accessible to laypeople, Kleinman bills it as something of a primer for scientists who "don't have the time or the intellectual space to think about the social implications of their work" and a demonstration of how a single body of data - say, on global warming - can be interpreted in multiple ways by different scientists and policymakers.
For a section on stem cell research, contributors included a priest, a rabbi, and an Islamic scholar, as well as a developmental biologist and managing director and staff writer for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. In late March, during an impromptu visit from this chapter's Catholic voice - biologist-turned-priest Tadeusz Pacholczyk - the argument was lifted off the page into real life when he, Handelsman, and other essay contributors exchanged harsh words over a breakfast gathering: Father Pacholczyk accused stem cell researchers of "committing evil acts," according to Handelsman, while she called his biological arguments inconsistent.
It was the kind of uncomfortable but important difference in opinions that Handelsman and Kleinman have come to appreciate. Says Kleinman: "The key word is understanding rather than duking it out."