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Discussing the Fukushima Daiichi Catastrophe

Other chapters in this book convey the experience of planning and hosting the summer school. The week in August 2011 was eye-opening in so many ways. The students showed an unusual willingness to play along with an experiment that went against much of their previous training. Social scientists are used to deeply unresolvable problems; in fact, we often take pleasure (at least the academics among us) in societal complexity and the absence of a single right answer. Our summer school attendees remarked on their bewilderment: how to chart a course through the thicket of conflicting perspectives and options.

To my mind, the most compelling parts of the summer school were not about content—the lectures by experts, the formulation of problems to be tackled, or even the conclusions that the student teams articulated on the last day. What was most impressive was the process, how it all unfolded. The organizers and discussion leaders managed to make space for future engineers to speak analytically and non-defensively about the failures that led into the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. It was not out of line to talk about the “nuclear village”—and also to subject that concept to some pretty stringent critique. Some students found a voice to speak from their own experience in ways that I doubt they would have tried in a regular NE classroom. Several said that whatever the caveats attached to formal projections of risk, they had never believed that an accident of this sort could actually happen. And now that it had happened, it could happen again. It also took deliberate social engineering to make room for open-ended discussions. Along with turning off the video camera (documenting for the purpose of Japanese reporting to funders) and a no-powerpoint rule for final presentations, it made a difference that we were in a setting outside the classrooms in Etcheverry, in downtown Berkeley, near several bars.

It is tempting to live out of the inspiration of the summer school and to present it in the reporting language of demonstrated success. And yet I do not think of it as a straight-ahead model for future educational programs, at least not in this oneshot form. Asking the students to do little preparation, in a week of lectures and Q&A we could only get so far. When we made our way past the initial technical presentations to take up societal issues, it was not clear that social scientists were seen as having anything different to offer from engineers speaking in the same vein. And in the student discussions, inevitably, the content of “social science” was largely topical, without much sense of methodological challenge. Social science ended up being about its subject matter, society, rather than about ways of querying human behavior at a level above an individual's consciousness, analytically looking at institutions, structures, or patterns.[1]

I wish I had made more time and space to speak directly to questions about method. (My role in the week was as a co-organizer of the school and an intervener in discussion, but not a formal presenter, for once.) What I believe we actually accomplished in the summer school was learning how to start and structure these exchanges. My own sense is that their success (or not) will be seen off in the future, as the conversations we have started will continue to play out. Reflections in the wake of the summer school by our students and their postdoctoral mentors give me hope [4, 26–28].

Closing Observations

I have come out of the PAGES project with a more informed willingness to engage with engineering students, structured by a strong sense of the operational constraints. Really engaging the students successfully means starting with them where they are, iteratively exploring with them rather than lecturing at them—whatever the expectations that their own field sets about how education actually works. Exploring in this way is a challenge to do within the framework of their existing curriculum. At least, it is a challenge to do in a satisfactory way. More time and depth are needed to get past the flattening of social science to a set of recognizable tools or a body of largely pre-intuitable societal knowledge. We will need more, and longer-term, engagements if we want to get across its power as a set of alternative methodological strategies for getting a grip on the world.

The starting point for the PAGES collaboration was this realization: interdisciplinary collaboration is hard. That proved true all along the way. When it succeeded in PAGES, the outcome had much to do with trust, voice, and personal relationships. The only adequate way to close is with admiration for those colleagues and NE students and postdocs who made it possible for social scientists to engage with nuclear engineers.

  • [1] For similar reflections see Sunderland 2014 in this volume [3].
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