Data at the UN


Over two years at Seed Scientific, we designed and implemented a strategy — called MY World — to incorporate real-time data into the Sustainable Development Goals process. This was unprecedented in numerous ways and required technological and behavioral change. Now, with the Global Goals successfully in place, the UN has started to evaluate what role data played in achieving this outcome. Says Ban Ki-moon:

“MY World has shown how international organizations, together with civil society groups, can use data to feed people’s perceptions and priorities into the heart of the political process.” — Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 2015

I think we are witnessing the birth of a new mechanism for modern global governance: data-mediated, individual-level participation in global deliberations. The implications of this innovation are, I believe, potentially quite profound.


Multilateralism Returns

Against the backdrop of epic, global failure in Syria, 2015 was a bright, banner year for multilateralism. The world convened in New York in September to approve the Sustainable Development Goals and set out a comprehensive plan to end poverty and hunger and reduce global inequalities over the next 15 years. In December in Paris, 195 nations signed a landmark climate agreement that will keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Earlier this fall, the P5+1 saved the world from a potential nuclear risk in Iran.

In times of rising individualism and complexity, it bodes well for the planet that we still have the courage and capability to come together and solve issues systemically and as one.



I’m hiring a Research Assistant

I am looking to hire a part-time Research Assistant to work with me on a special book project.

  • You have studied or are well-read in the history and philosophy of science
  • You are passionate about the relationship between science and society
  • You have excellent written communication skills
  • You are a diligent researcher
  • You are ideally based in New York City

To apply, please send your resume and a cover letter addressing the points above to


Upcoming Talks

I will be speaking this month about two topics on my mind: crafting a new value exchange — between people, companies, governments, and society — for the data era; and striking a balance between human and algorithmic intervention in the design of data-driven solutions and products. — April 16, London

MoMA R&D Salon: The Way of the Algorithm — April 29, New York


Why We’re Stuck on Climate Change: A Hypothesis

In a new survey of 1.5 million citizens in 193 countries conducted by the United Nations to inform the Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals process, “action taken on climate change” is — alarmingly, notes The Washington Post — the least important global priority (out of 16). One could reasonably conclude that the prevailing climate change narrative — of a pale blue dot in peril — is just not hitting the mark.

And so it is a reasonable strategy for the Senators laudably standing up for climate this week to try a data-rich, scientific narrative to make their case to the American public. “When 97% to 98% of the scientists say something is real they don’t have anything pressing them to say that except the truth,” began Senator Boxer. “We stand with science,” she later added. “Scientists entertain doubt… Deniers cannot in good conscience use the scientific process as evidence that doubt still exists,” implored Senator Schatz. “If we do nothing to stop climate change, scientific models project that there’s a real possibility of sea levels increasing by 4 feet by the end of century,” continued Senator Feinstein. “Science has clearly shown that the planet is warming.” Senator Whitehouse went so far as to elucidate the peer review process.

It’s a compelling — even emboldening — narrative to a scientifically literate audience. Except America is scientifically illiterate.

According to the National Science Foundation’s recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80% of Americans do not understand what it means to study something scientifically.

“To be classified as understanding scientific study, the survey respondent had to answer correctly (1) When you read news stories, you see certain sets of words and terms. We are interested in how many people recognize certain kinds of terms. First, some articles refer to the results of a scientific study. When you read or hear the term scientific study, do you have a clear understanding of what it means, a general sense of what it means, or little understanding of what it means? and (2) (If “clear understanding” or “general sense” response) In your own words, could you tell me what it means to study something scientifically? (Formulation of theories/test hypothesis, experiments/control group, or rigorous/systematic comparison).”

(Since 2008, this figure has climbed from 77%.)

As America becomes increasingly science-dependent — the output of science affects us individually and nationally on a daily basis, and the complex nature of national and global concerns requires the tools and methods of science to navigate — this stunning illiteracy threatens our national competitiveness, security, economy, and perhaps most alarmingly, the future of our democracy.

And, tonight, it renders America numb to the profoundly important arguments about climate change being advanced by our elected leaders. How can we pass and enact critical legislation based on scientific evidence when the vast majority of the country does not know what science is, how a scientific conclusion comes to be, or what it implies?

Sadly, we probably can’t. And to make matters worse, our scientific illiteracy renders us impressionable to misinformation about everything — including climate change — imbuing national conversations with deleterious counter-narratives (that appear “scientific” for strategic reasons).

In the interest of our competitiveness, security, economy, and democracy, in the 21st century every single citizen of the United States of America should know what science is. All citizens should be able to apply the scientific method — a majority of the country should have the propensity to do so — and everyone should appreciate science’s limits (that is, for example, the very foundational relationship with truth underlined by Senator Schatz). (And a majority should understand basic scientific knowledge constructs and concepts — what we commonly associate with being “scientifically literate.”)

It is important to underscore that knowing what science is and making decisions solely based on science are not the same goal. This is about raising the tide and assuring the honesty of the public sphere. If as a country we choose to periodically reject scientific evidence or thinking — in lieu of an economic, political, or religious lens, for example — at least we will be on the same page when we do, employing and transparently weighing scientific evidence in our deliberations not debating the merits of scientific evidence.

These goals require sustained, post-partisan leadership. This week’s historic all-night Senate session is an opportunity to put them in motion.


Visiting Fellowship at Harvard

I’m very excited to be joining Harvard Kennedy School this fall as Visiting Senior Fellow in the Program on Science, Technology & Society (in addition to my role at Seed).

I will be focusing on the modernization of science’s place in society, specifically along three dimensions: (i) the narrative for science in society; (ii) science-based advice to government; and (iii) science’s role in global governance.

The rise of “Big Data” and the associated cultural movement will play an important role in my research.

I will be updating this blog more regularly with updates on my research and writing.

I’ve long admired the work of Sheila Jasanoff and the STS program and am very much looking forward to having the time and space to immerse into issues that I care so deeply about.