When a recent midnight screening of the 1987 film RoboCop drew sci-fi fans to a downtown Santa Cruz theater, not everyone was in line for entertainment. Two UC Santa Cruz students in an innovative research program set up the showing to provoke conversations about science and the society it’s supposed to serve.

When the film first premiered, cyborg cops were pure fiction. But today’s technologies–brain-powered artificial limbs, self-driving cars, and the Apple Watch to share your every heartbeat with others–chip away at the boundaries between man and machine, often with unintended consequences. The breakneck pace of innovation leaves little time for questions. And questioning scientific advances after the fact is often far too late, said event co-organizer Jennifer Trinh, a graduate student in physics.

“We have these dreams of quantum computers and augmented realities, but where will they end up?” asked Trinh.

“Slow science” may be the antidote to this accelerating pace. The term fits the inquisitive, cross-disciplinary approach of UCSC’s Science and Justice Research Center. In a one-of-a-kind training fellowship sponsored by the center, Trinh and eight other graduate students are learning to probe the implications of their science, long before their research results leave the lab.

“With science and technology taking off, we can’t just do it because it’s in front of our face,” said physicist and philosopher Karen Barad, co-director of the training program. “Older models of ethics say there are questions of pure scientific knowledge, and then there are questions of uses. But the world doesn’t divide like that. You can’t say: I’m just building the [atomic] bomb, and what happens after that isn’t my responsibility.”

Seeing the more subtle shades of justice isn’t easy either. “Justice is always a question,” Barad said. “It would be ironic to presume to know what justice was beforehand, and then make sure that happens.”

Barad founded the Science and Justice Training Program with Jenny Reardon, now a professor of sociology at UCSC and director of the Science and Justice Research Center. Drawing on the deep science backgrounds and keen sense of inquiry that both women share, the program is “for all those young scientists and engineers out there who also care about social issues,” said Reardon.

Such an opportunity didn’t exist when Reardon, as a 14-year-old, conducted marine biology experiments in the basement of her Kansas home. Her efforts won the grand award in environmental sciences at the 1987 General Motors International Science and Engineering Fair. As an undergraduate, she earned degrees in political science and biology from the University of Kansas. Then, poised to fast track into molecular biology research, Reardon realized she didn’t want to spend the rest of her professional life with a pipette in her hand; she had other interests, too. Through graduate studies, fellowships and teaching positions at several universities, she tried to bridge her love of natural sciences with her passion for humanities and public policy. But she never found the right interdisciplinary fit until she arrived at UCSC–a campus with the right combination of like-minded colleagues and innovative culture–to create what she’d been looking for all along.

“Santa Cruz is known for creating new conversations,” said Reardon. “So, Science and Justice [Research Center] was possible here.”

When Reardon arrived at UCSC with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), she allocated some of that money to host a meeting on genomics and justice. Since UCSC scientists devised the database that allows researchers to examine the human genome, Reardon thought the campus was the perfect place to start.

Before that first conference convened, Reardon and her new colleagues talked about how to create an intellectual community that would keep the discussions going, long after the meeting ended. Partly inspired by a ride on the Great Meadow’s spectacular bike path, they conceived of “a working group of interested students, research staff, and faculty committed to gathering questions about science and justice.” Thus, the Science and Justice Working Group (SJWG) was born: the forerunner for the training program, the center, and all the innovations to follow.

Early on, the SJWG found that focusing on specific problems provided an effective way for people to share their expertise. For instance, former anthropology graduate students Cris Hughes and Chelsey Juarez turned to Reardon for guidance during their field research in Mexico’s state of Baja California. As part of a team that was trying to identify human bodies, the two were stymied by the required categories for assigning race. Anthropologists had developed the forensics racial database in the American South, so it didn’t represent all bodies found elsewhere. The inappropriate categories made it hard to properly ID the bodies and return them to their families. To change those measures, the researchers would need DNA from relatives–but the Mexican communities viewed such technology with suspicion.

“If these families are not reached, or are less inclined to provide DNA samples, the identification potential drops significantly,” Hughes noted. “It’s just another example of how science can greatly inform [us] on social justice issues.”

To help, the SJWG convened “conversations” with forensic professionals, social scientists and historians. Through these dialogues, Hughes and Juarez developed a deeper understanding of the problem. This led to key relationships with other scientists who partnered with them to create a survey on forensics and the approach to race. Now, both women work with a richer set of tools and continue to transform ideas about race within their profession.

Such successes prompted Reardon to apply for a grant under the NSF’s Ethics Education in Science and Engineering Program. Working with Barad and postdoctoral fellow Jake Metcalf, she used the funds to formalize the working group approach into the Science and Justice Training Program. Launched in 2010, the program encourages applications from graduate students in any field–from engineering to digital arts. In addition to their regular studies, the selected fellows take a special seminar course, attend six “working group” events, and work in pairs to produce a public event related to their research. This work now leads to a graduate certificate, which the students earn alongside their traditional doctoral degrees. Since the program’s inception, 24 certificates have been awarded.

The film festival featuring RoboCop was the joint public project of Jennifer Trinh and Jeff Sherman, a Ph.D. candidate in politics. Sherman’s own research explores the increasingly complex ties between military drones and international policy. “Going through this fellowship program opened my eyes to whole new areas of research I never would have thought to investigate,” said Sherman.

Partnering physicist Trinh with political scientist Sherman is an example of the choreographed mixing that gives the graduate fellows experience in creating “awkward conversations,” said Andrew Mathews, an associate professor of anthropology and co-director of the research center. With dual degrees in anthropology and forestry, Mathews understands how hard it is to build bridges across the natural and social sciences. “It takes [the fellows] out of their comfort zone,” he said. “But that’s the place to be, because questions of justice come up when you’re not doing ‘business as usual.’”

Navigating issues outside of one’s field also takes trust, which comes from creating a community among individuals with disparate academic backgrounds. They gather at potluck dinners, faux fireside chats (the fire is drawn on a dry-erase board), and low-pressure mixers where students discuss their projects-in-progress. In 2011, the Science and Justice Research Center, under Reardon’s direction, became the umbrella organization for that community.

Beyond the graduate fellowship, events sponsored by the SJRC range from conference-room chats–such as a recent discussion with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from UCSC–to three-day conferences that draw keynote speakers such as science fiction author Ursula Le Guin.

The SJRC also creates interdisciplinary opportunities through a visiting professor position. This three-year appointment attracted award-winning journalist Sally Lehrman, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Among her contributions to UCSC, Lehrman teaches an op-ed writing workshop for the graduate fellows, and she encourages them to write about their research for non-scientific audiences.

“In journalism we want our work not just to be something people pick up and read, but something people see as fuel for their engagement in society,” said Lehrman. “That’s the same instinct that Jenny [Reardon] is talking about–the feeling that the public should be involved in the future of science.”

For that to occur, Reardon knows that SJRC must take its programs off campus. She’s looking for ways to create civic spaces–perhaps in city churches–where people can discuss the challenges new technology poses for the future.