In Profile: Kenneth Oye

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A political scientist aims to help governments assess the potential risks of new technologies.

When the devastating earthquake centered near Sendai, Japan, struck in March, Kenneth Oye knew he was in a safe place: a parking lot in Tokyo, with a delegation representing the U.S.-Japan Council, a nonprofit group devoted to strengthening relations between the countries. After all, open areas are safe, and besides, Japan’s earthquake-safety codes are among the world’s most stringent.

On the other hand, when word got out that the nuclear reactors near Fukushima were suffering problems, Oye became concerned. Japan’s nuclear-power industry has a significant history of troubles, such as an accident and management-ordered cover-up at one plant in 1999; Oye, who has studied the subject, says there have been instances of a “lack of integrity and forthrightness” in the country when it comes to nuclear power.

How can the regulatory system in one country be so proactive about one type of risk, and ineffective regarding another? In the case of Japan, Oye suggests, it is a matter of vision — literally. In a country with regular earthquakes, the public can see when building codes are lacking. But with nuclear power, problems usually remain out of public view, reducing pressure on the country’s regulators.

“Sometimes you need visible manifestations of failure and visible manifestations of improvement, and this is a place where it’s clear,” Oye says of Japan’s mixed record on public safety.

As an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Political Science and the Engineering Systems Division, Oye has become an expert in the way governments assess the potential risks posed by new technologies. And since 2004, as a founder of MIT’s Program on Emerging Technologies (PoET), Oye has been working to create an ongoing forum through which policymakers, scientists and other scholars can discuss the best ways of regulating technologies such as synthetic biology and ubiquitous computing.

“These issues are not simply going to vanish if we don’t talk about them,” Oye says.

Planned adaptation: Preparing for change

Oye’s own intellectual trajectory started well outside the study of technology. He received his undergraduate degree in economics and political science from Swarthmore College and his PhD in political science from Harvard University, then spent years focusing on Cold War and post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. By the mid-1990s, however, Oye started focusing more on international technology policies, especially in the area of energy. He even helped draft a report at the time, presented to Japanese officials, suggesting improvements in Japan’s nuclear-power system.

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