A Harvard Pioneer for Science and Society
By Josh Burek
Norman Mailer. Leonard Bernstein. T.S. Eliot. Robert Frost. Those are just some of the famous winners of Harvard Signet Society’s prestigious Signet Award. This spring, one of the Belfer Center’s most admired members was added to their ranks: Dorothy Shore Zinberg. In announcing the prize, the Society saluted Zinberg for “bringing science to society and society to science.” It is a fitting description of her life’s work, but also a pithy summary of the Belfer Center that she has done so much to cultivate.
Together with Paul Doty, Michael Nacht, and Al Carnesale, Dr. Zinberg is recognized as one of the founders of the Belfer Center. From the outset, they envisioned an intellectual community that would, in current Director Ash Carter’s words, “combine the spirit of science and the life of the mind with practical affairs.”
Leveraging her own remarkable background as both a biochemist and sociologist, Zinberg has mentored generations of scientists, particularly female ones, to help them apply their research effectively on behalf of a more secure, peaceful world. The legacy began with a note of dissent she delivered to one of Harvard’s most famous professors. As a young teaching fellow, Zinberg appreciated psychologist Erik Erikson’s “brilliant” lectures on human development, but, after one class, she noted to him that they took no account of women. His response—“So you do it”—became an important impetus for Zinberg’s pioneering work in higher education.
“There were just a few women teaching fellows on the entire faculty, and the suggestion that I take on responsibility for a subset of lectures in the course was startling,” Zinberg recalls. “I wrote two lectures which in turn opened up an entirely new world of opportunities. When Derek Bok became President, I worked with him on the future of women at Harvard, and the many subsequent grants I received in science and technology policy always contained a sample of women.”
That experience has made her a valuable member of many boards, committees, and advisory panels, including the Board of International Scientific Exchanges at the National Academy of Sciences; the American Association for the Advancement of Science Committee on Science and Social Responsibility; the National Science Foundation Program on Ethical and Human Value Implications of Science; the Erik Erikson Scholars at Austen Riggs Institute; and at Harvard, a founding member of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society; a faculty associate at Harvard Law School; and an affiliate of the Center for Public Leadership. She has also been a consultant to Chase Manhattan Bank, the MITRE corporation, and the MacArthur, Carnegie, Sloane, and Ford Foundations. Beyond Harvard, she has served as a Distinguished Fellow of the Aspen Institute, a member of the International Council for Science Policy Studies, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
As director of seminars and events in formative years, it was Zinberg who helped establish the Belfer Center’s reputation for unmatched convening power, attracting world-renowned scientists, academics, government officials, journalists, and military and business leaders. “She was the founder who really developed the Center’s spirit of collaboration,” said Steven Miller, Director of the Center’s International Security Program. This collaboration extended to the classroom environment. “I might have the title of teacher but I have learned as much from students as they have from me,” she said “At least I hope they feel this way.”
Today, Zinberg is a frequent participant and guest of honor at the Center’s lunch discussions and seminars. She is working on a history of the graduates of the Chemistry Department at University College London (1968-2018).
To the students at Harvard Kennedy School and the Center, Zinberg offers a piece of wisdom embraced by her late husband, Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Norman Zinberg, and originally gleaned from the author James Thurber: “Don’t get it right. Get it written.”