An opportunity for you to play a role in the future of EASST
We are seeking self-nominations for the following vacancy on EASST Council (following an unsuccessful earlier call). The position is for 4 years (but some previous student members have stepped down after 2 years if they are no longer a student). There will be an online election where all current EASST members will be able to vote.
To learn more about the recent work of the Council and the opportunities and challenges ahead please read our out-going President’s article in the latest EASST Review at https://www.easst.net/article/easst-achievements-opportunities/. A list of current council members can be found at https://www.easst.net/about-easst/easst-council-members/ and the formal roles of the president and council are described in the EASST constitution https://www.easst.net/about-easst/easst-constitution/. You are welcome to contact the President or one of the existing Council members (emails on the website) for more information. Candidates need to be a current student member of EASST.
If you are interested in this position, please nominate yourself by sending an email to easst(at)univie.ac.at providing a short statement (no more than 250 words) introducing yourself and saying why you are interested in standing for the Council and what skills and experiences you would bring to the role. This statement will be made available to those voting.
Nominations must be received by Friday 13th January 2017.
The election will open soon after nominations close and all members will be sent an email with details of how to vote.
A note from Márton Fabók
Dear fellow PhD students,
As the outgoing EASST student representative, I would like to encourage you to nominate yourself to become the student member of EASST Council.
The student representative is a full Council member. The EASST Council takes decisions collegially, and often subdivides tasks among members (see this and other issues of the EASST Review for our latest activities!), so it is more than just raising a voice for fellow postgrad students and early career researchers. There are generally two Council meetings a year; one is often adjoining the EASST conference. Council membership is voluntary work for the community, but travels to meetings and accommodation are fully reimbursed.
Personally, being a student rep was one of the best things during my PhD. It provided a unique perspective to understand how our STS community and generally academia across different national settings work. Coming from a non-STS department, this was a great way for me to be involved in the discipline. The nice and collegial atmosphere of the Council provides a very supportive environment, so it’s really up to you how do you contribute to STS in Europe. For example, I have learnt a lot from the activities I was involved in, such as organising the postgraduate workshop before the biannual conference or revamping the EASST Fund. All in all, I fully recommend you to think about what you would do as a council member and to take a brave step to nominate yourself to the student rep position.
Please email me if you have any questions or have something to share at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An event as the EASST/4S annual meeting can be a key object to study the ever- forming discipline of science studies. I will try to use my scattered experiences of two different tracks to draw a few draft conclusions about some methodological features of our discipline, and propose some more critical research questions that could shape science studies.
In the track Open Science we heard presentations, among them many case studies on how and which actors should be and are included in science (for example local communities affected by macro-level political decisions about the environment, the general public concerning GMO, Wikipedia-contributors, lay biologists, urban communities, etc.). There were lively discussions about who thinks what is important about open science. We also heard recommendations how to achieve the goal of “open science”. A considerable part of the scholars working on open science (and some of them presenting in Barcelona) are also working in policy-related committees or other organizations to foster open science.
Often, open science is contrasted with the issue of whom the data belongs to. Making such a contrast — we have to be aware — constructs a space where property issues are opposed to a concept of an open science where openness is a normatively positive entity (which should be achieved, with the help of scholars/experts in committees). If we understand science in this manner and in this context of contrast, then propriety issues will tend to attain a negative connotation. However, in my incomplete perception of this track and its presenters, not very often were such ontological questions about the category “open science” asked: it was not in the main focus to address why and with the help of which people or groups this category emerged and was shaped during history; under what political, cultural, scientific contexts it operates; what functions it has or had in shaping society, business, culture or science. Rather, most of the time, the discussions covered the different semantics of open science (of course, not always — for a detailed and thorough analysis of the track see Mayer and Aibar’s review in this issue, analysing the different semantics of openness in the presentations as well), about the different perceptions (for example of stakeholders, policy-makers) on what open science is, or about how open science is performed (on Wikipedia, in journals, in participatory science projects, etc.). We also heard many presentations on the question of how to implement open science; this latter question can be characterized as presupposing a normative understanding of open science.
The notion of openness that was so frequently used has not really been critically analysed in the majority of the contributions — apart from few, but notable exceptions. It seems for sure that “openness” is positively connoted. Such a connotation has been part of Western scientific tradition since modernity (see for example Merton’s scientific norm of communism, Merton 1942). In his paper on magic and science, talking about historiography, Láng (2015:127) rightly points out that “(r)esearchers simply accepted the view that openness is a positive value that supports academic research, and that secrecy, which is more characteristic of the history of technology, was fortunately abandoned by modern science.” But Láng (2015: 125) also observes that “many scholars have shown how secrecy in science became not only a tool of protecting knowledge from intellectual competitors, but also a dynamic social practice, a force that creates and organizes groups, and influences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion”. The analysis of these and similar questions in relation to the many practices around the definition and practice of so-called “open science” might produce valuable knowledge for science studies.
In a way Western democracy seems to be the normative backdrop of the dialogue on open science; but let us play a little bit: What could be the antonym of open science? It could be many things: closed science, science for the few, science for the privileged ones, etc. All of the antonyms shed light on one or another aspect of open science that could be studied by science studies scholars, ever more so if we wanted to accept the normatively positive notion of open science, as it is widely accepted nowadays. Some questions for future empirical analyses of scientific practices could include: What are the normative, scientific or political stakes for different disciplines in performing the movement of open science? Which groups are leading the discussion in this field? Why and how do disciplines, scholars, policy-makers focus on activities regarded as fostering open science? What are the performances in this field? What is regarded as closed science? How does this narrative of bad closed and good open science shape scientific activities? How did this opposition come into being in the first place? These possible questions would shed light on open science from a meta-level: they would show us the processes how the concept of open science is shaped culturally, socially or scientifically, and those cultural, scientific or social entities and their networks that emerge from these processes. Such an approach would not focus on – as did many of the excellent presentation we heard in the track — how a pre-defined “open science” is made, manufactured, constructed, performed or used. It would rather study how the thing we now call “open science” came into place, what its ontological status is, what its changing roles and relationships are in the cultural, political, scientific landscapes of other entities. Steven Shapin (2008: 222-223), in a similar approach, describes for example how what we now define as openness was a normality in the 1970s among biologists in the academia, most of them living scarcely off their salaries; but when the industry became aware of the profitable nature of genetics, scientists were tempted to change their workplace and work in less open circumstances. The opposition in the narratives about dirty secretive industry as opposed to pure and virtuous open science emerged because of these developments: “Since there was no money, a sense of sainthood was required in the situation”, said a student about research in academia (Philip J. Hilts: Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science, quoted by Shapin 2008: 223).
I will now propose some possible similar research questions based on another field in science studies, dealing with scientific data. Again, I will focus on what could be an ontological analysis about the emergence and ever-changing status of the different things we in STS call “data”.
In the track “Lives and Deaths of Data” the focus of many of the talks was on the different ways of the “interpretation” of data, the different stops of their “journey”, the “changes” in the translations of data.1 The topics were, among others: sensitive health “data” and their context, discussions around and interpretations of astronomical “data”, “data” sharing practices and inequalities, the commodification of “data”, configurations of public and non-public “data”, etc. Among the many possible definitions of data there was one feature that came up quite often: that data is something that can be circulated (implying as well that it can be used several times).
The secondary use of scientific data, that seems to be one defining feature of data in this view, has been a contested issue for decades. The relationship of what is usually called metadata and data or the relationship of data and context are not self-evident. Even these distinctions are under scientific scrutiny (Mauthner-Gárdos 2015). Postmodern theories have questioned the assumption that data are neutral or objective representations of the world. Performative scholars (Barad 2007) have challenged representationalist approaches (many of them postmodernist or constructivist ones); such approaches, these scholars say, still stick to the view that scientific data somehow represent natural or social worlds (even if these approaches do not necessarily narrate around terms like objectivity or subjectivity). It would be interesting to analyse — in a performative approach — how the notion that data can be circulated itself presupposes a specific notion of data and thus a specific way how data can be analysed; a question that has not quite been in the focus of the presentations in this track. If we understand data as something that can be circulated (and many presenters in this track shared this view), then one of the foci of such science studies analyses about data will be the ways data circulate or data are transmitted, and how different people “interpret” the “same” data. Scientific data will be a well-defined entity without borders that are contested, without ends that may fray. Science on data will be then somewhat less on what cultural, scientific, social, etc. traditions and surroundings influence what counts as data in the first place2, on what in our world does not qualify as scientific data, let alone on the ways how we as science studies scholars choose our objects of study; short: on the ontological status of data in sciences (in relation for example to other types of data, or other similar entities in sciences that end up not being called data) and, importantly: on data as the object of scientific enquiry in STS. In this track, the main focus – of course with exceptions, mostly ethnographic, close-up analyses of processes that result in the production of entities then called data – was less on these latter aspects.
It might be fruitful, if we want to reflect on our own methods as scientists, to look at our ways how we define data, or open science (or anything else as a matter of fact) and at the causes of selection of things that seem worthy of analysing. Also, I propose to analyse to greater extent the ontology of data or open science: what is regarded as data or open/closed science, which scientific, methodological or other traditions influence how these notions came into being in a specific scientific discipline at a specific time in history, at a specific place on Earth.
So: the questions that might be valuable to elaborate and that were – in my view – a bit underrepresented in the tracks under review: What is regarded/defined as data or open science and what not? What are the disciplinary, methodological, political etc. factors that play a role in the processes of and the practices resulting in a specific definition? What are the factors that lead to the concept of open (and closed) science and that of scientific data? How is the relationship of the things that then are called “world” and “data” in different methods, sciences and societies? Through which terms, methods and concepts is this distinction conceptualized, made through different practices, and then used in scientific narratives and texts or in the politics and policies of science? It seems to me that science studies might greatly benefit from including approaches and research questions about the ontology and historicity of the objects we choose to study and thus, in and through our actions and choices as researchers, bring into being as scientific objects.
1 I quote here the introductory speech of this track by Sabina Leonelli.
2 One of the notable exceptions in this track was Haider’s and Kjellberg’s analysis about the relationship of the structure of a big scale experimental facility and the type of data it produces. They stressed that the meaning of data starts before researchers begin their work.
Open Science (OS) is currently regarded as the next ‘big thing’ in European science policy and elsewhere (Mayer 2015; Levin et al. 2016). It is broadly defined as science that is transparent, accountable, and shareable, involving the participation of (all) relevant stakeholders in the scientific process. Policy visions do not only highlight the transformative powers of OS in regard to research culture, they are also setting high expectations in regard to creation of economic growth, new jobs and innovation opportunities. In practice, tensions are emerging in how OS is enacted and governed by scientific communities, science policy organisations, funding bodies, the publishing industry, and science-related institutions, with diverse uptakes of commons, knowledge sharing, democratisation of technology, participatory design, hacking etc.
This conference track invited participants to explore OS from an STS perspective and to discuss what STS can bring into the broader discussion of OS, e.g. by studying institutionalizations of OS, appropriations of OS within prevailing traditional epistemic culture, or how OS is co-shaped by negotiation processes promoted by different stakeholders. Presentations covered socio-technical dimensions of openness in sciences – including the social sciences and humanities. There was less discussion of the “sticks and carrots” (Leonelli et al. 2015) or the perceived benefits to researchers, research organisations and funding agents of utilising open scientific methods, the “disincentives and barriers, and the degree to which there is evidence to support these perceptions” (Whyte & Pryor 2011) – though one of the papers remarked how pressures on scientists to collaborate with industry and commercialize their work, within the framework of open innovation, can work against policy expectations to share research data and results [Sánchez-Jiménez/Aibar]. The aim of the conference track was therefore not to gain consensus over how to define open science in research practice, nor to reach a conclusion on how STS should approach these matters. On the contrary it was an attempt to grasp the multitude of enactments of openness and approaches to study it without being normative about its valuation1.
Most of the discussions in the four sessions revolved around diverse (and unusual non-idealized) forms of co-production of knowledge in various open configurations – involvement of local communities [Albagli et al.], local expertise [Dosemagen] and interdisciplinary collaboration [Oberhauser], hackathons, open consultation processes [Noel, Gruson-Daniel], the open and collaborative editing of scientific articles in Wikipedia [Aibar/Lerga], replication of scientific results, open institutional policies, open access publishing and its abuse by predatory publishers [Wyatt] and so forth. Eighteen speakers told very diverging stories about challenges and limits of collaborations in open settings, some highlighting the need for both normative and legal frameworks in order to safeguard open practices. [Spök et al] particularly pointed to the need of closed spaces for debate in controversy and risk research.
A number of speakers – involved in ongoing open science or citizen science initiatives – focused on collaboration between academia and different kinds of local communities in several countries [Fressoli/Arza]. The relevance and role of lay-expertise and the design of hybrid and innovative institutional settings were highlighted as key points in such experiences. The focus was implicitly moved, from open science as a more effective way of producing science, to open science as a new way to engage citizens (mainly as specific community members) and other stakeholders as active agents in the development of more socially robust research. While open science is commonly associated with access to peer-reviewed knowledge, the emphasis in our conference track was shifted towards peer production.
This line of inquiry understands open science as a social learning venture where the process itself is even more important than the specific scientific outcomes or products than can arise out of it. Consistently with this move from open science as product-oriented to open science as process-oriented, institutional experimentation and the involvement of local communities are considered much more important than technologically deterministic approaches to open science that place great emphasis in the use of new tools. Furthermore, some of the conclusions in our track highlighted the necessary soft-skills and adequate estimation of capacity of such participatory approaches, which are traditionally also a domain of STS.
Data and data sharing practices got also quite a lot of attention in the analyses presented. In times when new technology meets old forms of governance, contradictions emerge, illustrating the complex orientations of data generators, researchers and others to open science. Here, criticism was raised by some speakers about the neutral character associated to data in standard open science approaches and in usual calls for data sharing. They problematized data sharing by exposing how data encompasses compromises, ethical standards, different epistemic cultures and values, even different levels of privacy or security, which may entail severe problems in their re-use and replication [Harp-Rushing et al., Velden, …]. Such issues, which built upon traditional STS claims against the value-free or non-situated character of scientific knowledge, should be taken into account in the analysis of barriers to open science and the design of public policies to foster data sharing. Mainstream open data discourse (see the current implementation of data management plans) was criticised for its narrow concept of data (as text or numbers in structured form) and counter-illustrated with other forms of data or data generation, such as organic materials in biobanks [Murtagh et al.] or biohacking citizen labs [Bogdanov], but also urban social data [Perelló], and multimedia data from ethnographic or experimental settings. Besides raising awareness for the intractability of certain materialities or spatialities towards technocratic ideals of openness, the speakers were calling for more ambitions to open up the whole range of media through which “scientific knowledge is processed, validated and circulated” [Pedersen et al.]. However, when it comes to making data resulting from such studies openly available some of the speakers also experienced limits and challenges: unclear copyright issues or vague institutional data policies, for instance, are still hindering data sharing. But what about our own data politics as STS researchers? How could we share our data in its broadest sense, not only among ourselves, but with the communities we work with? We see that issue is prominently addressed in citizen science projects that treat citizens not as research partners, but as data aggregators.
Altogether the open research data theme provides a fruitful ground for many STS concerns. Besides the already mentioned issues, we should deal with the various expectations and imaginaries that science policy and research administration currently develop in regard to open data governance. From the quest of evidence based decision making to the realms of messy research data, following different data pathways could offer rich and exciting STS topics related to scientific ethos, interdisciplinary collaboration, citizen science, infrastructure studies and so forth.
Scientific ethos, predatory practices and metrics
Coming to questions of scientific ethos and trust, even if debated only briefly during the track, the phenomenon of predatory open access publishing triggered a discussion on metrics and scientific credit systems. In the predatory business model authors are charged publication fees for publishing an open access article without proper peer review or any other editorial services. In the last years this exploitative practice has not only created confusion about the quality of open access publishing in general, it has also made, once again, visible the problems of researchers from developing countries in need to play the game of scientific recognition and reward. Not to mention the emergent evidence – for instance while analysing EU policy documents [Mayer] – that open science can also be instrumental for worsening present trends towards the commodification of science, within the neoliberal agenda (Mirowsky 2014).
All in all, the fear of losing competitive advantages by opening up access to scientific knowledge production is not only present in innovation contexts, but much more so when it comes to planning one’s career [Attenbourogh]. Giving up control over use and reuse in times of vague institutional data policies and without an established reward/incentive system for opening up data would need more critical engagement with ethical dimensions of scientific practice such as trust and responsibility. Again a domain where STS would be best suited for involvement.
Open research practices shaped by digital technology offer a whole new spectrum of metrics to measure and assess scientific quality and productivity. But what does it mean to count social impact with downloads, clicks or retweets? Such alternative metrics would probably just plug along what we already have, but at least they put existing metrics for impact factors and rankings into perspective (Leiden Manifesto 2015). No doubt, they will also co-shape and preformat research agendas and increase impact driven research (which is not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, policy makers increasingly ask for impact measures to legitimate public expenditure. Alongside counting patents as indicators of innovation scientometricians work on new indicators to assess all kinds of open science including the cooperation of societal stakeholders in research.
A reflexive take on Open Science by STS
With open science currently being mainstreamed into western research funding frameworks, STS could help to demonstrate the situative appropriateness of top-down open science policies and engage with bottom-up activities as some of the track’s presenters have shown. Open should neither be defined in strict opposition to closed nor should it be a universalistic principle applicable to all research practices everywhere. STS would furthermore be able to study how such policies impact traditional communication and collaboration procedures, existing reward structures, timescales and hierarchies, as well as reflexively interrogating our own practices as researchers and our specific position with respect to other sciences. If STS were committed not only to study data practices in their diversity, but also in different scientific disciplines and regional contexts, we could critically accompany and help to realize the core principles of the open science movement: being as transparent, accountable, and shareable as possible, and involving stakeholder expertise on an equal footing in the research process.
Last but not least, in the context of open science, STS could once again reflect its own configurations of access to knowledge production and expertise. Maybe we need to step out of a disciplinary ivory tower constructed over the last years (with a whole lot of exceptions, of course!). We should take the opportunity to learn – also on a methodological level – from citizen scientists, hackathons and grassroots movements and rethink how open we want our epistemic cultures to be.
1 See also Judit Gárdos in this issue, who criticizes the inherent normative and largely undisputed dimensions of the term open science and in particular its taken for granted connotation of Western scientific tradition.
[Names] refer to presentations at the conference track and a more detailed description of each presentation can be found here:
Science has a great potential to improve the world. However, to utilise this potential the relationship between science and society needs to be positive and strong. A part of my professional ambition is therefore to improve this relationship, and I am worrying if I see these two entities drifting further apart. For instance, I see how knowledge creation is being liberated from the traditional source of the academic institution and news media, and at the same time being appropriated by individuals with special interests. So while there are groups successful in doing independent research, e.g. Ginkgo Bioworks (Turan, 2016), there are also in rising numbers those who claim to be a source of information, but offer mostly misrepresentations and lies, e.g. Breitbart (Toosi, 2016). From an STS perspective, information liberation is broadly perceived as a positive trend, but for me, there is also a real need to mitigate the negative externalities that come with it; namely the emphasis on shock, volume and repetition over factuality. This raises the question of how science, the ultimate source of facts, can strengthen its legitimacy as a knowledge source in the current social context described by many as the ‘post-truth era’. My experience at the conference helped me to rethink the relationship between science and society, and based on sessions I attended, I have formulated three questions to consider for the improvement of the relationship: ‘Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science?’; ‘Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of lay knowledge?’; ‘How can open data practices contribute to the transparency of science?’
Objects of scientific interest are complex. They do not yield well to simplifications, and significant effort is required to understand even the best scientific explanations. This means that not all platforms which garner wide audiences are suited for discussing objects of scientific study. However, the fourth session of the Science Communication track showed how museums can provide such a platform, and how lay knowledge can be integrated to improve science communication.
Imagine museums as agoras of the present. On top of exhibiting objects, we could use them as places of public consultation, says Dr Belen Laspra (2016) who contemplates the challenges of promoting sceptical attitudes toward science. In our science community, we are naturally sceptical of all research, while understanding that this does not equal to distrust of scientific method. However, conflation of the two might lead to dislike of science in general. Therefore, I wonder if including people in the scientific process could correct this conflation? And if museums could be places to do that? Take for an example biodiversity, a topic of choice of Prof Alan Richardson (2016). His presentation on the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia nicely described the struggles of communicating complicated objects. When an object is so inherently systematic and contextual, how to best explain it? And going a step further, how to best enable people to engage with the process of knowledge creation in which these objects are embedded? Perhaps, museums could fulfil this exact role. And as Laspra argues, build capacity to think. I very much liked this idea, as I would certainly love to see more ‘STS citizens’ – distrustful engagers, loyal sceptics – people who Dr Laspra calls ‘much (risk) – much (benefit).’ By bringing the intricacies of science closer to people, we could facilitate the rise of the sceptical citizen who is engaged with science and its process, and improve trust in science as a source of knowledge.
In addition, and given the dominant deficit model of communication, more and better appreciation of lay knowledge could improve society’s relationship with science. However, Mr John Lunsford argued in his presentation (2016) that inappropriate usage of lay knowledge might be just as bad as the deficit model. One of the problems, he says, is that our communication practices are developed for high-income countries. For example, concepts such as technology, capital and democracy are usually implied, which would be the wrong approach for low to middle income countries. The lack of appreciation of cultural differences when communicating about science might lead to serious tensions between science and society. For instance, it could mean that people are asked to choose between science and their cultural practice, or that adoption of western practices becomes a tool for imperialism. According to Mr Lunsford, however, lay knowledge is a ‘flexible tool,’ and in his research it allowed to adapt communication to local practices. In my work looking at the communication practices aimed at pro-homeopathy groups, I saw a fierce disapproval of any lay knowledge as one of the main reasons for rejection of ‘scientifically correct advices’ in favour of homeopathic advices, which were but presented by people who first listened to and engaged with one’s lived experiences. In conclusion, including lay knowledge in our communications practices might be of a great benefit, or even a necessity in reaching certain parts of society, but its application must be carefully considered first, lest we deform it into yet another form of deficit model.
Despite talking about these issues in isolation, neither museums nor lay knowledge exist in a vacuum. Figure 1 captures this, and other relations, very nicely in a complex ‘sphere of science communication.’ While individual elements do have influence by themselves, their value is best realised in the connections they make with other elements of the sphere (system). In addition, we might also see that science-society relationship is not a simple issue, but rather a part of a system, and that it materialises across multiple relations, such as museums-public discourse, journals-news media, or lab/field work-general books. This visualisation enables me to do three things. First, validate issues that I brought up as relevant to the science-society relationship. Second, contextualise the issues to identify mutual dependencies. Third, given dependencies and relevancy, approach these issues with appropriate appreciation of complexity and with the appropriate resources. Ultimately, this allows us to create a framework for improving the science-society relationship, given the focus on museums and lay knowledge.
Good communication of science and good science research are two sides of the same coin. One without the other will always achieve only mediocre results, if any at all. As such, my passion for science communication dictates me to be interested in issues around scientific method as well. One of the current hot topics is replicability of research and open data. Could being more open improve how science is done? The track on Open Data posed this very question, and its third session laid out the idea that open data might not help with the ‘reproducibility crisis’.
The limits of data sharing were portrayed by Dr Theresa Velden (2016) who categorised replication practices into four categories: local replication by originator; external verification by independent group; test of robustness by conceptual application; and generalization by extending the domain of validity. She argues that it are the last two categories that are the most important, but which also do not require data sharing. So while open data might improve verifiability of the research in itself, it should not be the focus of replication practices. At the same time, Dr Velden points out that data sharing is not just a technical issue, as it is very much a relational practice. This is important since it clarifies that even with sufficient resources, we will not likely achieve a higher standard of open data. The same sentiment was reiterated by a presentation on ‘Epistemic and Non-Epistemic values driving data-sharing’ (Murtagh et al., 2016). Tensions such as competition vs collaboration and open science vs secrecy and scientific competition force researchers into certain types of behaviour. It neither helps that we are all constantly being reminded of the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. Open data might therefore not be the simple solution to the ‘reproducibility crisis’ some believe it to be, as it does not serve the more important aspects of reproducibility, and it is interwoven with deeply rooted practices of the science profession that stimulate secrecy. Does this mean we should give up on open data and data sharing? Definitely not, but from the perspective of science-society relationship, open data should probably not be the centre of our attention.
The take away from Barcelona
Between sangria at the opening ceremony and great discussions at the beach bar with a beer in hand, I had an amazing time engaging with interesting research. I could not ask for more, and my first conference gave me enough courage, and some constructive criticism too, to enable me to advance my research further.
So what’s next for me? In connection to my passion, my frame of reference at the conference was the relationship between science and society. What I experienced was a mix of exploration of the current trends and identifications of problems of contemporary approaches. Daring, but sound, thoughts were the currency, and the environment facilitated open-mindedness rather than harsh criticism. What I picked up were ideas about science communication and scientific method. Four days of conference left me with these three questions:
Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science & rise of the ‘STS citizen’?
Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of a lay knowledge?
How to approach ‘reproducibility crisis’ if open data practices are not a question of a technical implementation and at best only part of the solution?
Will they turn out to be good research questions? I do not know, but I am confident enough to place them at the forefront of my next academic endeavours. And in case you have similar interests, I would encourage you to consider these questions as well.
As I was looking over my notes from the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona to write this essay for the EASST Review, a post on the Facebook page of Nature caught my eye. With the title “Young, Talented and Fed-Up: Scientists Tell Their Stories,” the article focuses on the experiences of three young scientists, suggesting that young researchers today face unprecedented pressure to publish, gain funding and secure permanent positions (Powell 2016). Intrigued, I perused further and realized that the article that had first grabbed my attention was part of a special issue of Nature on young scientists – and the implications their working realities have on scientific production. That the two concerns are deeply interrelated is quite unceremoniously stated in the first line of the editorial of the special issue: “Academia is more difficult than ever for young scientists. That’s bad for them, and bad for science” (Nature 2016). Importantly, one of the reasons for this “badness” is the increasing understanding that the focus on the quantity over quality of scientific output may be detrimental to science as an enterprise that is supposed to tackle the world’s big questions.
The narratives of the special issue of Nature could not have been more timely. In many ways, they give voice and legitimacy to the socio-economic uncertainties that many early career researchers around the world experience and try to navigate. It is also the topic that I have explored in my own dissertation work on young international scientists in contemporary Japan; focusing on the experience of the configuration of science, mobility and labor, I have suggested that, in the context of Japan, transnationally mobile researchers rely on cultural explanations in their attempts to make sense of the uncertainties embedded in global scientific labor regimes. The concerns of the Nature special issue also speak directly to the questions raised throughout the 4S/EASST conference track “Governing Excellent Science” and, importantly, some of the themes permeating the postgraduate workshop as well.
That unpacking the quite elusive concept of research excellence is a topic of great interest for STS scholars is reflected in the fact that the “Governing Excellent Science” track brought together many researchers: four panels with four or five presentations in each of them. The conveners of the track successfully pinpointed and rendered visible an ongoing moment of transformations in research policies around the world – that of the policy makers’ increasing reliance on quantifiable indicators to evaluate research processes and scientific thought (Sørensen, Bloch & Young 2015). In addition, the presentations of the track participants highlighted how reliance on bibliometrics and other quantifiable measurements of scientific productivity and quality have been more and more incorporated in the evaluation structures of research institutions themselves, despite the unease with and critiques of this shift.
The track addressed four major themes within the governance of excellence: funding for excellence, the excellence rhetoric, the management and evaluation of excellence, and the comparative aspects of research excellence. The presenters added flesh and inspiring nuance to these themes and inspired enlightening discussions: they examined a multiplicity of ways in which research processes and scientific outcomes are shaped by access to funding and mechanisms of evaluation; they highlighted the strategies scientists and administrators employ to navigate the excellence system; and they offered glimpses into the ways scientists “talk back” to the rhetoric of excellence.
At the same time, however, the “Governing Excellent Science” track presentations seemed to every time underscore an argument Chandra Mukerji already made more than twenty-five years ago when addressing the relationship between scientists and the bodies governing science: “[t]he successful use of science by the state gives science a potential value so great that it cannot be ignored. But scientists are rarely given much power” (1989: 85; emphasis in original). While in many cases supra-national organizations such as the European Union have subsumed the role of the state and non-state actors such as private corporations have come to be increasingly influential, the point still stands: research policies shape scientific outcomes in particular ways, and scientific practitioners seem to have no other option than to comply or quit. The special issue of Nature which I brought up in the beginning of my reflection highlights the fact that this unilateral shaping is deemed problematic not only by early career researchers but also by scientific practitioners in positions of relative power, and that the number of discussions on the topic should increase. It also suggests that both scientists and social scientists researching scientific work aim to address similar questions (for instance, the uses of bibliometrics in assessing research excellence).
It is for this reason that I suggest that STS examinations of research excellence would benefit from two simultaneous approaches: first, explicit acknowledgment that STS researchers are also affected by research excellence policies; and, second, a shift in the focus towards multi-faceted critiques of the excellence rhetoric with the goal of imagining its alternatives.
To address the first point, it was intriguing to note that, even though the presenters of the “Governing Excellent Science” track were at moments gently reminded of their own participation in the “excellence system” (van Kammen 2016), there was a dissonance between, on the one hand, efforts to unpack excellence and, on the other, lack of acknowledgment of the ways STS scholarship may also be shaped by changes in research policies. The fact that STS researchers are also affected by the narrowing definitions of quality scholarship and productivity, however, came to the fore during the postgraduate workshop. Focused on the theme of “doing (post)graduate STS by other means,” the workshop served as a venue for sharing ideas on how to be successful STS scholars in the changing research landscape. It offered its participants an opportunity to meet STS practitioners engaged in research, publishing and other types of careers that were at least partially outside the conventional path. As such, the workshop was a reminder that STS scholars – and in particular early career researchers, of which I am one too – are deeply implicated in research excellence policies and structures and have to invest diversified efforts in order to retain their employability in the job market. As one of the participants mentioned in a passing comment during the workshop, “It sounds like doing STS by other means just means doing more.”
To address my second point, I find it important that we offer multi-faceted critiques and imagine alternative futures. At a time when we – both as scholars of scientific production and as research workers ourselves – are provided with increasingly narrow definitions, operatializations, and indicators of research excellence, it is more crucial than ever to account for the interconnectedness of epistemic and social uncertainties (Sigl 2015). Reflecting my training in cultural anthropology, I suggest that this approach would imply turning an analytical eye to the examination of practices and affects, movements and desires, strategies and uncertainties of those who are enlisted to produce research excellence in different parts of the world and contexts of scientific production. Equally importantly, it calls for an exploration of practices of those who fail or refuse to meet the demanding conditions required by the rhetoric and structures of research excellence, as well as those who are actively involved in the search of alternatives. This approach would involve, as anthropologist Dominic Boyer has suggested, approaching scientists “not solely as rational(ist) creatures of expertise, but rather as desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious, affective – in other words, as human subjects” (2008: 38).
The International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) is a novel attempt at understanding how far we have come and in which direction we should be heading in our quest for a just society. As different articulations of progress pit themselves against one another, each vying for influence on the global agenda, our society is under a great deal of pressure to be reflexive about how we know what we know. Conclusions have been drawn in different fields and on many issues. However, there is a need to come together to discuss how these understandings of our world have a bearing on our collective futures and on issues of justice, responsibility and solidarity – a task requiring inter-disciplinarity. When we consider the myriad interconnected and sometimes subtle ways in which society is affected by change, it is difficult to determine what exactly has had an impact and in what ways those impacts have in turn affected people’s lives in a cumulative way. What progress means is neither apparent nor neutral as it requires an interpretation of such complexities. We also need to determine, as a society, the kinds of power and influence our current systems of accountability allow, which elements of our day-to-day lives we are willing to accept or should deem unacceptable and the ways that we organize ourselves so that governance tends to those shared values in a , bearing in mind that not everyone is able to influence the systems that shape their daily lives. Recent social, economic and political shocks to the global system have made social progress a particularly salient issue. It is time to take stock, to understand more deeply and openly the kind of world we have created and the potential impacts of the ways we have gone about developing and envisioning progress. This need for a reflexive and interdisciplinary vision of progress sets the tone of the work going into the IPSP.
At the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona, we had the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Science, Technology and Society (STS) can contribute to this incredibly complex and pivotal understanding of social progress. We were given an overview of some of the reflections of STS scholars who are contributing to the development of the twenty-two chapters of the Report. The deeper the discussion became, the more striking the relevance of STS across the different issues appeared to be. The pathways that STS’ critical questioning enables, have found meaning in this vast chasm brought about by uncertainty in social progress, the debatable problem constructions and disconnected visions of the future. STS is concerned with process, how knowledge is made, for whom and by whom and its articulations become meaningful when it provides a perspective that closely reflects on the reality faced by knowledge producers themselves. The close involvement in the chapter-writing process has provided STS scholars with a remarkable opportunity to point out the value of STS as knowledge is being made. Moreover, the conversations and joint reflections on social progress can be enriched by the articulations that STS provides. These articulations include reflections on the role and influence of experts and expertise in framing and authority, reflections on power, ordering and governance and the social-construction of science and technology.
STS perspectives on the policy process challenge policy-makers’ preferences for a linear model of progress, wherein the expectations of policy-makers are met with positivistic ideas of science and technology and their goals systematically envisioned as incremental solutions to pre-defined policy questions. STS requires a different way of envisioning the science-policy relationship, as one that is far more intertwined with science, policy and society, contributing instead to the co-production of knowledge and social order (Jasanoff 2004). Change, as STS sees it, is something that should be negotiated with society if controversies are to be avoided. By stressing the social construction of science and technology, STS emphasizes the ways in which knowledge is made and how it is socially contingent, rather than objective or easily transplanted to policy contexts. STS roots its analysis of policy-making in the realities of knowledge production, considering how social contexts contribute towards the settling of facts, the different interpretations of evidence and truth, and the limits of change. The value of an STS perspective in the IPSP is thus brought to the fore as experts attempt to develop knowledge that is both a true reflection of what has been and of what should be done. If the STS perspective is indeed influential, the likelihood is that the expert advice in the reports alludes to more and different policy pathways than would be traditionally expected by policymakers.
The contemporary context is one in which experts as well as scientific knowledge play a central role in politics yet they no longer hold the unquestioned authority and public trust they once did (Maasen and Weingart 2005). If we are to restore trust in governance and in the institutions that we entrust to maintain order in our lives, they should be made to reflect the diverse needs of communities around the world and protect the common values that bind us in our quest for a just future and reflect the kind of social progress that is sensitive to context and difference. As a collective group of academics, the IPSP is discussing the implications of global articulations of progress and how these ideas shape and influence the way we see and think of social groups and the kinds of things that influence them. Care needs to be taken to avoid the reification of difference, while the case is being made for equality and solidarity. STS is sensitive towards the effects of collectives, the assemblages that develop and the hidden power to shape interests and agendas through technologies of governance e.g. indicators, technical guides, organizations, practices, codes and rankings (Davis, Kingsbury, and Merry 2012). At the same time, a balance needs to be struck between governing institutions and local communities in shaping claims of justice, solidarity, responsibility, leadership and inequality. This implicates accountability practices, which need to question and align such processes as the courts, arbitration and peer-review. Global articulations attempt to apply norms to different countries and appeal to framings such as human rights as a means of harmonizing those efforts. Facts and technologies appear to be global but can fail to mean the same thing in different places. If a global vision of social progress is to be reached, the understandings should pay attention to the power of framings and their implications on local experiences. It is the hope of the STS scholars involved in the IPSP that these reflections shape the articulations of issues in the chapters.
The IPSP is modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the way that it enrolls experts in the writing of the report. Early in its establishment, the IPCC was criticized for its imbalanced geographical representativeness (Agrawala 1998), and took steps to remedy this problem. The IPSP needs to remedy its representation of authors if its work is to be seen as a credible and legitimate global endeavor. Figure 1 shows the low participation of African and Latin American authors in the IPSP.
The IPSP has the potential to provide a different kind of assessment that is both reflexive and interdisciplinary. STS has an opportunity to demonstrate the many ways in which its articulations are useful and can enrich the dialogue in a powerful way. This is a step in the right direction, however, knowing that there are social conditions that determine the acceptability of expert knowledge, it is important that STS influences the reflections further so that the global community recognizes the products of this endeavor as credible and legitimate.
The Barcelona 2016 conference was my first experience of either EASST or 4S, and a welcome opportunity to get a sense of the breadth of STS research in different areas as well as themes that unify them. Against the background of a rich buzz of topics, presenters and tracks, which made planning each day an exciting but challenging task in itself, I also presented and participated in one full track, STS and Planning (T004).
The track, as introduced by the convenors, was an opportunity to consider how planning can be explored by STS prisms of inquiry, for example considering the role of artefacts, different forms of knowledge, and centres of calculation. Hybrid approaches were strongly represented, particularly with planning being conceived of as a discipline that actively draws together and works with the material and the social in producing space. The aim, in the track’s description and as seen in the presentations, was not just to critique and open up ‘black boxes’, but to consider how planning could be ‘reassembled’ in a more diverse and reflexive manner.
While not representative of all the papers presented, a major theme that crystallized in my reading of the track was the unpacking of how different types of knowledge are defined and understood when analysing planning processes. In particular, it appeared that certain types of knowledge, associated with certain actors, had a different influence on decision-making to what might have been expected. This played out on themes where STS has much to contribute, such as the role of calculation and calculative devices (e.g. Porter, 1996; Callon & Law, 2005) and interactions of expertise and lay knowledge (Epstein, 1995).
In the session on standards, for example, Alan Lewis described use of the ‘daylight factor’ by architects, a mathematical calculation of daylight that was adopted to signify a design approach based on verifiable principles. Despite requirements to use the calculation, he showed that architects didn’t routinely do so. Instead, the calculation itself was separate to the meaning it represented, as it created an impression of mathematically verifiable principles in design while the individual knowledge of architects still determined outcomes. In my presentation on the adoption of environmental assessment methods for buildings by local authorities, I aimed to make a similar point on the disconnection between the calculation provided by standards and how they are used in and influence actual decision-making. This emphasised that the environmental assessment tool was adopted not just for the knowledge it generated, but for what it represented to decision-makers as a standardised tool. In this sense, when decision-making processes themselves were the focus of study, rationalist decision-making fuelled by calculative devices could be shown as a veneer, behind which decisions relied on other forms of knowledge.
Other presentations spoke more explicitly about the involvement of different types of knowledge in the planning process. Looking at ecological controversies in Hong Kong, Anders Blok used the term ‘planning ecologies’ to consider how different publics interact and shift to challenge official planning practices, such as environmental groups suggesting new possibilities for river and floodwater management whilst up against a strong culture of engineering-based knowledge. Yvonne Rydin’s paper on planning hearings for an offshore wind farm in the UK showed how quite different types of modelled and personal knowledge on landscape and ecological values coexist in the decision-making process, opening up room for deliberation about the voices given to nature in planning. Isaac Marrero-Guillamon discussed the politics of participation in planning processes in a post-Olympic Games site in London, and charted how a particular group emerged as a respected site of communal expertise within that process, developing new categories of knowledge and influence within a particular representation of ‘the community’.
Yet other presentations provided a more materially driven sense of knowing about urban space. Helena Leino discussed the results of research focusing on experiences of the visually impaired in urban spaces in Finland, and their interaction with other people and material elements. Pedro Ferreira discussed the process of ‘spot-making’ by skateboarders, with special attention to the distributed agency of different surface materials, humans and their environments in this particular form of city building. These specific experiences of space are likely often overlooked by planners but still influence the experience of broader publics.
While a rough brushstroke over the sources of different types of knowledge in planning, this led me to think that discussing planning ‘by other means’ (the conference theme) may contribute to rejecting a priori explanatory trajectories of how knowledge influences planning. It suggests that the knowledge brought by different groups (professionals, experts, communities) may influence planning processes in unexpected ways that are not usually associated with these labels.
Moving away from the modernist idea of a single knowledge reflecting truth, planning theory has grappled with the presence of multiple ‘knowledges’ and ways of knowing that need to be mediated by planners. This brings with it challenges such as how to consider scientific expertise alongside localised knowledge (Rydin 2007) and how to define what it is for planners to ‘know’ and expand their knowledge base, when acknowledging that knowledge is represented by different types of cognitive, moral and skills-based learning (Davoudi 2015).
The presentations in the track provided examples where otherwise accepted categories of knowledge, or typologies of knowledge, could be questioned, and even unravelled. As a result they challenged obvious explanatory dichotomies such as expert/lay, scientific/subjective etc. Rather than taking these categories of knowledge for granted, the ‘knowledges’ found in the papers were not easily categorised but instead mediated and established by other elements. Whether a scientific model (in the form of standards), community stakeholders (participatory planning), or expert judgement (planning hearings), in each case, these apparent types of knowledge were mobilised into these categories by artefacts, professional cultures and negotiations.
In some cases, examining the way in which the knowledge was built up and used seemed to weaken the knowledge claim, unpacking scientific rationalities behind standards for example. In others, it suggested empowerment, showing how spaces for lay knowledge, communities, judgement and multiple voices are made within institutional arrangements, and how these can influence the very core of planning decisions, despite appearances to the contrary. An STS-led reading, which invites questions about how taken-for-granted knowledge is established, could invite more analysis on the types of knowledge discussed in planning, and how they are established and categorised in relation to particular groups.
Another striking aspect of the track as a whole was its diversity, and what this signalled about what it is to discuss ‘planning’. There were sessions on planning and urban design standards; practices and operations; planning and ecological issues; and politics and participation. Some ethnographic presentations, such as by Pim Peters and Julio Paulos, brought the listeners up close to the daily practices of planners, and the meetings, discussions, interactions and practices that translate into their broader work. Marko Marskamp suggested a study of planning that decentres the planner from the process and focuses on planning tools such as codes as the object of research. Other presentations, such as by Anders Buch (with Anne Katrine Harders) and by Malve Jacobsen, emphasised that the implementation of plans is contingent on social practices, material infrastructures, discourses and ideas. Both of these highlighted the hybrid arrangements that fill the space between plans and their material implementation. As noted, there were also more material accounts of the interactions between particular users and the city and their voice within the planning process and city-making.
I was left wondering what ‘planning’ represented to the different speakers, and whether there is a gap between examining the practice of planning, and examining how planning emerges, ‘in practice’, or whether they are one and the same. In the context of thinking about what planning is and what it is represented by (e.g Alexander 2016), this sparked my interest to consider what STS in planning can bring to this question.
The initial idea to organize a nuclear panel or track – at that point it was not clear which one of the two it would be – for the forthcoming common 4S/EASST conference came during the ‘Technosciences of Post-Socialism’ workshop, also partly supported by EASST, which took place in Budapest in September 2015. The initiative came from Marton Fabok from the University of Liverpool, co-organizer of the workshop1. Marton and me were the only ones engaging nuclear issues in that workshop, him researching the nuclear new-built project at Wylfa in the UK, while I was working on the other end of the spectrum, looking at nuclear decommissioning through a case study of a former power plant of the GDR, located in Greifswald. We commonly agreed that we could set up something that would be larger in scope and engage directly with nuclear issues from an STS perspective and that the Barcelona conference would provide an ideal platform for this project.
It is important to note, however, that it was not just shared academic interest in the topic that motivated us to go forward with the idea. The Budapest workshop brought together an excellent group of young academics that are also personally engaged in, and politically concerned with the Central and Eastern European region and it showed how this engagement becomes clearly articulated in how ‘socialism’, ‘post-socialism’ and their techno-political articulations are being worked through. I think I am not mistaken to say that both of us shared a multitude of affinities with these concerns and possibilities of engaging them and we also considered that nuclear topics should receive more attention in this context. The controversial project for a new Russian built nuclear power plant at Paks2 in Hungary was a direct incentive, but it was just one example in a sea of transformations that should, in our opinion, receive more attention. Starting from that, we set out to ask how we could put together a track that would bring together several aspects of the history of nuclear energy in the region, the path dependencies this history created and the transformations that the industry goes through at present. Of main concern was to look at these issues while still having a global perspective on socialism and its ‘posts-‘ in mind, faithful to what, for example, Gabrielle Hecht had called ‘entangled geographies’ (Hecht 2011) of nuclearity. It was in this context that we contacted Sonja Schmid from Virginia Tech University, who had just published a wonderful book on the history of the Soviet civil nuclear power program (Schmid 2015) and with whom we were both already in contact, asking whether she would be interested to become involved in the organization of the track. She was very enthusiastic about the idea and this became the final organizational format.
Ultimately we decided to go for a full track, which was giving us more space for exploring various topics. Therefore, the regional focus soon lost ground in the face of a broader approach towards present nuclear topics that would be worth engaging. Such an approach, we hoped, would also enable a larger pool of applications and lead to more diverse and engaging discussions. The final call for the track engaged with three notions that seemed crucial for this engagement: the first was nuclearity, the second infrastructure and the third aforementioned entanglement. Nuclearity is Gabrielle Hecht’s (2012) way of describing the quality of something to be nuclear, a quality which can shift according to various settings, being emphasized or deemphasized, depending on the desired political outcomes that various actors are employing it for. Infrastructures are usually those assemblages that are ideally invisible and become visible only when they break down. Therefore, we considered it important that contributions we were calling for would engage with the details of keeping nuclearity alive, or, in other cases, bringing it to its final deathbed. And finally we were very keen on bringing together grounded case studies enriched by empirical work, which would at the same time make the step towards other scales of these infrastructures and embed them in global processes, faithful to the ‘entangled geographies’ agenda, or, to use another reference, to Burawoy’s (2000) and Gille and O’Riain’s (2002) notion of ‘global ethnography’. We called for three broad sub-topics, which we hoped would cover these large subjects: 1) The way nuclearity is governed at various scales; 2) What does it mean to live and work with nuclearity?; 3) What does it mean to study nuclearity now as STS scholars or, more broadly, social scientists?
I will now go over to those discussion topics that came out of the track, which I personally found most interesting. Specifically, I will deal with two questions: first, the role of the researcher in studying nuclearity and, second, the new wave of infrastructure studies in STS and its related disciplines and how they can feed into nuclear studies. One aspect which triggered my imagination was the way in which nuclearity is being encountered. That is to say, how is it possible to engage with the hidden geographies of risk and danger at nuclear sites, how are these perceived and lived as everyday experiences. Karen Bickerstaff’s presentation on the issue, based on a rich ethnography of living in Sellafield, next to the UK’s largest nuclear facility, was for me the most inspiring in this sense. It was not the only paper engaging with these issues, but it was the one that gave most ethnographic insight to the topic, reminding me of Zonabend’s (2007) seminal ethnography of the La Hague nuclear reprocessing site in France. My own research deals with a nuclear decommissioning project located at the Baltic Sea, in a region which attempts to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. Therefore, thinking about the way in which hidden geographies of danger are negotiated as everyday experiences, creating spatial and temporal rhythms which override expert practices of describing and containing danger, revealed new insights about how to approach my own work.
The hidden geographies of nuclearity pointed out also another aspect, which went beyond the lived experience, namely the notion of infrastructure. This was a key theoretical binding element which ran across all the presentations of the track and was picked up by Gabrielle Hecht in her discussion of the final panel of the track. Infrastructures are supposed to be invisible and invisibility has always been the ultimate goal of the nuclear industry. Thinking nuclearity as infrastructure, in turn, has the potential of de-exceptionalizing nuclear studies and bringing it in conversation with other fields in STS and its related disciplines. Infrastructures, since rendered invisible, seem ‘boring’ and become appealing only when they break down (Star 1999). The breakdown of infrastructures reveals the amount of work that is being invested in keeping them invisible and the fact that, for instance, infrastructures of the nuclear are far more than just nuclear, involving complex assemblages of political, material and social networks. Through the second wave of infrastructure studies (Anand 2012; Appel 2012; Barry 2013; Harvey and Knox 2015; Graham 2009; Gupta 2015; Larkin 2013; Shamir 2013), which started to focus on the Global South, new topics have entered into the area of interest of STS, topics which move away from innovation studies. Because infrastructures always break down, despite the continuous maintenance work involved in rendering them invisible, topics such as repair, clean-up, waste and ‘de-creation’ have become very appealing. I would go further and argue that the focus on the Global South actually just revealed an analytical bias towards infrastructures in the Global North. As it turns out, infrastructures are becoming increasingly visible not just in the case of the Global South and they were arguably never that boring. Ever since the second wave of infrastructure studies took off, cases that look at the Global North also reveal an ever increasing focus on maintenance, break-down and ultimately an increasing visibility of what should remain invisible. For me, the main analytical insight of the track was that thinking nuclearity through infrastructure forces us also to rethink globalization and bring back into the inquiry a more nuanced and critical view of the processes that are presently at work on a global scale. It was also a gentle reminder that progress builds upon the piles of debris of past visions of progress, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, and that, especially in the context of energy transitions and anthropogenic climate change, thinking about how to remove the debris of the past is just as important as imagining new visions of the future.
Finally, an aspect which ran through most of the discussions in the track was the role ‘we’ as social scientists have in a public controversy regarding nuclear issues. Arguably this topic provoked the most heated discussions, since several of the presenters were active also in various advisory boards and had experience with public hearings and common decision making processes on nuclear matters, which involved nuclear experts and other established stakeholders in the field. Joe Masco hit a sensitive cord when he called the social scientist an ‘enabler of nuclearity’, triggering questions of what kind of enabling is going on in this process. Does the social scientist ultimately have just a token role in these advisory boards, as Shannon Cram and William Kinsella seemed to suggest? Karena Kalmbach and Gabrielle Hecht also got involved in the discussion, bringing in insights from such meetings in Germany and France. The discussion is of high importance, since in recent years social science has become, at least formally, increasingly visible in techno-scientific controversies. And yet, there seemed to be a sense of frustration that was shared by many participants in the room regarding the fact that this visibility does not lead to the desired outcome of making decisions and communicating risks in the nuclear industry more transparent. This brings back the old question of the public intellectual and his role in the shaping of expertise and, ultimately, the transformation towards more democratic decision making processes. And yet, there were also voices in the room that argued differently, pointing out that many of the outcomes of such formal discussions in expert groups depend on the kind of language that is deployed and the willingness of critically inclined social sciences to seriously engage in a compromise with established nuclear stakeholders. This would bear the potential for moving forward in such controversies, with the remark that it would also imply accepting another, maybe slower and at times frustrating understanding of democracy as something that is constantly a ‘work in progress’.
I would like to thank EASST for awarding me the with a conference waiver. I would also like to thank the local team in Barcelona for their work in organizing the conference. Special thanks go to Gabrielle Hecht, Karena Kalmbach and Joe Masco for joining the track as discussants. Last, but not least, I want to thank Sonja Schmid and Marton Fabok for making this track happen.
1 The other two co-organizers of the workshop were Zoltán Ginelli from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and András Novoszáth from the Open University in the UK. Further information can be found on the workshop website: https://technosciencesofpostsocialism.wordpress.com/ .
2 The Paks 2 project has received ‘green light’ from the European Union in the autumn of 2016, despite the fact that at first it seemed the EU would attempt to block it.
In September 2016, a street theater group toured several German cities with a performance called “Schluck & Weg” – literally meaning “swallow” (the pill) and the disease is “gone” – publicly staging the saliency of antibiotics resistance as a pressing global health issue. The main protagonists in this performance were the “super agents” Alpha and Beta, decorated agents who have successfully served for a long time in their battle against evil bugs. But a surprising strike from “super bugs” hitherto unknown to Alpha and Beta has confronted our super agents with an experience of total impotence in the face of these newly emerging antagonists. Licking their wounds and puzzling over what has actually happened and why, the super agents begin to trace the lineages of their predicament — and thus the histories of microbes resistant to antibiotics (BUKO Pharma 2016).
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has also been a concern at the recent joint meeting of 4S/EASST in Barcelona. Within the track on “Antagonists, Servants, Companions: the Sciences, Technologies and Politics of Microbial Entanglements”, a full session was dedicated to the multiple problem of AMR, exploring diverse aspects and dimensions.
Problematized in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 1960s and almost two decades earlier in Scandinavia (Podolski et al 2015), antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is hardly a new fact. However, its political and societal saliency seems to have changed dramatically in recent years. AMR was framed by the World Health Organization as an imminent threat to global health, both in the rich countries of the North where hospital-acquired infections with resistant bacteria pose challenges to health care systems, and in the South, where the treatment of severe endemics – such as Tuberculosis – runs into constraints due to the proliferation of resistant strains (Blasner 2014). But AMR is truly a global issue in an even more comprehensive sense: as microbes do not abide by the normativity of socio-political boundaries, the WHO has inscribed AMR into the “One Health” paradigm, which means that it affects the entire world irrespective of geographical boundaries, but also that it ignores inter-species boundaries proliferating precisely through the entanglements between humans, animals and even plants.
At 4S/EASST, I remember this session as particularly intriguing not only because of its thematic topicality, but also because it raises questions for STS that go well beyond the scope of AMR. Let me briefly capture the four presentations in a nutshell before returning to some further thoughts on these matters.
Inge Kryger Pedersen (U Copenhagen) presented findings from a collaborative project, asking how the situated local practices in medical care interrelate with efforts to tackle global problems, such as AMR. As many efforts to act upon AMR address physicians in their ability to prescribe antibiotics, various guidelines had been drafted that seek to police and promote the “rational use” of drugs. Hence, norms of “good doctoring” (usually centering on an individual patient-doctor encounter) have come to be closely intertwined with notions of “prudent use” of antibiotics (subject rather to statistical reasoning and the indicators of evidence-based medicine). And yet, when translated into the realm of everyday medical practice and the doctor-patient-relationship, these guidelines leave considerable space for professional discretion and case-by-case maneuvering.
Approaching the combat against overuse from another angle, Catherine Will (U Sussex) explored public campaigns against antibiotics overuse that seek to act upon the desire of patient-consumers and their attachments to practices of antibiotics use that had been cultivated throughout past decades. Will shows that these policy campaigns seek to “detach” publics from antibiotics by invoking individuals and publics simultaneously as rational subjects and as passionate subjects of desire attached to certain notions of disease and treatment anchored in social norms and tacit routines (One campaign poster for instance informs the public that “40% of all Europeans wrongly believe that antibiotics work against colds and flu”).
Focusing on how public knowledge of AMR is co-produced between different social domains, Stephanie Begemann (U Liverpool) set out to study how the science of AMR is taken up and communicated in the media. Her findings add rich empirical detail to the notion that AMR is a controversial issue that crisscrosses multiple sites and domains where its meanings may significantly alter. Taking up the cudgels for STS research, Begemann’s argument suggests that knowing how and where exactly the “multiple ontologies” of AMR are being established may shed light on emerging controversies and help to better tackle the problem in practice.
Similarly, Sujatha Raman (U Nottingham) addressed the question of how knowledge on AMR is produced and diffused, yet taking a slightly different take on this matter. Raman explored how different framings matter in the ways we conceive of and address the problem of AMR. To begin with AMR is broadly framed as an imminent, human-made global threat and as such shares many similarities with climate change. In past years, the idea has taken shape to establishing an International Panel on AMR modeled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see Woolhouse/Farrar 2014). A crucial difference might be, though, that the science of AMR is — yet? — less contested than the science of climate change: scientific accounts present strong evidence that AMR constitutes a profound systemic problem on a global scale, precisely because it unfolds in a complex eco-socio-techno-economical system (see the illustration in Figure 1) and there seem hardy radical controversies over these facts; yet, the policy responses to AMR are predominantly framed in terms of – and thus seek to act upon – individual behavior.
In sum, this rich session provided an intriguing picture of AMR and the important role of STS research in this field of actuality. What all four presentations emphasized is that AMR is being problematized predominantly as a pressing policy challenge, and not primarily a scientific controversy. To be sure, the “policy question” had been located at various levels and through multiple domains, and has been articulated in terms of public awareness campaigns, in the politics of representation and issue framing, or in governing (through) behavioral patterns. Clearly, these multiple policy practices intimately involve questions of science particularly in relation to public knowledge and policy programs. Re-reading my notes while working on this review made me come up with a series of interrelated thoughts and impressions that address the relationship between global (health) policy and STS.
Worldwide, the vast majority of political and expert authorities seem to acknowledge that AMR amounts to a multifaceted systemic problem: a pressing human-made, apocalyptic scenario that demands immediate attention. Experts further seem to concur on how AMR developed, how it works at the microbiological and epidemiological levels, and what the social and economic structures are that make it grow. Moreover, it seems quite uncontroversial that AMR is produced and propelled not in one center or social domain, but across and in-between domains of practice: from human medicine to the livestock industries, from material production (of health, of food, etc.) to the production of collective needs and desires. As such, we could say, the question of AMR appears as a question of global capitalism in its broadest possible meaning.
In this light, I expected that technoscience would have assumed a more central role in the discourses and enactments of AMR counterstrategies, compared to other STS-related policy debates over other grand challenges confronting the contemporary world: from the surge in age-related degenerative diseases to climate change and economic recession, the respective problems are more often than not framed in ways that are amenable to technoscientific solutions (for instance, “regenerative medicine”; “green bio-economy”; etc.). By contrast, the role of technoscientific innovation only seems to play an underpart in the global “war” against AMR. To be sure, I learned that there is limited biopharmaceutical R&D activity into “super antibiotics” (geared towards fighting resistant “superbugs”), and that there are considerable efforts to build and harmonize surveillance infrastructures to detect, map and monitor the global geography of AMR (O’Neill 2015, Chakradhar 2016). Yet, the dominant problem frame is one of overuse and misuse: the majority of efforts seem to focus on behavioral interventions, that is to say, programs that seek to act upon AMR through altering routinized patterns of antibiotic consumption. Moreover, these various policy programs of “antibiotic stewardship” that have been launched to counteract AMR largely remain within an individualistic-liberal framework and articulate the problem in terms of individual behavior, be it the (aggregate) individual prescribing practices of physicians or the (aggregate) demand-desire of patients for antibiotics due to embodied cultural treatment practices and/or erroneous beliefs about the reach and efficacy of antibiotic therapy. If it just were to alter consumer-choices and guide subjects to behave rationally!
From this angle, AMR seems to be less a contentious (techno-)scientific issue, and more an issue of policymaking, state strategies and practices of governing: it is about getting individuals, professions, and institutions to alter their routines. Clearly, in this regard (scientific) knowledge plays an important part – and this had been reflected nicely throughout the papers in our session: framing, public understanding, practices of subjectification. But throughout the different locales and practices, it is apparent that what is at stake in the overall picture is to translate – semiotically and materially – a global and systemic problem-constellation into a series of discrete, individualized policy responses actionable at the local level (administered largely through national action plans). In this context, the key question at stake, it seems, is the question of implementation. But less has been said about the material politics of AMR, about the state-driven efforts to implement a global anti-AMR strategy, about the institutional forces that enable, channel, support or perhaps thwart these manifold efforts. Where then could be the role of further STS in research that takes these issues seriously? At this point I see a veritable chance for establishing a more intimate joint working space between STS and critical/interpretive policy studies.
From their very infancy, STS and interpretive policy analysis (IPA) have formed a mutual thinking space underpinned by many shared methodological presuppositions (Gottweis 1998, Paul/Haddad 2015, Åm 2016). And yet, despite their vicinity there are hardly any efforts to comprehensively integrate the rich conceptual toolboxes of either fields. Given the specificities of AMR, as well as the general stress in STS on the co-production of science and policy, it seems worthwhile to pay equal attention to the formation of policy knowledge and to the role the state plays in articulating knowledge and practices of intervention – and hence, the “implementation” of global policies and its translation into local practices.
To begin with, implementation – as technical and top-down as it may sound – is not a linear process; it always involves a politics of translation. STS stresses that in order to understand how and why knowledge can be established as scientific facts and how technologies work as innovations in society, we need to look at the dense network of heterogeneous elements that create and stabilize it. Yet, concepts of policy and of the state often remain monochrome. Conversely, policy studies have for long ignored science and technology as active agents in policy. Engaging STS work, policy studies can improve their sensibilities for how exactly scientific knowledge and technologies matter – and in what precise, situated ways – in policy practice. How is policy knowledge fabricated and translated into the design of political strategies of intervention into the dynamics of AMR? In turn, critical policy studies can complement STS scholarship with a profound toolbox to study how certain policies are being articulated, designed and implemented. What seems particularly relevant for AMR is to include a fine-grained focus on how path-dependencies and institutions shape not only the content of policies, but also how “epistemic selectivities” (Vadrot 2016) emerge in relation to complex institutions such as the state and its role in rendering some forms of knowledge accessible to policy programs while others are being silenced or dismissed. How to conceptualize the role of the state in providing corridors for selective policy knowledge? How should we situate science, policy and the state in broader global socio-material formations and particular historical conjunctures (for the relationships between policy knowledge and the state see the recent conversation within critical policy studies in Brand , Paul/Haddad )? These are pressing issues in order to make sense of AMR as a global phenomenon, and could also enrich STS debates more generally – especially in fields that are, right at the outset, as much about science as about policy.
To conclude: the challenges that confront the politics of AMR make clear that STS has a vital role to play in establishing not only knowledge but also perhaps help to design policy responses that go beyond the half-heartedly conventional behavioral approaches. However, if it were to adequately address the policy question in STS, insights from other fields are vital. AMR seems an intriguing field to develop synergies between allied yet perhaps estranged fields of critical social science research, and particularly between STS and interpretive policy studies.
This essay came out, rather unexpectedly, from an international conference in a city well known far beyond its national borders. The 2016 4S/EASST conference took place in the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona, a vibrant and colorful city tempting the conference participants to walk and enjoy the urban environment, rather than participate in the conference. Excellent food, Mediterranean sunny weather, beautiful architecture even on the most mundane buildings, a quite clean air, and sand beaches inviting, or rather seducing, people to leave all of their obligations behind and go and swim for hours on end. The conference took place at the Barcelona International Convention Center next to the sea front, and I have to admit that although I was eager to attend the sessions, at the same time I had a strong impulse to leave the conference and go to the beach instead.
The convention center was full of people when I arrived to register, because, as I learned later, the internet was down and registration had stopped for a while. This small crowd at the reception, though, was something interesting to observe: people from all over the world were coming together each and every one attracted by a common concern in science and technology in a modern as well as in a historical context. As in every collective human activity, some would be keen on sharing their ideas, some would be curious as to what a conference would look like, some were more concerned with advancing their careers, and some, most probably the more senior participants, would be happy to see that the field has grown into a quite big and vibrant community.
There were many sessions to attend – in fact, too many to attend within the limited time frame of four days – a strong indication that the field has grown in size and developed into multiple directions. I was to present a paper on Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and looking through the information booklet I received at the reception I saw a session on Don Ihde, another major philosopher on hermeneutics, greatly influenced, among others, by Ricoeur. I decided within split seconds that this session had to be attended without a second thought.
The session was focussed on Ihde’s postphenomenology and the first presentation was on the second edition of one of his books on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics (Ihde, 2007). After the presentation Ihde himself started commenting on his philosophical approach of hermeneutics and then answered questions from the listeners. I felt glad to be there and see one of the world’s leading philosophers talking in flesh and blood. I started thinking, while Ihde was talking, how nice a conference like this was for a junior scholar like myself: an event bringing together not only people from every corner of the world, but also older generations of scholars and younger ones. When the session finished, I left with the presentation on acoustics and auditory hermeneutics still ringing in my ears.
Postphenomenology, a term coined by Ihde himself, designates the next step after phenomenology, that is, the study and description of how reality presents itself to human consciousness. According to Ihde material artifacts and the human body themselves play a major role in mediating between reality and consciousness: observation of stars with the naked eye is different from observation through a telescope; social life organized on the basis of calendars and clocks is experienced in a different way from social life organized according to the movement of sun and appearance of moonlight; a walking person perceives reality in a different way from a sprinter when running.
A major thread in Idhe’s postphenomenology is material hermeneutics: the importance of artifacts in interpreting objective reality. In studying Antiquity, for example, “we seek texts, inscriptions, and other forms of [visually perceptible] written language” (Ihde, 2009: 68). In quantum physics scientists develop [visually perceptible] mathematical formulas to describe spaces of eight and ten dimensions; in chemistry there are molecule graphs to describe molecular structure; or in biology there are enhanced photographs of bacteria taken with the help of electronic microscopes. In all these cases scientists use visually perceptible artifacts to describe and interpret realities that, in fact, exist beyond, or below, human perception.
Ihde attempts to expand the material hermeneutics, as he calls it, from the visual to the auditory experience of reality: whale songs, for example, are mostly sung in the infrasound range imperceptible by the human ear; using, though, time compression we can “hear the technologically mediated and translated sounds” (Ihde, 2007: xv, original emphasis). Expanding, now, on our initiative, Ihde’s material hermeneutics, to the gustatory sensory perception, that is, the perception of taste, we could very easily think of eating baked chicken, for example, as the gustatory perception and interpretation of raw chicken meat through cooking technologies, such as baking as a technical process, and through the addition of gustatory artifacts such as dried herbs and spices. Ihde’s material hermeneutics, however, is deeply related to the aesthetics of art.
Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica depicts the bombing of the Basque town Gernica by Nazi and Fascist bombers at the request of the Spanish nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso wanted to depict the horrors of total war “where innocent people are bombed indiscriminately, or strafed by machine-gun fire, as they escape from the carnage in the town up to the hills’’ (van Hensbergen, 2004: 3). While the painting is not a photographic depiction of an actual scene that happened during the bombings, it can still confer the horror and pain from the destruction and death that took place.
As a visual artifact the painting was built upon Picasso’s emotional distress when he came into contact with the news of the bombings: “By his artistic activity, the painter himself produces these particular parts (the layer of pigments on the canvas, paper, or wood) and the properties of the painting determined by them” (Ingarden, 1989: 160). The material artifact, though, presents the artist’s subjective reality to each member of the artwork’s audience: “[i]t goes essentially beyond the merely real … in that it consists of strata (object and aspect), which are simply not contained in the real thing called a painting. This presents us with the task of determining the mode of being that is characteristic of the ‘picture’ ” (Ingarden, 1989:160). We should distinguish, in other words, the material painting [the artifact] from the concretized [i.e. individually interpreted] picture [the artwork], since the artwork itself “never fully comes into being until the viewer constructs, or constitutes, it” (Mitscherling, 1997: 198, original emphasis).
In a fashion similar to Picasso’s, and other artist’s, artworks, the purpose of haute cuisine [French for high cuisine] is to “offer a new culinary experience and not merely the opportunity to taste new dishes or representations of food” (Opazo, 2016: 27). This purpose of offering a new experience lies, as well, behind the construction of smartphones by Apple Inc. aiming at “offering users a ‘new technological experience,’ not new technological devices per se’’ (Opazo, 2016: 27). One such famous restaurants of haute cuisine was elBulli, located at Cala Montjoi bay, two hours away by car north of Barcelona, until its closing in 2011. Some of elBulli’s most celebrated innovations in cooking equipment was introducing the systematic use of liquid nitrogen for flash freezing, carbon dioxide for creating foams as part of a dish, centrifuges normally used in scientific laboratories, and food dehydrators for adding new shapes in food presentation. ElBulli’s new style of cuisine, along with other restaurants in the world, became popularly known as molecular gastronomy.
ElBulli aimed at four levels of pleasure during the dining experience: physiological pleasure sparked by hunger and fulfilled by eating itself; sensorial pleasure, that is, “the subjective act of liking or disliking something” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the emotional pleasure “contingent on each situation, based on the company, the scenery, and so on” (Opazo, 2016: 125); the trademark pleasure, though, that elBulli was aiming at was reflective pleasure induced by appreciating “culinary creations not through taste buds but according to the underlying ideas and sensations that these creations aim to convey” (Opazo, 2016: 125). Although the first three pleasures were based on the materiality of each served dish and dependent upon the instinctual, sensory, and gregarious sensitivities of each diner, reflective pleasure was being concretized by the diners themselves.
Added to the above was the elimination of the à la carte menu, that is, a menu where the various courses are offered and priced separately. The diners were left with no choice but to taste the one and only menu set by the executive chef himself, and which consisted by 40 to 50 smaller in size and quantity than customary courses. Dining would now extend to four and five hours and each course was defined by the previous one and defined the next one. If we distinguish now between a material dish served at the table from the experienced course as concretized by each diner herself, we can say that a restaurant course is a temporal object which constitutes “the temporal fabric of the stream of [gustatory] consciousness itself, since the flux of the temporal object precisely coincides with the stream of [gustatory] consciousness of which it is the object” (Stiegler, 2011: 14). Restaurant time now is being experienced as memory of the previous course, tasting of the current course, and anticipation of the next one; a cinematic gustatory consciousness takes over the experience of dining, that is, a consciousness of a changing culinary sequence of having-just-been-experienced, at-the-moment-being-experienced and soon-to-be-experienced courses. The menu of elBulli, in other words, was not just a list of courses, but a list of gustatory scenes in a cinematic culinary universe.
Ihde himself does not seem to have dined in elBulli, at least, if we judge from his writings. There is, however, the testimony of another professional philosopher who dined there and tried spherified [caviar-like] melon drops (see Fig.1), one of elBulli’s landmark dishes:
After six or so small starters […] we were served an escabeche of tiny rock mussels and basil. That exploded in the mouth and released a scented [sic] oil (a nod to the olives we had at the start […]) which aroused both feeling and hilarity. This was followed by popcorn mousse which dematerialised like candy floss and which provoked yet more laughter. We remembered the small blue tins that are definitely associated with a particular make of caviar, which bear the well-known drawing of the sturgeon, filled to the brim with these precious little orange grains, well chilled as they should be. This was 2003, and we had already burst out laughing: despite its appearance, the dish actually consisted of spherified melon and passion fruit drops like the olives we had at the beginning, perfectly pure in taste … I think of this dish each time I eat melon as the very notion of melon itself, now sadly out of reach (Jouary, 2013: 40, 42).