As I come towards the end of 8 years as EASST President I want to reflect on developments over the past period of 2009-2016: the recent issues that are facing our community, what EASST Council has done to respond to these challenges and what future opportunities I see for a new president and council who will be elected shortly.
Growth of sts and related fields
Our field continues to grow both in terms of individual scholars, research groups, and new areas of study. Our concepts have been taken up by other disciplines and now have wide influence for those studying contemporary society. As such, STS has a high profile in the wider academic community.
Diversity of institutional settings
Partly as a consequence of this growth of academic influence STS scholars are increasingly found in a variety of institutional settings. Dedicated STS departments and research groups have had mixed experiences across Europe. In some countries new centres have opened and there has been institutional support for the growth of the subject area. In other countries longstanding centres have been closed or restructured. Many STS scholars also find themselves outside such focused settings, and instead work within a wide range of departments including sociology, cultural studies, urban studies and business schools.
Internal risks of fragmentation
With the growth of a field comes the increased likelihood that there will be a sufficient critical mass of scholars within specialised sub-areas to allow for the development of new conferences, journals or networks around particular subject areas, issues or approaches. This is a welcome development but does carry with it the risk that the sense of what we share as STS scholars more broadly, and our commitment to the overall field as a whole is diminished. If this happens we risk reducing the influence that the growth of the field could be expected to lead to.
External threats in the new competitive academic marketplace
STS scholars are also subject to pressures from developments in the wider academic system which has become subject to more formal measurement and competitive pressures. There has been a retrenchment of traditional established disciplines which may put pressure on STS scholars to prioritise non-STS conferences and journals. This is likely to be an issue particularly for those who are in a minority position in large, non-STS departments. This poses challenges for the development of STS conferences and journals as well as for individual scholars.
New opportunities for policy and social influence mixed with system inertia
In the wider policy world recognition grows of the salience of the issues with which we are familiar. Partly this addresses the societal significance of science & technology. But increasingly it also engages with the contested nature of knowledge and the challenge of public interaction with professional communities. The contemporary discourses around societal challenges, responsible innovation and open science are all expressions of this. Our community is well positioned to engage with this process and we have a highly relevant and distinctive contribution to make. Yet the inertia in the system still often relies on conventional epistemic communities who have far less to offer. As a comparatively young field created in an era of political engagement this remains a challenge for us.
My assessment, and that of the EASST Council, has been that these challenges all reinforce the need for an umbrella body such as EASST to champion STS in Europe and to represent the STS community. In order to achieve this, we concluded that EASST needed to develop to as organised and as effective voice for our community as we could make it.
A durable and flexible organisation
Towards this end, over the past 8 years, we have made a number of changes to EASST as an organisation, and to the way it operates, to make it more sustainable and effective. These developments include:
Council meetings – more frequent & regular (6 monthly)
Council used to meet only at biennial conferences. We now meet twice a year in person, hosted sequentially in the workplace of different council members for a full day meeting. In between times we have regular email and other contact. This has allowed us to get to know each other better, work through differences and develop shared positions. It has also allowed us to develop a range of new initiatives and move from an organisation that was primarily involved in organising a conference every two years to one which regularly communicates with members and offers them a range of opportunities and support. This has required the allocation of funds to support council members’ attendance at meetings but we feel that this has been more than justified by what Council has been able to achieve.
Administrative office created
In the past Council members received no administrative support and the President had to organise their own support on an ad hoc basis, and deal with many routine issues themselves. I felt that EASST needed to have on-going, professional support for a President and Council who are all highly active academics with a range of commitments to their own institutions and research areas. The establishment of an office has allowed more communications with members, more initiatives to be developed and pursued, stronger financial management, and so on. Again this has required resources but we feel it has had important benefits, particularly in ensuring that the enthusiasm that Council members bring to our discussions at meetings can be built on when we all return to our other demands.
We have also reviewed and updated the constitution to ensure that it is in line with our current practices and serves our needs.
Membership – Futurepay system introduced
EASST is a membership organisation. It exists to represent and support its members, and its membership provide a large part of EASST’s legitimacy to be speaking on behalf of the STS community. As such we have sought to make those in the STS community aware of our existence, encouraged them to become members, put themselves forward for election, vote and in other ways make their concerns known. In the past, membership levels have fluctuated considerably – peaking in the run up to our conference (once every two years) and dropping back sharply in between. This was problematic both for legitimacy and for the resources on which EASST depends in order to pursue initiatives.
We have tried to address this both by providing more reasons for people to stay members through increasing activities between conferences and by administrative changes which encourage continuing membership. The latter has involved a more systematic membership renewal process combined with the introduction of the ‘Futurepay’ system whereby members sign up for future renewals. The office aims to keep members informed of their future commitments and provide the opportunity for them to cancel should they want to so we hope most members are happy with the way this operates. For EASST it has had the dual benefit of significantly reducing the decline in membership we saw previously in non-conference years, and reducing the administrative burden of multiple reminders to encourage members to renew.
Website – makeover with new IT support company, a new logo, and a rebrand of EASST-Eurograd
Early on we changed our website and IT provider. This included updating our image and look and introducing a new logo. At the same time EASST took formal ownership / responsibility for Eurograd, a well-used email announcement list for the STS community in Europe.
The website now incorporates a membership directory which supports networking and allows members to update their own data. NomadIT have also provided us with a conference management system which we used in Torun and again in Barcelona (with 4S). Having conference and membership management in linked systems makes things more efficient for both administrators and members. We are in the process of making further changes to make the website more ‘mobile / tablet compatible’ and to incorporate better new EASST initiatives.
Legal status – registered in NL as not for profit organisation
From the start EASST has had a formal constitution but until recently it had no formal legal status. We felt it was important to address this for a range of reasons including to ensure we made best use of resources and to provide some protection for council members from individual liability. It also establishes our credibility as an organisation when we deal with other institutions and could provide a route to being able to apply for grants. We explored a range options in different countries, with a priority to be located in a Euro country to simplify and reduce the cost of financial transactions.
We are now registered as a Vereniging (not for profit, membership organisation) in the Netherlands. We continue to assess the demands and benefits of this set up in terms of reporting and tax.
Division of responsibilities in Council
In the last couple of years Council has sought to decentralise responsibility and through this to reduce demands on the President and to provide better support for, and interaction with, the office – as well as ensuring that initiatives are pursued effectively. Rather than all issues being discussed by the whole council and many decisions and communications relying on the President, we have identified a number of areas of activity and asked a council member to take primary responsibility for it. These areas include publications (EASST Review, Science & Technology Studies, and the website), conferences, and awards and EASST Fund as well as finances, secretarial issues and strategic linkages. The Council member involved is expected to lead discussions on the issue at council meetings and to progress developments with the office between meetings. It is not intended to restrict the involvement of the whole Council in decisions – rather to ensure that discussions are led effectively and decisions put into practice.
Closer working relationship with 4S – links between Presidents & officers and administrators
From early on EASST and 4S have been holding joint conferences in Europe every four years. We have been working to make the organisation and image of these conferences shared and to promote issues of particular concern to EASST. For the recent Barcelona conference, the presidents and officers have worked more closely together than on previous occasions. Issues that EASST have been particularly concerned to pursue have included a less formal, more inclusive social event than the traditional banquet and a new approach to the award ceremony. This conference year, at the initiative of the 4S President, we have supported a discount for those wanting to be members of both associations, further strengthening ties.
Promoting our community
Over the past 8 years we developed and initiated a number of schemes and projects which promote the STS community and provide benefits to our members. These include:
EASST journal – Science and Technology Studies
EASST launched a new peer-reviewed, online house journal, Science & Technology Studies, four years ago at the Copenhagen conference. This built on the previous Finnish journal Science Studies and it successful track record. To become the EASST journal its positioning was broadened with a name change and a wider editorial board. Becoming the EASST house journal has raised the profile and visibility of S&TS in the community and has provided an improved publication outlet for members of the STS community. These developments are of mutual benefit to the journal and the community.
EASST collaborative awards – recognition of cooperative community building
Copenhagen was the first time that EASST made awards to members and activities in the STS community. In initiating these awards Council were concerned to promote a distinct principle. In an increasingly individualised and competitive academic environment EASST wanted to celebrate collaborative activities which are often under-recognised or rewarded. This included inclusive and creative editing, working across different academic areas and engaging outside the community. Three awards – Amsterdamska, Freeman & Ziman – were established in the names of members of our community who we felt embodied these principles and the awards have now been made on three occasions.
EASST fund – support for range of actions – establishing national associations, convening seminars
A fund to support STS activities such as conference and workshops happening in the year between conferences had already been established. Over the past 8 years we have developed and expanded this fund. We have been clearer about the types of activities that we want to support and have prioritised areas of Europe where STS is less established. Council has also been keen that the outcomes of these supported events were available to the community more widely. To this end we encourage recipients to write accounts of their events for the Review and to provide web links including, where available, to materials such as programmes or videos of key note speeches.
EASST Review – more active and collective
EASST Review has been restructured recently to expand its engagement with the community. It now includes a number of sections and actively encourages reporting of events and publications in our field. More people have become involved in the editorial process which makes it more collective and shares the workload involved. The Review has also benefited from improved design and enhanced presence on the EASST website.
A broader and more inclusive Europe
EASST aims to represent STS scholars and STS activities right across Europe. Traditionally EASST membership has been concentrated in Northern and Western parts of Europe. To try to expand our representativeness and support new communities of STS scholars we have encouraged applications for conference support or workshop funds from the South and East of Europe. We have also sought to bring the EASST community as a whole to new locations and to encourage new associations to network with existing communities.
Reach into south and east of Europe – conferences for the first time in Italy (Trento 2010), Poland (Torun 2014), Spain (Barcelona 2016)
Eight years ago it had already agreed that our 2010 conference would be held for the first time in Italy. Council saw this through to a highly successful conference in Trento. After that the priority was to find a location in Eastern Europe where there was limited institutionalisation of the STS community. This led to EASST holding its 2014 conference in Toruń, Poland. This was the first conference in Eastern Europe since Budapest in 1994. This year we have our first conference in Spain, in Barcelona. All these conferences have raised the profile of the local STS community as well as providing them with the opportunity to shape the conference in terms of its theme and activities.
Encouraged national associations – meetings of existing associations in Jan 2010 & Nov 2013, support for creation – informal network model
We have also held two meetings where we have brought together representatives of STS national associations to share experience, discuss developments across Europe and the issues the local STS communities have been facing. The intention has been to share different approaches, and we published an account of organisational models used in the Review in 2014. EASST is not seeking to incorporate these organisations or to influence membership relations with them. Instead we simply want to facilitate informal networking and communication channels to promote their visibility and interaction. We have also used the EASST Fund to support meetings – particularly launch meetings – of national associations.
There are many other issues that I would have liked to have pursued more fully. Below are some of the many issues we have discussed and made a start on – but there is much more that could be done.
Breadth & inclusion in field – e.g. links with innovation studies
I have been concerned to ensure that EASST remains a broad and inclusive home for STS scholars. When I ran for president I was particularly concerned about the links with the innovation studies community. There are other communities that may also feel on the margins of the EASST community. But this is also a subject that raises questions about what defines STS and this is something that the EASST Council members have different views on. For me a stronger positive interaction between innovation studies and STS remains an important goal.
Education/learning – links with ESST
Most of us are, or have been, involved in teaching. Teaching and learning is also the route through which our community grows and continues. In meetings with National STS Associations we have discussed opportunities for sharing teaching materials and approaches. We have also been in discussion with ESST, the international, inter-institutional body that runs a European masters programme on Society, Science & Technology, about how they might cooperate more closely with EASST. I was kindly invited as EASST president to participate at the ESST Bureau meeting in Chios in June 2015 and we have agreed a number of potential areas of collaboration.
Research evaluation – influencing position of field in Europe
Most countries in Europe have been developing more formal approaches to research evaluation which have been impacting on STS scholars. When STS is not fully institutionalised it may prove difficult to get recognition for our subject area and the conferences and journals where our work is discussed. This may be a particular issue for members of the STS community who are located within more established disciplines. In national association meetings we have discussed ideas to address this and how we can support each other – for example through acting as external experts on evaluation panels. As EASST president I attended a meeting in Paris in May 2014 hosted by the Observatoire des Sciences et Techniques to promote greater bottom up influence on research evaluation and indicators. EASST as a pan-European body has contributed to recognition of journals and other publication outlets in our field to some national evaluation bodies.
European research and innovation policy – H2020 Vilnius initiative
The value of STS approaches and scholars is being increasingly recognised within EU research and innovation policy and EASST would like to play a wider role in supporting this development and ensuring the inclusion of members of our community, for example through supporting workshops and the development of networks. However, there are also tensions between this goal and the competitive nature of research bids. In support of the broader principle, as EASST president I attended the Vilnius conference in December 2013 ‘Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities’ which discussed ways to ‘operationalise’ the ambitious goals of integrating the social sciences and humanities (SSH) in the Horizon 2020 grand challenges for research and innovation.
Social movements and activism, French initiative
The Barcelona conference has focused on the links between STS academic studies and related issues being pursued by members of social movements and other form of activism. As part of this EASST Council has discussed follow up activities to the French initiative in January 2015 of the ‘Alliance between Science and Society’.
These are just some of the issues where I have become aware of great opportunities for our field – internal boundary work, education and learning. research evaluation, EU research and innovation policy, social movements. There is much more that needs to be done on all these issues – and no doubt other relevant areas that are not included.
My main message is that to pursue any of these opportunities requires, in each case, an individual champion working through our EASST organisation and network. We now have a stable and effective organisation so the basis is there for any interested member to extend our reach and influence. The current renewal of the Council (both the President and many Council members) is the opportunity for you to shape our future. So I hope that if these issues are important to you, you will consider putting yourself forward for election. If anyone would like to have a discussion with me about the role of president I would be happy to hear from you. In the new competitive academic market place our collective voice as an academic community is more important than ever.