Tag Archives: STS Events

The war in Ukraine and European (dis)integration: possible axes of change

22nd of March, 2022 – “Paissii Hilendarski” University of Plovdiv, Compass Conference Hall1 

The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has described the war in Ukraine as the end of more than 30 years of “peace in Europe” after the Cold War and a dangerous beginning of a new era, which changes the world in which Europeans have lived so far. To discuss current events, a round table was organized by the Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at “Paisii Hilendarski” University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, with teachers, students and members of the public participating in person and online. The Center is part of a European network that brings together expertise of researchers to develop interdisciplinary research and training in European studies. 

The round table discussed the war in Ukraine in three panels, each addressing the areas of our center’s specialization – 1) Humanitarian crisis, welfare, social and youth policies in the context of European values ​​and identity; 2) Democracy, law and the rule of law, including the prospects for EU enlargement; and 3) Science, Technology and Innovation in the context of military opposition”. The text below briefly outlines the first two panels, to focus in more details on the last panel. The members of Science, Technology, and Innovation unit at the university’s Department of Applied and Institutional Sociology contributed to the panel. 

In the first panel on “Humanitarian crisis, social and youth policies in the context of European values ​​and identity” the participants Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abel Polese (Dublin City University, Ireland) and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Irina Popravko (Tomsk State University, Russia) presented their insights “from within” the humanitarian crisis and its dimensions. Abel was leading several research projects in Ukraine and flew to Kyiv on February 23. A day later he had to escape by car under the bombs to Romania with “his children, two cats, his ex-wife and her husband”. Having already published his bitter account from the war’s first days, he focused on the disturbing positions spreading already in some EC countries, one blaming the expansion of NATO that pushed Putin to invade, and the other hoping everything to settle down once Ukraine surrendered. He argued in detail why such views are incompatible and in deep contradiction with the core European values he has studied extensively and which are at the heart of the EU project. He discussed how these values should be reshaped in the future after being practically inactive before and immediately after the war. He also pointed out the importance of having a critical mind that allows to check what comes to you in the form of information, rather than dogmatically believing on what is presented as “absolute truth”. 

Irina Popravko reflected on the war from an anthropological perspective. She pointed out that the first visible effect of the war is splitting Russian society into two parts, those who are supporting Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, and those who are not. This split happened not only in public sphere, but also in families, professional communities, and so on. It is possible to talk about a “society/community of trauma”, because most of them define the war as a milestone that divided their lives ‘before’ and ‘after’ February 24th. Starting from this there are problems with different kinds of social identity people have, such as national, local, and professional (e.g. social and humanitarian researchers, teachers, journalists).  Another preliminary effect of the war is self-descriptions of an ‘antiwar’ part of Russian society in terms of collective responsibility: what we did not do, or did not do enough to allow Putin’s regime to start the war. Searching for the answers and trying to conceptualize the new reality some of Russian anthropologists have started to re-read Hannah Arendt. She pointed as the main problem of Russian society its passive, indirect complicity in Putin’s actions. Traumatized Russian society, especially older people who lived during the Soviet era, is forever marked by the war, and their lives are based more on survival than living.

Their views were complemented by a speech of a famous public figure, Manol Peykov, who manages one of Bulgaria’s largest publishing houses and is owner of two printing houses. He presented his civic initiative in support of Ukraine and the refugees from the war. During the first seven days he actively translated important texts, mainly from the Russian-language media by journalists and researchers, as well as stories from the actual situation in Ukraine. This activity, against the background of the limited coverage of events in the Bulgarian media, gained him followers at his personal Facebook profile which gradually became an information center about the war in Ukraine and part of other practical activities in support of Ukraine: donations of medicine, essential products, materials and other items sent to regions such as Odessa, Kharkiv, Nikolaev. He soon provided his personal bank account for monetary donations to make it easier for people who are willing to help but do not have the physical time to donate products at crisis centers. Within 10 days, Mr. Peykov’s bank account received about BGN 40,000 from donors (about 20 000 euro): “This bound me with careful and accurate accountability, because after all, these people give this money to me, not to a large institution, because they associate my face with a person who is concerned”, explains Manol Peykov. He used the funds to support a group of Ukrainian students in Bulgarian universities who after the war could not receive funds from their relatives in Ukraine, for renovation of kindergartens for the children of Ukrainian refugees in Plovdiv, etc. He pointed that “at one point I was in a whirlwind by the logic that doing something meaningful leads to something more meaningful, and so on. I think this was the way to change the world for the better since we cannot hope that someone from above will start things, but we are the ones who should do it!” He explained the popularity of such personal initiatives in light of the inability of institutions to rapidly respond to what is happening: people are looking for someone they trust to channel their energy and contributions. 

The journalist Veselin Stoynev outlined a “dark picture” of the effects of the war in Ukraine on Bulgarian society, which seems divided in two relatively equal camps. The first comprises nostalgic people turned to the past, for whom the results of the post-communist transition are not considered fair and who therefore do not accept the newly established order and its values, institutions and projects for the future. The other camp includes people who are against the Russian invasion, who take position and provide assistance to Ukraine. This part of society is less noisy, while the pro-Russian camp expresses its positions loudly, often claiming that the military conflict is a ‘staged play’ and that everything is a media product. Stoynev claimed that Russian propaganda finds its way to the “other” Bulgaria effectively and professionally, directing focused information flows to targeted groups via social networks and special websites. According to Stoynev, the Bulgarian media also contributed to this split in society, failing to fulfill their role as a responsible public mediator. They often hide behind the principle of “presenting all points of view” providing a platform to reactionary politicians whose ideas are against the interests of the country and its membership in EU. 

The second panel on “Democracy, law and the rule of law, including prospects for EU enlargement, consolidation and positioning as a global factor for the stability” was opened by Prof. Georgi Dimitrov from University of Sofia. By analyzing the process of preparation and membership of Bulgaria in the EU, as well as Romania, Hungary and Poland, he defended the thesis that there is no “fast path to EU membership”. The Union cannot influence the local policies of a Member State, so the Europeanization of the candidate country must be successfully completed before it can join the EU. Ukraine needs to be admitted to the EU, but it will not be able to cope on its own and must receive a comprehensive strategic program with adequate funding to prepare for membership. Prof. Dr. Irena Ilieva, Head of the Institute of State and Law at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Dimitar Angelov, PhD candidate, spoke about the special status of “asylum seekers” from the war as different from the status of the “refugee” and assessed the reactions of the institutions in the EU and the member states. The panel discussed some persistent lacunas in legal and policy framework of European integration in the field of health, that became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic and related this to the existence of similar gaps in the field of defense.

The third panel focused on “Science, technology and innovation in the context of the war in Ukraine” in two particular areas: 1) the energy and technology issues between EU and Russia in the context of sanctions, and 2) limits of the geopolitical frame of reasoning. 

In the first area, papers were presented by Dr. Todor Galev and Konstanza Rangelova, researchers at the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD), a Bulgarian think tank. Their reports have been based on a so-called  Kremlin Playbook, a series of CSD analyzes of the ways in which Russia exerts political and economic influence in Europe. The basic scheme of Russia’s economic influence is the presence of Russian businesses or businesses that are completely dependent on Russia in EU countries (see Figure 1 below). These are not only local companies with legal ties to Russian companies, but also those having a so-called indirect economic footprint. For example, Lukoil Bulgaria – wholly owned by Russia, possesses plants and headquarters in the city of Burgas which is the only site in Bulgaria of such national importance, guarded by armed guards from Russia who are in a sense completely independent of the Bulgarian army or police. 

Todor Galev provided data about the extremely high degree of integration of the Russian financial and banking system into the financial and banking system of Europe, where Austria, Germany and Italy serve as the main channels through which Russian capital enters the European economy. EU banks’ exposure to Russia by the end of 2019 is also substantial (almost 130 billion of euro), although it is almost half as much compared to 2014 (before the Russian invasion in Crimea). He also shared his observations and initial conclusions about the impact of sanctions on Russia’s science and technology policy and the later ‘hybrid’ response. 

The technological policy of the Russian Federation, even since the Soviet era, is based on two main postulates: own development of key technologies through re-engineering and less original innovations. Particularly in the field of energy extraction the partnership with Western companies for access to high technologies dominates. In the field of armaments there is a combination of the use of own technologies and the purchase of key technologies and / or an elemental base from Western companies. Consequently, Todor Galev outlined the effects of Western sanctions on Russia after February 24th on aviation, bank sector, heavy industry and machine building and provided details on Western companies in each sector differentiating them in four groups (Withdrawal of all activities, Suspension, Reduction of reliability, Economic cooperation in opposition of sanctions). The most serious effects of sanctions on Russian technology include the breakdown of supply chains (especially of materials and components already stretched by Covid 19 pandemics), restriction of R&D investment, brain-drain, isolation of Russian scientific communities from their Western partners and significant delays in many research projects, unemployment of intermediate and highly qualified staff. 

 

 

The Russian ‘hybrid response’ to this are ‘counter-sanctions’, strengthening of disinformation and propaganda, belittling the effect of Western sanctions and claiming stronger effect of ‘counter-sanctions’, mobilizing ‘friendly’ public opinion abroad, increase of the efforts in illicit (illegitimate) financing. Galev expected that Russia will further use the instruments for political and economic influence in EU by showing support for pro-Russian parties and leaders, locking in defense cooperation, continuous reliance on spy networks and security services, as well as benefiting from managerial deficits (including corruption) in some EU countries to influence national policies. 

Konstanza Rangelova talked about the energy and climate risks of the war in Ukraine and its effect on the EU Green Deal. She pointed out that large Russian companies such as Gazprom and Lukoil, through their influence on EU institutions and businesses, are building informal networks that penetrate deep into the European economy. These networks impose a vicious circle that intensifies corrupt practices and directly imposes Russian political interests in exchange for business opportunities for their local partners. In this way, Russia is increasingly interfering in politics and strategic decision-making in Europe. 

In addition to these informal networks, the main weapon of intervention is the income Russia receives in foreign currency from the sale of oil and gas. These revenues are huge – at current prices the daily income is almost 1 billion dollars a day, of which almost 400 million goes directly to the Russian government in the form of taxes and fees. These revenues largely minimize the effect of the sanctions imposed so far and make EU a major financial donor, given the sanctions. Simply talking about new sanctions against Russia increases the price of its oil and gas, and thus its revenues. The most dependent on Russian oil are Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, and in absolute terms Germany and the Netherlands are the major importers of Russian oil. Other countries such as Finland, Slovakia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Hungary are also heavily dependent on it.

The Figure 2 below shows the main energy companies as agents through which Russia can impose its interest in Europe, where the danger is directly dependent on the proximity of each of these companies with Russia and the corresponding profits for both countries.

Figure 2 – Some key EU energy companies through which Russia imposes its interests

 So, if at political level the EU is talking about energy diversification, in reality on the ground there is a deepening of the process of integration and mutual penetration between EU and Russia. In 2020-2021 Rosneft increased its shares in a large number of companies engaged in oil transportation in Germany, and in 2022 the company is processing the largest share of oil in Germany through its subsidiaries Bayernoil, Raffinerie GmbH, and MiRO. Oil traders are also important because they also rely on close relations within Russian companies, most of which are based in Switzerland and have historically gained experience in avoiding various types of sanctions, not just with Russia. Similarly, in recent years, instead of declining, the EU’s dependence on Russian gas has increased, with some countries relying on 75% or more. 

Discussing possible EU responses to the energy dependence on Russia, Rangelova stressed the importance of developing a comprehensive strategy that includes immediate measures to be taken together with measures in the medium and long term. Short-term measures should concentrate on putting energy security back in the energy policies’ mix, making binding gas solidarity agreements between EU Member States, a EU Common Gas Purchasing Mechanism, reducing excise and VAT duties on natural gas, integrating Ukraine in European gas and hydrogen markets, and cancelling large-scale Russia-led energy projects such as nuclear power plants and natural gas infrastructures. In medium term Europe should renew domestic gas production in Groningen and Denmark, remove take-or-pay clauses on existing contracts with Gazprom, accelerate strategic interconnectors and gas storage projects, further develop green hydrogen technology, expanding offshore wind and battery storage as replacement of natural gas in power generation, and limit the penetration of Russian capital in strategic markets. Long-term solutions are electrification based on renewable energy sources, improved integration and liberalization of natural gas and power markets in Europe, renovation programs to reduce energy consumption, strategic alignment of U.S. and EU energy and climate security policy, investments of EU and U.S. in regional infrastructure projects and improving the security of supply, diversification and de-carbonization.

Prof. Ivo Hristov (Sociology of Law) presented a geopolitical account on the main trends in the development of worlds’ powers, entitled “On the eve of a new era”. According to him, current events mark the end of the cycle after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which a unipolar model dominated by the United States was imposed. He suggests that the geopolitical model of the world distribution of power is being reshaped in cycles of about 20-25 years. As such, the crisis is not a temporary violation of the existing status quo, but is based on a qualitative change in the status quo as such. 

He outlined the following key characteristics of the new geopolitical circumstances: 1) De-globalisation, which could be characterized also by the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the global SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the cessation of movement between countries of people, goods and capital. 2) Following de-globalization, the new distribution of power will focus on several economic and military centers, each considered as regional alliance with a population of 300-500 million people. 

For the past 30 years or so, the world has been built around its dependence on the industrial north, namely United States and the Euro-Atlantic core. This model was guided by several rules:  the dollar as the world‘s reserve currency; China as world‘s factory for export to the ‘western’ industrial center; and Russia, the former territories of USSR, and the Middle East – as world raw material appendage. The emerging geopolitical blocs will replace the current unipolar model and will be formed in relation to each other as several military, economic and political autarkies that will exist relatively independently. Tentatively they are the following:

  • The US and the EU, as Europeans need US raw materials and industry.
  • China and Russia, which will be drawn away from China‘s economic mentoring as a result of „Western“ isolation.
  • Arab-Muslim with dominance probably of Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia
  • East Asian bloc – Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia. In this scheme India can be either a stand-alone bloc or part of the East Asian bloc.

 

According to Histrov, the problem for Bulgaria is that it is located around the borders of the respective emerging blocs, i.e. where the „frictions“ between the „geopolitical plates“ take place. The Bulgarian state and political elite which lack vision in the emerging geopolitical circumstances and is generally unable to lead the country, is going through economic and demographic crises. Hence Bulgaria is completely unable to adequately respond to the upcoming geopolitical shifts. Globally, the post-war institutions that emerged after World War II – such as the United Nations and others, and which are based on a certain power structure that has sustained the globalization process so far, are expected to be nullified.

In their presentation “Geopolitics as a “style of thinking”: modern legacies and current limitations” Prof. Ivan Tchalakov (Sociology of S&T) and doctoral student Bilyana Mileva draw from the obvious incompatibility between the tragic events of the war in Ukraine which we witnessed from the media, refugee stories and  immediate participants on the one hand and geopolitical concepts of various analysts on the other hand explaining in the same media how Putin had no choice because Ukraine is subordinate to the United States and NATO, etc. As researchers in the field of STS, they observe how the classical sociological conception of science has given way to an  understanding of the various contemporary problems in which modern science and technology are involved. Today we are much freer to critically examine the theses of expert scientists, while they argue that geopolitics seems to have remained in a way of thinking whose foundations are in the second half of the 19th century. 

They turn to the book Geopolitics, in which Colin Flint states that geopolitics is attractive because of “its apparent ability to explain in simple terms a complex and, for some, threatening and uncertain world. In offering simple explanations geopolitics can be reassuring, providing one-dimensional explanations and solutions. Such explanations are reassuring because they create the illusion of being able to know and hence to understand the world.” These simple explanations give political elites a comparative horizon on the basis of which to plan their political actions. In fact, since its very beginning in the late 19th century, geopolitics was made by political elites and their experts, and not so much by the academic community of geographers. It was not until the end of the Cold War that “critical geopolitics” emerged as an academic discipline that began to criticize this approach. As such, it is important to keep the possibility of another geopolitics, which does not reduce but recognizes the complexity of the world and hence no longer imposes the point of view of one or another (political) actor and their order, but works as a framework for distancing from the obvious.

  • Regarding the war in Ukraine and the period immediately preceding it, the characteristic features of classical geopolitics are particularly evident in the works of Alexander Dugin as one of the ideologues of the new Russian expansion. Analyzing one of his extensive interviews on  Bulgarian TV channel in 2017, Tchalakov and Mileva find the typical simplified and reduced understanding of our complex world: 
  • eternal conflict between the Eurasian continent and the Atlantic powers with its dynamics, where at the end of the Cold War Russia briefly “lost its identity” as a Eurasian power 
  • tension between the peoples with their lasting and “eternal” features (culture, religion,  race – e.g. “Slavic affiliation”) on the one hand, and the political elites who may change their orientation, sometimes against the will of the “people”
  • eternal and unchanging characteristics of peoples, as well as their historical memory, determining the lasting relationship of love and gratitude between them, as well as who their “real enemy” is
  • asymmetry between countries from the “periphery” that could choose in the opposition between West and East and ‘core

 

The insolvency of this simplistic view of the world is obvious and the critique summarized by Colin Flint in the above-mentioned book, is fully applicable here too. First of all, Dugin speaks from the privileged position of an expert, belonging to the ruling political elite – well, not the Atlantic and Protestant, but the Russian and Orthodox elites. Secondly, he presents a typically masculine position of an empowered white man who “knows everything” and has the right to provide classifications and make distinctions. Thirdly, this “empowered white adult Eurasian” is applying the scientific method of geopolitics, through which he builds an “objective” historical theory of what is happening in the world, and which sets and justifies the relevant foreign policy. Fourth, precisely because of their objectivity and appeal to be scientific, but also because of their simplicity similar to the laws of mechanics, these easy-to-understand and simple schemes aim to gain public support. Last but not least, geopolitics speaks of large-scale beings – “Orthodoxy”, “Russia”, “Eurasia”, which are presented as objective facts while these are labels and constructions used by small groups of people in power (who control significant material, human and communication resources) to impose their private interests. 

As such, Dugin presents, in post-modernist language, an ideological meta-narrative. But this story can by no means claim universality, much less “objectivity”. In fact, geopolitics is a resource for building actor-networks where it not possible to draw a firm distinction between the global, national and local levels. Therefore, this “wholesale” thinking creates a certain deficit of “embodied” perspective and “situational knowledge”, of talking about real people in real places, i.e. there is a lack of purely human stories of broken destinies, lost lives and sacrifices – something that classic geopolitical analysts like Dugin cannot (and may not want to!) to admit in their analysis.

Consequently, Tchalakov and Mileva turn to Bruno Latour with his concept of “Gaia”, i.e. not the Earth as a globe, an abstract map, but as a thin layer (crust) capable of sustaining life, which is in fact a system without scale. Latour argues that we cannot separate micro from macro level, just as we cannot separate microorganisms (useful or harmful) from the human body and from other animals. After Lovelock, Latour speaks of Gaia that is suitable for life (habitation) and in which all our interactions take place. As such, we cannot really go back to the old and traditional way of life, but we also cannot go back to the new one – the idea of ​​the Earth as a planet, because it is impossible to fit the interpretations of different actors into what our planet is, and what our direction of development is. Thus, Gaia is a complex and ambiguous entity, very different from that of the old geography, through which to unravel the ethical, political, theological and scientific aspects of the already outdated notion of nature. And in fact, what we have to do and where we have to start is the relationship with the person next to us, the one we argue with or the one we are friends with. 

The authors are therefore convinced that the geographical side of geopolitics will sooner or later become “meaningless”, in the same way that the idea of ​​the existence of “eternal” racial, religious or cultural characteristics of peoples has lost its scientific basis. And that even if they matter, geographical, religious, cultural and racial factors are only part of a much more complex picture of the world, in which they are often of limited importance. However, the danger remains – in the event of educational failures and when growing masses of people refuse to think critically, educate themselves and question the suggestions offered to them, geopolitical schemes will remain popular and convincing, and thus serve as an excuse for openly misanthropic and criminal policies.

 

 

1 Our tanks to Petar Parapanov, Vanesa Laleva and Zoro Zorov, B.A. Students at the Department of Applied and Institutional Sociology, University of Plovdiv who helped in transcribing the talks at the Round Table. We would like to thank also Dr. Dimiter Panchev for English editing.  

 

References

Flint, C. (2017) Introduction to geopolitics, Third edition. | Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Prestigious Holberg Prize goes to Sheila Jasanoff

As members of the STS community in Norway, we are thrilled to share that Sheila Jasanoff has been awarded the prestigious Holberg Prize for 2022 “for her pioneering research in the field of Science and Technology Studies”.

The Holberg prize is awarded annually to “a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the humanities, social science, law or theology, either in one of these fields or through interdisciplinary work”. 

The Holberg prize was established by the Norwegian parliament in 2003 as an independent foundation. The prize is named after Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), a Danish-Norwegian scholar, playwright and author born in Bergen, Norway. Holberg is known for both for his imaginative sci-fi-like stories, his humorous characters, and for his contribution to scientific and political thought in the early Nordic enlightenment movement.

Jasanoff joins Bruno Latour as key STS scholars having received this major prize, which amounts to 6.000.000 Norwegian kroner (approx. EUR 600.000 / USD 670.000). Other previous laureates include Martha Nussbaum, Paul Gilroy, Ian Hacking and Julia Kristeva.

The award ceremony takes place in Bergen, Norway on June 9, 2022. This annual ceremony is a major event within the Norwegian humanities and social sciences and will spotlight STS in Norwegian public and intellectual life in the coming months.

In their prize announcement, the Holberg Committee highlights Jasanoff’s many achievements, emphasizing her contributions both within and beyond STS:

“Jasanoff has developed much of the conceptual repertoire for theorizing the political and policy relations of science and technology in contemporary societies. Her theoretical contributions to the political sociology of scientific governance are transformational, recognising that scientific practices and knowledges along with the policy and legal frameworks governing them must be understood as culturally situated and socially constructed. This argument is captured in her collected essays Science and Public Reason (2012).”

“Through sharing her work in both academic and popular forums, Jasanoff is a significant public intellectual, offering timely comments on topics of public concern such as fake news and climate change. Crucially, Jasanoff combines a high level of conceptual creativity with empirical rigour and accessible writing. Indeed, Jasanoff is read not only by humanities and social science scholars but also by natural and medical scientists and policymakers, her work being truly wide-ranging and cross-disciplinary.”

We congratulate Sheila Jasanoff on this achievement! We are proud and inspired by the Holberg Committee’s decision. Together with STS’ers across the country we look forward to welcoming Jasanoff back to Norway in June.

Hilde Reinertsen, Tone Druglitrø and Ana Delgado,
TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, Norway

Politics, technology and futures in times of crisis: a note of anticipation for the upcoming EASST 2022 conference

What are the politics of (the) future(s)? That is, what are the various political conflicts and formations associated with imagining and enacting futures — futures that are calculated through complex processes of projection and modeling, and futures that are collectively imagined as good, right, and attainable? And the inverse: what kinds of sociotechnical formations do we ourselves seek to enact or avoid—how does (or should) our research contribute to the piecemeal and cumulative production of futures? Further, how does the increasingly widely articulated sense of instability and uncertainty configure those processes of future making?

With these questions, we propose to create conversation and draw together knowledge about politics, technoscience, and worldmaking in the next EASST conference, which will take place in Madrid between the 6th and the 9th of July 2022.1

Prediction, anticipation and projection of events and circumstances yet-to-come are potent tools for ordering, building, enclosing, and modeling our present. STS scholars have long pointed out the role that science, technology and innovation play in this process. This topic is indeed not new, but the current moment of instability –of continuously compounding crisis– uniquely raises the salience of these questions, making them more urgent and visible than they otherwise might be. 

As we pointed out in the conference theme, the current pandemic is not alone in disrupting human and non-human lives and livelihoods. The record-setting heat waves of summer 2021, along with unprecedented floods in Northwestern Europe, not to mention the medicane Apollo that recently hit Sicily, remind us that we are already well beyond the point of no-return in the climate crisis. These events come to unsettle our daily lives after a decade characterized by the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession and debt crisis, which propagated across the world. 

This is a moment in which various modes of human interconnectedness are (re)constructed and made visible as sociotechnical systems at risk. Our hope is that the EASST conference in Madrid may be an opportunity to collectively consider the role of STS research in the contemporary proliferation of more or less articulated attempts to redefine problems, to set new agendas, to reframe challenges, and to produce new sociotechnical imaginaries to steer and order the uncertain present using the light of imagined futures. 

We propose that these political processes deserve special attention in our scholarly community, because in these moments of crisis new opportunities may arise, and the proliferation of different, contrasting futures makes our present more open to previously inconceivable alternatives. In this endeavor, both our scientific gaze and our constructive participation are called upon to contribute, study and imagine, to cast light and be self-reflexive at the same time.

Accordingly, we are setting up a conference program that seeks to address these compelling issues in a dynamic and interactive way. In this short text, we have the privilege to share with the EASST community a preview of the conference events, with which participants will be invited to engage within and beyond traditional panel formats. Specifically, we have planned to host two plenaries and four sub-plenaries, in which we will share reflections, knowledge, strategies and concerns about what we refer to in the title of the conference as the politics of technoscientific futures. 

The first plenary session, chaired by Carmen Romero Bachiller, will address the topic of the conference in a dialogical setting, where Amade M’Charek and Annalisa Pelizza will engage in conversation about the migration crisis at European borders. Amade’s analysis of forensic care work connects the lives of the people lost in the Mediterranean with broad reevaluations of former colonial domination and current extractivist practices. Annalisa’s work focuses on technological border control and the production of migrants as other in the EU. These issues have taken on new urgency under the COVID pandemic, accompanied by the increasing presence of extreme right political positions throughout Europe and the threat they pose to democratic ideals. Speaking from the vantage point of their scholarly work, this conversation will engage STS research through explicitly feminist and anti-racist lenses. 

The subplenaries will then direct our attention to various sites at which technoscientific futures are under active contestation. Mario Pansera will chair a sub-plenary that takes up the debate about the future of growth and de-growth.  Growing evidence of accelerating climate change and ecological destruction gives new force and urgency to the movement to advance knowledge and theory regarding alternative forms of economic order, and related questions regarding the relationship between technological innovation, knowledge production, and routinized modes of capitalist accumulation. Innovation has been, so far, framed as a way of transcending limits, thus functioning to legitimize infinite growth. Seeking to subvert existing assumptions about the relationship between innovation and growth, this sub-plenary will invite discussion about new narratives of collective well-being as well as new innovation practices and policies. Can we push the imagined scope of innovation beyond the technological, and consider patterns of cultural and institutional change, resilience, and revision that might support the continued flourishing of a wide range of planetary life forms? How might science and technology take shape in a system that is not based on the premise of endless growth? What policies, infrastructures and organizational forms are needed or are more likely to facilitate a post-growth innovation era? These are just some of the questions that will inspire and challenge us during this sub-plenary. 

The climate crisis, of course, is not the only agent of destabilization acting on the contemporary landscape. The politics of technoscientific futures must also contend with important concerns about artificial intelligence and the mobilization of algorithmic tools in fields as diverse as healthcare, urban mobility and labor markets. A wide variety of social, economic, ethical and political issues have emerged along with this process of sociotechnical transformation. The use of algorithms and the accountability of developers, users and customers involved in their generation or adoption is progressively, and compellingly, dominating public debates. Mauro Turrini, Nuria Vallés (from the local organizing committee), together with Ulrike Felt (from the scientific committee) are preparing a sub-plenary on algorithms, prediction and narratives of futures. They will host a roundtable on the futures involved in the use of algorithms, promises, and emerging new forms of governmentality and resistance. Notably, this sub-plenary is conceived as a dialogue between academia and activist collectives of digital rights including but not limited to the automation of everyday life, population control, civil rights, the domestication of algorithms, and the construction of new imaginaries of collective life.

In times of crisis, as we know all too well, the politics of futures are not only imagined and performed through policy measures, political debates or technological innovation. Science fiction plays a key role: images and words invoking the future are often used by companies and governments to promote new products, such as medical treatments and devices, autonomous vehicles, and big science investments. With this in mind, the conference will include a sub-plenary on science fiction and science futures. Sally Wyatt, Michela Cozza and Nina Witjes will help us to investigate the complex and fascinating relationship between science and science fiction, where science fiction is often the source of inspiration for scientists and engineers, while science studies can be a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and artists. Addressing topics as diverse as the anthropocene, energy & climate change; datafication, AI space exploration & interplanetary travel; health, genetics & the enhancement/extension of human life, this sub-plenary explores different ways that speculative and science fiction (SSF) are used not only as a source of visions and imaginaries for scientists, engineers and others, but also as a method and device for STS scholars to engage with interlocutors during fieldwork and with wider audiences. Bringing together academic scholars, screenplay writers and artists this sub-plenary will stimulate the (individual and collective) EASST imagination through paying attention to, and engaging with, poetic, literary and artistic renderings of techno-scientific futures. The organizers have also announced a science fiction competition, the winners of which will be announced during the proceedings. Shortly, in these pages, we will open a writing contest in which participants can send short stories or poetry pieces about science fiction and science futures. The winners will get a symbolic prize at the conference and will have their manuscripts published in the EASST Review. 

Finally, it would not make sense to talk about crisis, politics and futures without explicitly centering the perspectives of early career scholars, and seeking to address the tangle of intergenerational justice issues ingrained in the politics of technoscientific futures. Our final sub-plenary, organized jointly by Adolfo Estalella, Violeta Argudo, Esther Ortega (from the local organizing committee) and Sarah Rose Bieszczad (from the scientific committee) will address speculative ecologies. Their proposal reminds us that the current environmental and health crisis is not only revealing the constitutive vulnerability of our world, but also creating speculative spaces to identify and explore the possible. This process, though, cannot be decoupled from contemporary speculations about the many possible forms of our scholarly practice. How should our modes of research respond to the challenges of our time? How could we renovate our scholarly practices? This sub-plenary will address these questions, drawing in the concept of ‘speculative ecologies’, and focusing on those organized collectives that offer us the possibility to speculate not just with different futures but alternative presents too. Involving early career scholars from across Europe, the sub-plenary will not engage with the production of fictions or forecasts: on the contrary, it will focus on practices that are rooted in the present and resist the fateful future.

In the closing sentences of the conference theme, we suggest that a closer study of the dynamics by which the past and the present are known, and correspondingly acted on and re-described in the name of better futures, is an urgent task for our STS community. We also promise that the conference will provide a memorable opportunity for scholars across all the fields and areas of science and technology studies to rise to the occasion of collective destabilization to engage critically and creatively with the technoscientific politics of futures. We hope that these unique and inspiring moments of collective engagement and debate will help us to deliver on our promises. 

 

Subplenary one

Imaging a post-growth society: Science, technology and innovation beyond growth

Organizer(s): Mario Pansera (University of Vigo)

The feasibility and desirability of endless economic growth is increasingly being questioned by scholars and activists. While envisioning alternative economic models is key to assure the sustainability and wellbeing of present and future generations, few studies have analysed what might be the role of ‘innovation’ in a post-growth era. Innovating has become the imperative for the survival and expansion of any form of organisation. This sub-plenary starting point is that untangling innovation from growth is key to imagining a post-growth era. If growth is going to be unsustainable, we need new narratives as well as new innovation practices and policies that would accordingly also have to change and increase the scope of the innovation concept itself, beyond technology, into cultural and institutional change, and indeed social life and social order. The STS community has only recently begun to get involved in the debates about post-growth and de-growth. STS contributions may enrich the ways in which we imagine and configure STI systems, which are in turn crucial for enabling a sustainable future and an adaptation to the challenges of the climate crisis. But how science and technology will look like in a system that is not based, and doesn’t not rely, on endless growth? Under which conditions STI without growth would be able to flourish? What levels of technological complexity can we reach in a non-growing economy? What policies, infrastructures and organizational forms are needed or are more likely to facilitate a post-growth innovation era? Questions that have been so far rarely asked within STS and STI circles are now at the heart of what this sub-plenary will address.

 

Subplenary 2

Algorithms, prediction and narratives of future. A roundtable on the futures involved in the use of algorithms, their promises and their new forms of governmentality and resistance

Organizers: Mauro Turrini (IPP-CSIC), Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna), Nuria Vallés (University Autónoma Barcelona)

This sub-plenary is conceived as a dialogue between academia and citizen participation, as one of the privileged strategies proposed by STS, to build new narratives around the role of AI in our lives. For this reason, academics with different expertise and people from activist collectives of digital rights collectives are invited as speakers. For this reason, the session will be organized around a series of questions introduced by the discussant (and previously discussed with the speakers), on issues such as: the automation of everyday life, population control, civil rights, the domestication of algorithms, the construction of new imaginaries of collective life, etc. 

 

Subplenary 3

Science Fiction and Science Futures 

Fig 1: Picture made by Berti Weber

Methods, forms and norms
Techno-science-fictional
Gazing at the stars
(Haiku) 

Organizer(s):

Sally Wyatt (Maastricht University); Nina Klimburg-Witjes (University of Vienna) & Michela Cozza (Mälardalen University)

Speculative and science fiction are often sources of inspiration for scientists, engineers and in popular culture, while science studies can be a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and artists. Images and words invoking the future are often used by companies and governments to promote new products, such as medical treatments and devices, autonomous vehicles, and big science investments. This panel explores different ways that speculative and science fiction (SSF) are used not only as a source of visions and imaginaries for scientists, engineers and others, but also as a method and device for STS scholars to engage with interlocutors during fieldwork and with wider audiences. The aim of the sub-plenary is to stimulate the (individual and collective) EASST imagination through paying attention to and engaging with poetic, literary and artistic renderings of techno-scientific futures. Speakers will be invited to explore some aspect of the role of SFF in different domains, including Anthropocene, energy & climate change; datafication, AI space exploration & interplanetary travel; health, genetics & the enhancement/extension of human life. There are many different aspects to this, including how SFF shapes the hopes, promises and fears that appear in the discourses of research agendas, public policy, design, media, and education.  The panel will be accompanied by a competition for short stories & poetry related to science-technology-futures (details for the competition will be announced by the end of the year and winners awarded at the EASST conference 2022). 

 

Subplenary 4

Speculative ecologies for a vulnerable world

Organizers: Adolfo Estalella (University Complutense Madrid); Violeta Argudo-Portal (IPP-CSIC): Esther Ortega-Arjonilla (University Tufts Skidmore Spain); Sarah Rose Bieszczad (Leiden University)

With the current environmental and health crises revealing the constitutive vulnerability of our world, the creation of speculative spaces to identify and explore the possible is more urgent than ever. This move must go hand in hand with speculations about the many possible forms of our scholarly practice: how should our modes of research respond to the challenges of our time? How could we renovate our scholarly practices? In this sub-plenary we would like to address these questions drawing in the concept of ‘speculative ecologies’. There is a long-tradition in STS demonstrating that beyond the formal and institutionalized modes of knowledge production, there thrives in our societies modes of impure science and wild research that shows alternative ways to face the challenges of our world. Social movements, civic organizations, and organized collectives have taught us how to pose the challenging questions that our world in crisis needs. In this sub-plenary we would like to think with our counterparts, those organized collectives that offer us the possibility to speculate not just with different futures but alternative presents too for their modes of inhabitation offer other modes of engagement with the world. The speculative practice that we invoke is thus not engaged in the production of fictions or forecasts, on the contrary, it is a practice rooted in the present that resists the fateful future. We would like to open a dialogue about how different organized collectives engage with speculative ecologies. First, we are interested in those efforts whose practical engagement entails a form of speculation with different ecological relations: from activists of extinction rebellion to scientists that demonstrate how we can learn from nature to respond to the present challenges—just to give two possible cases. Second, we are interested in collective projects aimed at the renovation of our academic environment (or, in our parlance, the ecology of practices of academia), initiatives that create the speculative conditions to bring into existence alternative scholarly practices—from novel practices of evaluation for academic work to alternative modes of teaching or different ways of academic organization.

 

 

1 Please note: Due to the NATO Summit that will be held on the 29th and the 30th of June on the same premises we had originally booked for our conference, we had to postpone the conference by one week. The new dates are the 6th to 9th of July 2022, in the same venue. We apologise for all the inconveniences caused, but this had to be done due to reasons of force majeure.

Webinar Report: “Back to Normal? Social Justice & DOHaD in the COVID Era”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, many countries are resuming economic and social activities, with the goal of returning to some semblance of ‚normality‘. But how should this new normal look like? This was the topic of an interdisciplinary webinar entitled Back to Normal? Social Justice and the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease in the COVID Era, which took place on December 7, 2020. The webinar was hosted by the Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS) at the Technical University of Munich in collaboration with the International Society for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease as well as the University of Southampton. 

The webinar was the result of a longstanding collaboration between Mark Hanson and Chandni Jacob from the Institute for Developmental Sciences (IDS) at the University of Southampton and Ruth Müller and myself from the MCTS. The IDS is a leading center in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) field. This biomedical research field is based on the hypothesis that many chronic diseases have developmental origins (Gluckman, Buklijas, & Hanson, 2016). DOHaD traces how environmental influences like nutrition, stress or toxic exposure during susceptible periods (such as in utero or the first two years of life) can condition the developing organism in ways that make it more likely to develop disease decades later in adulthood. DOHaD has received interest from Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars because it promises to open up a ‘biosocial perspective’ that considers how social factors shape biological processes and that allows bringing questions of social justice into biomedical thinking and practice (Müller et al., 2017). At the same time, some STS scholars have cautioned against reductionist tendencies in DOHaD that might lead to focusing predominantly on maternal factors and thus re-produce gendered stereotypes that contribute to ‘blaming the mother’ (e.g., Richardson et al., 2014).

In this context, the webinar was part of our ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration with DOHaD researchers on how STS perspectives can contribute to socially responsible DOHaD research and policy translations (Penkler et al., 2019). It brought together in equal parts researchers from DOHaD and STS to discuss what social justice questions arise in the present pandemic. One of our departing premises was that the current pandemic has dramatically highlighted how social inequalities are tied to unequal vulnerabilities, with disadvantaged groups bearing the biggest social, health and economic burden. While associations of adverse effects with so-called ‘pre-existing’ conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes have been widely reported, it is important to highlight how many of these conditions have their roots in underlying social inequalities. At the same time, the economic and social effects of the current crisis are set to exacerbate existing inequalities, with potentially long-term health consequences as women and children are groups that, while not being at high risks of adverse health outcomes from COVID-19, are particularly affected by the pandemic’s economic and social impact (Penkler et al., 2020).

After an introduction by Mark Hanson and Ruth Müller, Martha Kenney from the San Francisco State University delivered the first presentation on Social Justice and Recovery from COVID-19. In her presentation, she pointed out that a focus on so-called ‘pre-existing conditions’ like obesity runs danger of losing sight of underlying social inequalities and of locating risk and responsibility primarily at the level of the individual. This could reinforce a eugenic logic that separates healthy ‘us’ from unhealthy ‘others’ who are blamed for their own ill-health. Instead, it is important to highlight and address the structural factors that drive health disparities. DOHaD insights on how adverse conditions during early life can increase the risk for later life disease accord with social science insights how social inequalities and structures of inequality become embodied, shaping health outcomes across the life course and generations. Therefore, social justice is fundamental to promoting health in society, and resilience to health emergencies requires systematic rather than individual change. In this context, Kenney ended her talk with recommendations for strengthening the social justice impact of DOHaD research: Collaborating with STS scholars and other social scientists can help design studies that account for both biological and social complexity. DOHaD researchers should further identify concerns and research questions that are relevant to the communities being studied. Additionally, she recommends to focus DOHaD research on investigating structural causes of inequality instead on lifestyle and individual behaviors, and to conduct research on how to promote community resilience instead of focusing mainly on the negative outcomes of adverse early life conditions. 

Tessa Roseboom from the University of Amsterdam delivered a talk that was deftly named Using the ‘shit’ of the COVID-19 crisis as a fertilizer for the soilbase to build a sustainable society for future generations. Roseboom’s work has focused on the long-term health consequences of prenatal exposures during the Dutch Hunger Winter, which was a famine caused by a German embargo during World War II (Roseboom, de Rooij, & Painter, 2006). Her studies have provided evidence for how adverse conditions during early childhood can have severe long-term impacts on the risk for cardiovascular disease as well as on cognitive function in later life. According to Roseboom, this shows how fundamental early life is for later wellbeing and for the possibility of children reaching what she calls their ‘full potential’. In this context, providing adequate conditions for children to grow and develop is fundamentally children’s rights issue, as captured by the United Nation’s Declaration of the Right of the Child. This is especially pertinent in the current crises, where children and families are particularly affected by increases in domestic violence, a deteriorating economy, increased stress and food insecurities. Given the possible long-term effects, we need to invest in early human development now to lay the foundation for a more just and sustainable future for all.

In her talk, Sarah Richardson reported findings from Harvard University’s GenderSci Lab COVID Project, which show how social factors mediate and drive sex disparities in COVID-19 outcomes. For example, gender-related behavioral factors influence the uptake of preventive practices (e.g., men are less likely to wear masks). Structural aspects are important, too: Gender differences in occupation effectively lead to a gender-segregated structure of exposure, with men being more likely to work in fields that come with a higher risk of exposure. Together, these findings highlight how context matters for interpreting disparities in health and for explaining sex differences that were originally seen as primarily biological in origin (Shattuck-Heidorn, Reiches, & Richardson, 2020). Richardson argued that this provides an important lesson for DOHaD research. The C-19 pandemic will offer an opportunity to study the long-term effects of prenatal and early life exposures. This corresponds to a well-established research approach in DOHaD to work with so-called ‘natural experiments’. However, such study designs run the risk of reducing complexity, as events like the Dutch Hunger Winter or the current pandemic are incredibly complex. The idea that we can study these events at the level of the body is a move that potentially translates modest and uncertain findings into very bold biosocial theories that often locate causality and agency in the intrauterine period. Such an approach risks collapsing very different scales (from the social to the molecular), levels of biological and social analysis as well as different time scales and histories into very specific claims about biological processes like neurocognitive development. According to Richardson, these claims produce potentially very compelling narratives, but they need to be critically questioned. In investigating the long-term effects of the C-19 pandemic, DOHaD researchers should be aware that we are dealing with very complex social factors and that we are reasoning about risk under conditions of uncertainty and large gaps in the data. 

In the final presentation, Shane Norris from Wits University spoke on global health and justice perspectives raised by the current pandemic, with a specific focus on South Africa. South Africa had initially a very rapid and successful response to COVID-19 that ended in preventing many hospitalizations. However, this response had also very uneven effects on its population. In particular, it severely disrupted the informal economy on which many South African communities rely. The substantial economic fallout has disproportionally affected women, who work to a larger extent in the informal economy. This is one example of how multiple inequalities in a very unequal society intersect and reinforce each other, with strong intergenerational effects. According to Norris, we need to pay attention to these inequalities and narrow the gap if we want to achieve better health for everyone. Bringing a better understanding of the social determinants of health and disease to the DOHaD literature is absolutely critical in this context. 

In sum, the presentations and the following lively discussion revealed substantial shared “matters of care” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2011) between DOHaD and STS scholars. Speakers and participants from both fields shared concerns with how to build a more equitable world that provides better health for everyone. There were also some points for debate: for example, some discussants pointed out the danger of deterministic narratives that describe certain population groups as biologically damaged due to adverse experiences in early life, arguing that this could have eugenic implications. But overall, the webinar provided a strong example for how biomedical researchers and social scientists can engage in mutual and symmetric discussions on how to promote the social justice impact of health research. The next step, from my perspective, will be to further explore how to turn these discussions into actual interdisciplinary collaborations that for example include STS scholars into the design and implementation of DOHaD research studies.

You can find a recording of the webinar here: https://youtu.be/6xgOlVYeufo 

 

 

References

Gluckman PD, Buklijas T and Hanson MA (2016) The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) concept: past, present, and future. In Rosenfeld CS (ed) The epigenome and developmental origins of health and disease. Boston, MA: Academic Press, pp. 1-15.

Müller R, Hanson C, Hanson M, Penkler M, Samaras G, Chiapperino L, Dupré J, Kenney M, Kuzawa C, Latimer J, Lloyd S, Lunkes A, Macdonald M, Meloni M, Nerlich B, Panese F, Pickersgill M, Richardson SS, Rüegg J, Schmitz S, Stelmach A and Villa, P-I (2017) The biosocial genome? Interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental epigenetics, health and society. EMBO Reports 18(10): 1677–1682.

Penkler M, Hanson M, Biesma RG and Müller R (2019) DOHaD in science and society: emergent opportunities and novel responsibilities. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease 10(3): 268-273.

Penkler M, Müller R, Kenney M and Hanson M (2020) Back to normal? Building community resilience after COVID-19. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology 8(8): 664-665. 

Puig de la Bellacasa M (2011) Matters of care in technoscience: assembling neglected things. Social Studies of Science 41(1): 85-106. 

Richardson SS, Daniels CR, Gillman MW, Golden J, Kukla R, Kuzawa C and Rich-Edwards J (2014) Don’t blame the mothers. Nature 512: 131-132. 

Roseboom T, de Rooij S and Painter R (2006) The Dutch famine and its long-term consequences for adult health. Early Human Development 82(8): 485-491.

Shattuck-Heidorn H, Reiches and Richardson SS (2020, June 24, 2020). What’s really behind the gender gap in Covid-19 deaths? New York Times. 

Unraveling the landscape: a 360° workshop

The idea behind this workshop was borne out of a previous collaboration between António Baía Reis and Michelle Kasprzak in 2018. At that time, and within the same natural and research setting of Câmara de Lobos, the two authors where brought together by the desire to explore 360° video storytelling and ended up producing a short documentary about the life, achievements, and misadventures of a Madeiran master boat builder. Inspired by this previous experience, they sought to outline a project where they would teach and guide young people to critically and creatively reflect about the world around them using the same emerging storytelling techniques. With this in mind, the workshop gathered a diverse group of people consisting of four finalist students from the bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts of the University of Madeira, a young man from Câmara de Lobos, and an Italian Ph.D. student based on the island.

Drawing from our field notes and by observing this group’s specific dynamics and interactions, one might clearly split this group into three different mindsets, he first consisting of the four university art students. These four students were very much in harmony with each other throughout the entire workshop, especially during the brainstorming that led to outlining the production of the short video. Their approach was evidently aligned with a certain esthetic complexity and abstract way of thinking and approaching problems, quite distinctive of students that are exposed to art history, theories, and practices. They always seemed to try to find subliminal ways of conveying an idea, through the subtleties that artistic expression might encompass.

 

Art students experiencing virtual reality. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

On the flipside, the young man from Câmara de Lobos showed a different mindset, conveyed by a pragmatic way of thinking but overall a mindset that proved to be quite effective in terms of accomplishing a smooth group workflow. His insights and ideas were strong and informative. When facing a creative challenge, he showed a consistent ability to go straight to the point. Efficient creativity might be a good category to define this young man’s approach.

Telmo (young man from Câmara de Lobos) and Mela (Italian Ph.D. student)during the braistorming. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Finally, the Ph.D. student acted as a typical academic, i.e., balancing between free thinking and scientific analyses of everything that was happening around her, a sort of a limbo between herself as a participant and outsider making detached scientific observations. The idea that diversity triggers creative and innovative outcomes in groups is broadly accepted (Bantel & Jackson, 1989; Austin, 1997). Nevertheless, having different backgrounds and perspectives can create some difficulties. It wasn’t the case with this work group. The combination of the diverse abovementioned approaches clearly contributed to accomplish the goal of this workshop, which was the creation of a collaborative short 360° video.

The workshop took place in the Madeiran Press Museum – in the midst of old press machines and with the ghost of Gutenberg – a quite evocative setting to be thinking and reflecting about storytelling. On the first day, and after quite a thorough team building exercise, the participants were introduced to the most relevant concepts, theories, and practices around 360° video storytelling. This theoretical outline was informed mostly by key studies on immersive journalism (Baía Reis et al., 2018; Jones, 2017; Laws, 2017), and it was focused on concepts like immersion, presence, and emotion in relation to virtual reality technologies to set the basis for understanding how to use 360°storytelling to tell stories yet untold. This was followed by a showcase of a selection of 360° videos using a virtual reality headset to expose the participants first-hand to this emergent practice. Then, we proposed that the group come up with a story yet untold that they wanted to tell about their community that would make sense in virtual reality storytelling. The group decided to tell a story about the unexpected influence of Winston Churchill in Madeira. The third and final days were devoted to shooting, editing, and presenting the short video.

Braistorming and defining the storyline for the 360° video production. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

The brainstorming for selecting the story and the video production processes were clearly the most relevant moments for us to examine, e.g., creativity as both a process and an outcome (Miliken et al., 2003) and how that manifested through the diverse perspectives within the group. During the brainstorming, when everyone was asked about what story should be told, an immediate and clear  idea about doing something on Winston Churchill came from the young man from Câmara de Lobos. Throughout the brainstorming and video production, the inputs of this young man were clearly the ones that established the focus to effectively create a successful collective outcome. One might say that he unconsciously guided his fellow participants and their divergent ideas into a convergent structured attitude. In fact, creative processes require both divergent and convergent thinking for the sustained development of creative outcomes by work groups (Miliken et al., 2003).

Shooting the 360° video in the bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Furthermore, by assuming a relevant role in the shooting and editing processes, he showed an ability to focus on his tasks and to make quick, simple, and practical decisions. This approach was complemented by a certain artistic finesse that arose from the art students, who tried to think of original ways for conveying the story, and a sort of a mediating approach by the Ph.D. student who throughout the entire process seemed to be mediating ideas by deconstructing them to her fellow participants so that everyone could see its advantages and disadvantages, thus making informed and coherent decisions. Overall, one might argue that the combination of these diverse perspectives led to a fluent, flexible and original creative process. Fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought were, therefore, defining qualities of the final creative outcome (Miliken et al., 2003), the short video about Winston Churchill and his relation to Madeira.

The “Winston Churchill” viewpoint in Câmara de Lobos. The sign says “Winston Churchill painted here in 1950” Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

Creative processes and analysis apart, some attention should be given to this most unlikely combination: Winston Churchill and Madeira island. At the entrance of Câmara de Lobos there is a viewpoint which owes its name to the British prime minister Winston Churchill, who painted a seascape depicting the bay in this location. The Winston Churchill viewpoint, located at the entrance of the city of Câmara de Lobos, allows you to enjoy a magnificent panoramic view of the dry dock, the bay, and the town. Built in 1963, it was known at the time as the “Espírito Santo” (Holy Spirit) viewpoint. Later the name was changed, as a way for the picturesque village of Câmara de Lobos to remember and pay tribute to Winston Churchill, since in this location the British prime minister painted the abovementioned seascape depicting the bay. But this is not the only Churchill reference you find in this fishermen’s town. Churchill is everywhere, in restaurants, in guided tours, souvenirs shops, a true “Churchillmania”. With this mind, the short video produced within this workshop explores this phenomenon and counter reacts to it by telling the “true stories” about this town’s old traditions and culture, so deeply related to the lives of fishermen.

The bay of Câmara de Lobos. Courtesy of Michelle Kasprzak

In short, we engaged a diverse group of people in understanding the potential of emerging technologies and how to use them in a creative way to tell stories yet untold in a small neighborhood at the edge of Europe; we promoted an open event where the results were discussed, the short 360° video was showcased, and all the participants had the opportunity to share their experience with the wider community; Finally, we had the chance to academically reflect about this experience by analyzing the various dynamics between the participants, the setting, and the creative processes involved. Having the bay of Câmara de Lobos and the Atlantic as our background, this workshop succeeded in achieving its proposed goals by combining three classical features of science and technology studies: scientific knowledge, technology, and society.

 

 

 

References

Austin, J. R., 1997. A cognitive framework for understanding demographic influences in groups. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 5, pp. 342-359

Baía Reis, A., Coelho, A. F. V. C. C., 2018. Virtual Reality and Journalism, Digital Journalism, 6 (8), pp. 1090-1100

Bantel, C. A., Jackson, S. E., 1989. Top management and innovations in banking: Does the composition of the top team make a difference? Strategic Management Journal, 10, pp. 107-124

Jones, S., 2017. Disrupting the Narrative: Immersive Journalism in Virtual Reality. Journal of Media Practice, 18, pp. 171-185

Laws, A. L. S., 2017. Can Immersive Journalism Enhance Empathy? Digital Journalism. DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1389286

Miliken, F. J., Bartel, C. A., Kurtzberg T. R., 2003. Diversity and Creativity in Work Groups: A Dynamic Perspective on the Affective and Cognitive Processes That Link Diversity and Performance. Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration, Oxford University Press, pp. 34-62

 

Report: ‘Stsing’ – Towards inclusive forms of STS-in-Germany

Due to the rising number of STS programs the first generation of STS trained alumni is about to emerge in Germany. This potential is not to be wasted due to loose integration, coordination and missing mutual support. STS needs more visibility within the German academic community and beyond and career paths for both junior and senior scientists still need to become an integral part of German research facilities.

The two STS related organizations in Germany (namely INSIST and GWTF) are only addressing particular strands of STS. This is why, a group of Germany based STS scientists from various institutions decided to enable an inclusive network for STS researchers of all academic career stages and theoretical, methodological and institutional backgrounds. A first German STS meeting was held at last years´ EASST conference in Lancaster. Since over 100 researchers attended and many voiced interest for more networking, the workshop “STS in Germany – But how? An open workshop on possible organization forms of STS-in-Germany” took place at Kassel University from February 20th to 21st 2019 to further explore the shape this network could take. 

The first evening started with an informal dinner and the possibility to get to know each other and network. The second day started with an introduction of the organizing team. Afterwards inputs by Göde Both, Stefanie Büchner, Max Liboiron, Michelle Murphy and Jutta Weber were given about inclusive and experimental ways of developing an academic organisational form. These varied inputs were all deriving from diverse geographical and disciplinary experiences.

The second part of the day was dedicated to seven discussion groups in which the attendees had the chance to debate institutional support, adisciplinarity, peer-support, STS training, international exchange, connecting and communicating, and infrastructure. Due to the young academic age, of most attendees and the fact, that STS itself is a relatively young discipline with its first generation of scholars who went to STS Master´s and PhD programs still in the making in Germany (see report by STSing 2019), a focus was laid on ways of STS training, peer support and related issues. 

In order to further facilitate the process, five working groups were established concerning: future events, a code of conduct for STS-in-Germany, a tool in order to map the STS landscape in Germany, the creation of an infrastructure for formal ways of peer support, and a web platform and other communication devices to enable us to do so. These working groups resonate very well with the needs already voiced during the first meeting in Lancaster, asking for representation of STS to the outside world, online collaborative support, the organization of meetings and overall formats for “exchange, mutual inspiration and knowledge production” (Niewöhner 2018). 

https://stsingermany2019.com Photo credits: Sophie Hässelbarth

Two groups were added in posterity, one to address the need for funding future activities and another to explore the organizational form this network can take. 

Each group nominated two to three people who will act as “access points” for these working groups. Anyone interested in joining one or more of the groups can do so by contacting the access points. These working groups will enable the next steps towards finding a working infrastructure until a founding conference planned for the first half of 2020.

As an attendee, I would argue for taking a step back and think through what STS actually is and which potential it has within the German academic discourse and institutional infrastructures. Rather than organizing a founding conference just yet, I believe a reflection and discussion on what it is that connects the different strands of doing STS, and how our multitude of epistemological and methodological interests and approaches might enrich each other more than in the past, is more necessary than stabilizing a network through classical venues such as a conference. 

So far, it seems to be clear, that the existing structures do not represent STS in Germany in all its forms and shades. But in order to do so in the future, the “fragmented character” and “youthfulness” of German STS should be seen as its strength and not its weakness when it is assured all voices are heard within the process of establishing an alternate network. When mapping the STS landscape in Germany, more qualitative data on the meanings and execution of STS in the individual institutions will help to outline this research ‘rainbow’. The web platform therefore should enable all STS researchers in Germany (and its allies from everywhere else) to further reflect upon the question on what STS actually is to them, whether STS in Germany defines itself through common research topics, concepts, theories, methods or epistemic agendas. Finding a common ground will help to support a diverse and inclusive STS community and enable further connections and networks for the future. 

Concluding with the words of the organizers: “[c]onsidering the fragmented character and experimental dynamics of actual STS activities in Germany, this and other outputs are a great step forward and a success for stsing.” (Bogusz et al. 2019) 

The organizers want to invite explicitly those who were not able to attend the workshop but are eager to engage with STS in Germany to get in touch and get involved. Please visit: 

www.stsingermany2019.com 

 

1  See a summary of the event by Jörg Niewöhner (2018) and a personal reflection by Tim Schütz (2018).

References 

Bogusz, Tanja; Stefanie Büchner, Endre Dányi, Anja Klein, Stefan Laser, Martina Schlünder and Estrid Sørensen: #stsing – but how? An open workshop on possible organisation forms of STS-in-Germany, 20. – 21.02.2019 at Kassel University, see https://stsingermany2019.com/workshop-report/ 

Niewöhner, Jörg on behalf of the committee: STS in Germany: Ve vill go on!, 2018, see https://www.dests.de/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/STS-in-Germany-–-Ve-vill-go-on.pdf 

Schütz, Tim: Still “in its infancy”? Afterthoughts on the relevance of STS anchors in Germany, EASST Review Volume 37(4) 2018, here https://www.easst.net/article/still-in-its-infancy-afterthoughts-on-the-relevance-of-sts-anchors-in-germany/ 

Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate

In November 2017 the workshop ‚Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate’ took place at the Technical University of Munich. An international group of scholars from STS, landscape architecture, anthropology and design set to explore conceptual and political strategies to turn societal imaginaries of urban public squares upside down. Circling the square, we argued, is necessary to unleash the potential of these spaces and of certain design strategies to ensure urban sustainability and ecological conviviality in the Anthropocene.

Continue reading Circling the Square: Re-designing nature-cultures in a changing urban climate

“How to do research with Science and Technology Studies?” Workshop report on the empirical impact of STS

The workshop “How to do research with Science and Technology Studies?” held at the University of Siegen, 26-27 Octoberstarted with the supposition that in the field and during fieldwork, concepts of STS often become ‘black boxes’. They work like self-evident tools and their specific performativity goes unrecognized, for example how they restrictively regulate the research process, prevent observations and structure empirically based theory production. The different contributions of the workshop reflected upon the research done with and performance of empirical-theoretical concepts and thus tried to open the black box of STS research practices and projects. It became relevant to discuss methodological devices thataccount for the heterogeneity of research objects, the challenges these devices impose on fieldwork practices and how STS can be better characterized as acertain way of thinking than a fixed method.

I. Initial considerations  

In “after method” John Law acknowledges the multiple and non-neutral ways in which research methods create and fabricate knowledge. He points out that methods in research practices “not only describe but also help to produce the reality that they understand” (Law 2004: 5). Hence, a strong emphasis lies in the question of how the social world and research methods shape themselves in a mutual way. Case studies in Science and Technology Studies (STS) of various disciplines in the humanities display how methods, theory and the empirical world come together (Law 2015). In addition, as Latour showed in numerous studies, knowledge production is based on blackboxing the instruments of knowledge production (Latour 1999). The question is: does that hold for STS studies too? And if so, a whole range of new questions can be raised: how do such studies account for their own instruments of knowledge production – and not take STS and its self-reflexive capacities for granted? What are the implications of Law’s and Latour’s arguments for concrete STS research projects? More precisely, how is empirical work shaped by theoretical concepts of STS? And the other way around?  

In STS itself lies the opportunity to put methods under investigation and not merely take them for granted. Therefore, the workshop was initiated to debate about the possibilities and impossibilities, the implementations and blind alleys, the do´s and don’ts, the implications, failures and attempted solutions to challenges of empirical research using a STS framework. Furthermore, the workshop originated in the impression, that throughout stages of the research process, concepts eventually become black boxes themselves. So the participants set out to examine how STS concepts shape the world of research, assembling theoretical concepts, research practices and empirical data. Supported by the University of Siegen’s Locating Media graduate school, the workshop focused on this and engaged basic methodological reflections about how to do research with concepts like boundary objects, actors, assemblages, immutable mobiles, multiple bodies, and others. One is compelled to consider whether and how these theoretical concepts are translated into empirical strategies, as well as what the consequences and challenges are for field work, data collection, interpretation and representation. The core aim of the workshop therefore, was to investigate the relations of empirical work and abstract theoretical concepts that have emerged under the banner of STS. 

Besides young researchers from diverse academic backgrounds working with STS, Estrid Sörensen (University of Bochum) and Ignacio Farias (Technical University of Munich) participated as keynote speakers, both deeply involved in debates about STS. In addition, two experts in ethnographic methods of the “Media of Cooperation” research cluster at Siegen University, Cornelius Schubert and Ehler Voss, fostered and moderated the discussions. All contributions shared an interest in reflecting upon the implementation of empirical-theoretical concepts rather than to undertake new exegeses of STS’s canonically formulated principles. Different approaches and projects were grouped together, calling attention to the broad thematic and methodological range of STS case studies: from ethnographic to historical research, tube mail to Big Data, Uganda to Lithuania, software to desks to bodies.[1]

[1] For the entire program check: https://stsworkshopsiegen.wordpress.com

 

II. Making objects with concepts 

One part of our discussion was about the idea that even though research starts with clearly defined concepts and research objects, this clarity never lasts for long. However, in the process of fieldwork and through the methods in use, things start to shake, concepts and objects become blurry, and another order of things emerges. This assumption leads to the questions: how is the research object constituted by methods and concepts? How can we accomplish and shape different perspectives on the same object? Or rather simply, what, where, and how is the object of research? How does one find anything at all in a chaotic diversity of impressions and ideas? 

Starting from the premise that usually there is more than one side to an object of research, we asked, how to take this multiplicity and heterogeneity into account? And what are the possible consequences? For example, patient autonomy can be reconstructed by choosing different conceptual approaches as Annekatrin Skeide pointed out. As the body is conceptualized as a present and fixed state of embodied subjectivity (in phenomenology), or as a constantly enacted, materially related and situated entity (in material semiotics), together the diverse perspectives illuminate the heterogeneity of the phenomena and enable the reconstruction of controversies about how patient autonomy is embodied. The empirical narrative then includes multiple perspectives, instead of one that explains everything. Integrating diverse theoretical frames in order to represent the diversity of the research object, shapes the research object as multi- and not one-dimensional. Regarding this, a related aspect is the non/coherence (Law 2007) of the research object. How, for example, some water cooling device shapes local interactions and the access to resources differently, depending on where the device is enacted, as Christiane Tristl reconstructed. To make this relationship comprehensible, it’s essential to locate the research in different areas and at different sites, consequently generating the object as a non-coherent, non-fixed entity. It is clear from the above that both, multi-perspectives and –sitedness, critically analyse assumptions like the coherence of a device, and instead highlight multi-dimensional as well as controversial meanings and socialities. Both also bear the possibility of coming across different narratives associated with the object, to estrange the object and to build and map counter-narratives. In conclusion, STS typically tells stories in the manner of “it’s not like that”. But every researcher has the task to deliberately decide, what story s/he writes and to demonstrate how s/he came upon the story. 

In her keynote Estrid Sørensen presented such an approach by focusing on the issue of multi-sitedness as well. In her research on media harm and its diverse socio-material configurations, she developed the method of multi-sited comparison (Sørensen 2010) to understand and determine similarities, differences and patterns across field sites. To account for this, STS should not only focus one single object/entity/site (as a big strand of research has), but instead explicitly reconstruct an object through different sites. This shows how research practice, methods or methodologies construct these sites and multiply perspectives. Therefore, she argued for a general methodological shift in order to allow more than one research object to be present and talk about it in a wider context. Finally, such an approach has the side effect to overcome micro-macro-discussions when combining micro-studies with Ludwig Fleck’s idea of thought styles (Fleck 1980) and to situate findings as constitutive for or as representative of a culture. 

III. What is an actor and how to follow? 

Another way to account for multi-sitedness is to combine research methods with different time logics. Migle Bareikyte and Laura Meneghello presented insights and data from their research on infrastructures of communication: tube mails in hospitals and internet in Lithuania. In their accounts, multi-sitedness is constituted by the differences of diachronic, historical and synchronic ethnographic research practices, and therefore different narratives about the objective can be brought to light. Combining methods with different time structures imposes the challenge to make comprehensible, that different questions are asked about the same object as it changes through time. How can data from archives and interviews with employees be assembled and arranged, related and compared? In an archive, relevant material is mostly stored in a visual way, and in interviews there is a logic of narrating and looking back from the outset of the present. The diverse, sometimes contradictory views on the matter, are constituted through different time logics. Combing those in a non-hierarchical dialogue does not only account for how meanings attached to technologies change, but also makes it possible to see what is absent or present in the one or the other perspective. To accomplish such a task, it is necessary to take both, archive and interview, seriously in their own dynamic and structure, as an object of its own, not as a non-neutral resource. 

Building on this, we discussed some very basic questions that a couple of research projects stumbled upon: How to find and follow relevant actors or objects? How to handle dis/continuity as well as in/visibility of actors? The contribution of Astrid Wiedmann showed that following is a demanding and not self-evident practice: actors appear and disappear, are visible then become invisible, are at times upfront and then hidden in the background, may dissolve completely, constantly withdrawing from sensual captivities, hidden behind screens and interfaces. Hence, the famous maxim “follow the actor” (Latour 2005: 12) was critically discussed, as it is resting upon acts of defining and assuming constant entities throughout time and space. In a research field, this can lead to uncertainties about defining and finding the ‘right’ actors and leave no chance open for new impressions or unexpected actors. More generally, actors are no stable entities, but have multiple states and shapes (Law/Singleton 2005). Furthermore, ‘following’ as a practice is based on assumptions about the continuity and visibility of something stable to follow, which showed to be contradictory and non-instructive for areas like software research and development aid. The reflexive capacity of STS in general allows for reflecting one’s practices, such as being critical about the very possibility and sense of following actors through time and space. 

IV. STS as approach not as application 

In his keynote, Ignacio Farías underlined the open character of actor-network theory (ANT). Hence, ANT, in his view, is neither a fixed set of concepts nor of methods. Referring to Michel Callon, he defined ANT as an “open building site” where a certain empirical sensibility and conceptual work are mediated and combined. Thus, ANT could be understood as a particular way of doing concepts or seen as an “intellectual practice” consisting of inquiring, writing and intervening. He illustrated this point with his research about the techno-juridical controversy around the failure of the tsunami warning system in Chile in 2010 (Farías 2014). Farías also questioned the famous ANT-maxim ‘follow the actor’. Instead, he described ANT as an intellectual practice of ‘following the inquiries’ of actors in situations of uncertainty. 

 Against this backdrop, the performativity of conceptual work comes to mind again. Research maxims like ‘follow the actors’, or ‘describe, don’t explain’, ‘be symmetrical’, ‘make a mess’ tend to also restrict empirical sensibilities. Therefore, they regulate the research process, barricade observations and basically structure empirical based theory production. To fully evolve STS’ potential, concepts and research practice must be critically reflected upon and applied not as a dogma. They should be deployed in a flexible manner in specific situations in the field of investigation, arranged to tell other stories and opening new questions. Based on this, the workshop concluded with the idea that STS is not a technique or an instrument, but an approach with a strong emphasis on self-reflexivity. 

Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies. Interdisciplinary perspectives on social-ecological transformations

20-min documentary of KCE  

 Knowledge/Culture/Ecologies International Conference (KCE2017), the fourth meeting of the Knowledge/Culture series developed by the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) at Western Sydney University, was held in Santiago de Chile the 15-18 November 2017 and was organised in partnership with Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, the Millennium Research Nucleus on Energy and Society (NUMIES) and the Centre for Conflict and Social Cohesion Studies (COES).  

 In this brief report we want to summarise the main discussions and conversations provoked in and by the conference, and to transmit –if at all possible—the feeling of community, relevance and excitement invoked by the event, rare in times when academia is beleaguered by the logic of competition and productivism.   

A knowledge experiment  

 A total of 320 papers were presented by a range of humanities scholars, scientists, not-for-profit actors, activists, maker communities, and art practitioners from over 179 institutions and 32 countries. The conference was structured around 6 key themes (socio-territorial conflicts and social cohesion, hybrid ecologies of the Anthropocene, energy ecologies and infrastructures, urban ecologies and everyday life, decolonial political ecology and post-capitalism, ecological imaginaries, experimentation and design ontologies) and included workshops, performances, a postgraduate students workshop, a mixed media exhibition space, and film screenings.  

In a unique experiment of interdisciplinarity, KCE brought together participants from STS, political ecology, anthropology, geography, and the environmental humanities, to think aloud together how the “ecological” has undergone a major renewal in many academic disciplines and socio-technical experiments and forms of governance. Keynote speakers were carefully curated to precisely celebrate and engage with a polychromatic definition of ecology.1 A central goal of the conference was to examine ongoing socio-ecological transformations and explore the possibilities of generating knowledge practices that help us understand their developments and complex effects.  

The discussion revolved around a series of deeply emergent issues along the lines of  what Arturo Escobar termed a “pluriverse of socio-natural configurations”. These discussions entailed the recognition of our ontological amalgamation with geo-atmospheric conditions, chemical forces, geological vitalities and other inorganic powers to the point where our sense of coexistence has extended beyond how “life” has been traditionally defined –but also the political, and often contested ways in which these amalgamations are known and produced.   

One argument, presented albeit in different ways by a diversity of participants, was the notion of “relationality”. Contesting conventional equalisations of relationality to “agreement”, several participants showcased how expanding more-than-human entanglements do not always play with the orchestrated melody of their composers. Here the Anthropocene emerged as a key site of enquiry. On the one hand, many presentations indicated the importance of challenging the (in)visibility and (in)cognoscibility of the Anthropocene beyond geological strata and planetary limits, visibilising the ways exploitation, subordination and inequalities are inscribed in geoformations. On the other hand, KCE was also an opportunity to stress the need of going beyond the “social” for engaging with the Earth, as an attempt at recognising our vulnerability and dependence on the inhuman. Finally, and highly relevant, the conference made clear that these discussions are taking place from different theoretical, intellectual and activist domains, and not only in academic circles.  

Open debate saw interesting conversations and dialogue to resist those who argue that considering new ethical modes of care necessarily contribute to a “gigantic operation in the de-politicisation of subjects”, where ecology becomes a new opium for the masses (Badiou, 2008). Strong arguments were also posed by several colleagues who reminded us of the important and urgent need to confront, and take distance from, some overly flattening topologies of relationality when necessary. This is most important when considering how new conflicts over the ownership, use and value of nature and the more-than-human show how these issues are intertwined in complex imbalances of power/knowledge and corruption linked to extractive economies, inequalities and environmental suffering. While these conflicts arise in response to the emergence of predatory formations, they also allow the creation of new platforms of social and socio-environmental cohesion, new ethics of care and responsibility, new forms of environmental justice and of conceiving the rights of nature that, in turn, instigate a new politics based on new ways of coexistence.   

A range of perspectives were also clear in highlighting the intricate and pervasive ways through which forms of colonialism are still perpetuated in social, economic and ecological interactions, as a structural process that forms our relationship with ourselves, with other humans and with earthly powers and beings. Notions such as popular ecologies, community economies and ecologies, post-colonial ecologies, environmentalism of the poor, and solidarity economies were mobilised to reclaim the plurality of ways in which people involved in emancipatory politics around the world are contributing to the decolonisation of environmental knowledge. In Latin America, new and thought-provoking epistemologies and cosmopolitics have emerged in the last decades, including the Buen Vivir and the Sumak Kasway, and, in a more academic circle, the notion of ‘Amerindian perspectivism’ (Viveiros de Castro 1998). These perspectives propose new ways of conceiving projects, worlds and lifeways. Indeed, as Eduardo Gudynas discussed, in the last two decades Latin America has offered a wide and diverse range of interactions between knowledge and ecologies, showing both substantial innovations and unexpected setbacks, hope for change and disappointments about the results. The political capacities of this debate are crucial insofar as they bring together emerging notions and social movements from the North, such as degrowth, commonalities, ecofeminism, and a variety of transitional initiatives, together with debates more specific to the South, such as current struggles over the Buen Vivir, the rights of nature, ancestral reclamation, and civilizational transitions.  

Another central discussion across KCE was the possibility of empowering new modes of exploration for more sustainable futures. Despite the tabloid media representations of the ecological crisis as catastrophe, the potential of creative methods and artistic and digital practices seems to be, now more than ever, relevant for thinking and creating new socio-ecologies and ways of engaging with and designing for sustainability. In this regard, we were pleased to see a large number of presentations on cinema, literature, digital games and music, together with the very interesting audio-visual programme curated specially for the conference.2 More amply, KCE was rich in discussions and propositions for opening design speculation, experimentality and prototyping as probes into more just and democratic environments.   

This brief summary does not make justice to the multiplicity of conversations propelled in and by the conference. But as a concluding remark, it is important—actually fundamental—to bear witness of the particular type of “academic event” that KCE rehearsed. Agreements were not always reached, and differences –political, theoretical, methodological—abounded. Different sensibilities, different matters of care and concern, different way of defining relevance and urgency. But a sense of community enveloped the conference. Community not as the formation of a coherent and closed amalgamation of peers, but as the empowerment of a collective space for intellectual exchange. Nothing more, and nothing less. Maybe it was its size (300 participants) that allowed for an intimacy-without-being-suffocating, or it was perhaps the urgency of the stakes at play, or the novelty of conversations between traditions–between posthumanism and political ecology, feminism and STS, postcoloniality and design studies—that actually rarely encounter, but KCE left on participants and organisers a sense of having witnessed an unusual experiment in knowledge production. And more importantly, as we retrieved from many conversations, a sense of joy: the sheer pleasure of crafting a time and a place, outside the predatory logics of competition that the university is succumbing to, for debating interests, feelings and matters in an open, caring and challenging way. Perhaps the best news of KCE is that it produced a particular affective economy, one marked by excitement and cordiality, that is not usual to find in our academic arenas. And this was perhaps the most important political interruption congealed by KCE. Paraphrasing Marisol de la Cadena, KCE was a conference, but not only 

Citizen engagement in science: Impressions from an international workshop on citizen science

At the international workshop “(Un)taming citizen science – Policies, Practices, People”, held at KU Leuven, scholars, policy makers, and science journalists discussed and explored citizen science initiatives in Europe and Japan. As citizen science concepts and processes make inroads into science policies and institutions, they create unique opportunities for public participation in scientific research and for the democratization of science.

On December 4th 2017, under the roof of one of the oldest faculties of the University of Leuven, the Belgian Science and Technology in Society (BSTS) network organized a workshop entitled “(Un)taming citizen science – Policies, Practices, People.” Inspired by the global avalanche of citizen science initiatives, workshop organizers invited workshop participants to embark on a journey through different citizen science notions and practices, switching from European to Japanese perspectives and back – and hence, to discover the vastness and multiplicity of the topic.  

Drawing on the notion of (un)taming, which refers to the mutual (mal)adjustment of technology and the social, and which links to domestication theory in Science and Technology Studies (Callon, 1986), the workshop highlighted the buildup  of support for, as well as the generation of controversy over citizen science in contemporary society. By asking Who and what is citizen science for?; Which citizen science forms are amenable to taming, which are not?; How is citizen science politicized? How will citizen science fare in the near future?, a joint group of European and Japanese scholars, policymakers and science journalists discussed the current state of citizen science and the road ahead.  

Figure 1: Discussing the concept of citizen science

Flexible and unruly 

In their introduction to the workshop, Ine Van Hoyweghen (KU Leuven) and Michiel van Oudheusden (KU Leuven, SCK·CEN) pointed to the evolution of the multilayered EU policy discourse surrounding science-society issues. Drawing on Felt (2010), they argued that since 1989, the EU’s governance style has evolved from intensifying public communication efforts towards developing an Innovation Union with citizens, particularly as Europe must now be “open to innovation, open to science and open to the world” (Moedas, 2015). In this policy perspective, citizen science can contribute to a stronger anchoring of research and innovation in society, making inroads into science policy, industry and universities. But while citizen science can be “taken up” and domesticated by established science, industry and politics, it also has an unruly potential, as citizen scientists often resourcefully “work around” established institutes to create their own practices and communities (Meyer 2013). For example, in Japan, citizen scientists measuring ionizing radiation can bring communities together to deal with radioactive pollution in ways that undermine official, institutionally-sanctioned emergency policies and responses.  

Figure 2: Phillippe Galiay (DG Research and Innovation in the European Commission)

Citizen science and Responsible Research and Innovation 

The practice of working around established institutes contrasts with present efforts made by the European Commission to engage citizens in European research and innovation activities, through its agenda of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). As Phillippe Galiay (DG Research and Innovation) outlined in his talk, the EC encourages researchers and citizens “to work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society” (EC, s.d.). Considering this definition of RRI, it is not surprising that citizen’s engagement is one of the five main dimensions of RRI. Despite the fact that the EC takes the promotion of RRI to heart and succeeds in grounding it in research practices in areas such as health care, the EC still falls short in mainstreaming the success. Galiay concluded that more efforts are necessary to engage civil society in the design and the implementation of research and innovation processes. Nevertheless we can hold high expectations for the future of citizen science in Europe, as the 3 OS strategy (Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World) (Moedas, 2015) and the prospect of the ninth research framework program are proof of the EC’s commitment to engage with citizen science. 

Through his presentation, Galiay made clear that the EC is eager to invest in citizen science participation. But why is citizen science being promoted by the EC and how does it connect with public engagement more broadly? In his talk, Hadrien Macq (Université de Liège) entertained these questions. Drawing on empirical research, including interviews with EU policymakers, Macq situated the emergence of policy discourses on public engagement within the broader political-economic context. Confronted by a perceived legitimacy deficit and influenced by the 2000 Lisbon Agenda, which takes knowledge production and innovation as the key drivers of EU’s future, the EC took initial interest in public engagement as public dialogue. However, due to the financial crisis, research and innovation was increasingly recognized as a solution to solve economic and societal challenges. Within this setting, the RRI approach facilitated the incorporation of societal actors into research and innovation processes. Macq locates this transition as concurrent with the inauguration of the new Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. His blueprint of science and innovation in the EU requires an even higher level of transparence and inclusiveness, thus attributing a substantial role to public engagement and promoting citizen science. In short, Macq pointed out an important evolution in the valorization of public engagement, from enriching decision-making towards a more active role in the production of knowledge and innovation.  

Figure 3: Yasuhito Abe (Dōshisha University)

Science for or by citizens? 

Even when crossing borders it is clear from Yasuhito Abe (Dōshisha University)’s presentation, that citizens and scientists in Japan and Europe share some common challenges and questions. For example, what do we mean by citizen science? Does it comprise science for citizens or by citizens? And how to deal with the social responsibility of data production and representation? Abe pointed out that citizen science, particularly in the field of radiation monitoring, has undergone dramatic changes over the last decades. Already after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, Japanese citizens launched projects to measure radiation. However, the advent of the Internet and new media have opened up opportunities for citizens that did not yet exist in the time of Chernobyl. Their impact on the organization of citizen science in Japan becomes clear after the Fukushima accident. Surpassing spatial and temporal boundaries, the scale of data-based networked citizen science has become ever larger. Initiatives such as Minna no Data Site form platforms for organizations to organize themselves and to increase standardization in measurement methods across Japan. While creating alternative spaces to engage with science, citizens are using their data to make scientific claims, so that we are now confronted with the question of how we should perceive these claims. Notwithstanding that citizens see their data as scientific, Abe argues that data alone do not constitute a valid scientific claim (Abe, 2015). On top of this, Abe questions whether data production or participation alone is enough to reestablish trust among stakeholders in Japan and elsewhere. Elevated and more open forms of communication are direly needed. 

While Abe contended that communication between stakeholders is key, the next speaker, Joke Kenens (KU Leuven, SCK·CEN), argued that a willingness to take citizen science as an opportunity to learn might also be paramount to improving relations. Citizen science initiatives in radiation monitoring are manifold and are spreading across the globe, creating a global network of grassroots measuring citizen science initiatives. They represent a diversified group of people, who are committed not only to measuring radiation in the environment and food, but also to providing information to wider publics. By taking these measurements into their own hands, they are showing us alternative ways to deal with scientific and strategic uncertainties, to create open data, to look at science as a problem-driven endeavor. In sum, they are laying down their own tracks, irrespective of official procedures and institutional constraints. As it has become ever easier to measure radiation via apps on a smartphone or computer, researchers, experts, and government officials would do well to seize the moment to engage with citizen scientists and create an environment in which all learn. 

Everyone a scientist 

Do developments in Japan suggest that all citizens are, or can become, scientists? Liesbeth Gijsel (EOS Science Magazine) drew attention to this question by introducing the online platform www.iedereenwetenschapper.be (“Iedereen Wetenschapper” – “Everyone a scientist”), the only one of its kind in Flanders and the Netherlands. The platform gathers local and international citizen science projects into one location to create an overview of existing projects. Today, it counts more than 200 participants and attracts a young public (60% aged between 18 and 34). It serves as a resource for citizen scientists and interested others and seeks to inspire scientists to start their own citizen science projects. By sharing their expertise in the field of science communication, EOS has created a tool that potentially strengthens citizen science and expedites its institutional uptake.  

Figure 4: Gert Verschraegen (University of Antwerp)

What’s next for citizen science? 

So what does the future hold for citizen science? In a concluding reflection, Gert Verschraegen (University of Antwerp) provided us with a glimpse of future prospects. One could argue that citizen science is making its way into a rising number of institutions and closely aligns with RRI and Open Science policies. However, when looking deeper into the origins of citizen science, one can outline some further developments as well as tensions to expect in the coming decades. Verschraegen pointed to two traditions, which have shaped our current understanding of public involvement in science. One is the movement to democratize science, which insists on deep public engagement, initiatives taken by citizens, and tackling problems and concerns typically neglected by policymakers (Irwin, 1995). The other is the longstanding, but recently revived, tradition of conducting scientific research with the participation of volunteers who are not professional scientistsHere citizens and scientists work together, but the main focus is on answering scientific issues or gathering data. Most contemporary citizen science initiatives in Europe lean towards this second lineage, also because this tradition is better supported and funded. Verschraegen argues that although citizen data collection projects may yield important scientific results, science projects developed and designed in cooperation with the community have far greater potential to raise public understanding and can have a bigger socio-political impact. Acknowledging and addressing this tension between forms of citizen engagement in science will certainly help to seize the window of opportunity that is being created today. 

Notwithstanding the short timeframe of the workshop, it entailed an exciting journey through space, time, opportunities and hopes thanks to all those who participated. In conclusion, citizen science remains a difficult notion to define. Yet, even as we scratch the surface of what it means, or could mean, citizen science is gaining acknowledgement from different institutions, and seen as a potential bridge between science, technology and society. To face the challenges and to fully exploit the potential inherent in citizen science initiatives, we must continue to reflect on, and learn from, existing initiatives, probe their many forms, rationales, and agendas, and inquire into their possibilities and limitations.