The birth of the Belgian Network for Science, Technology and Society (BSTS network)

Overview

The inaugural conference of the Belgian STS Network took place on September 30, 2011 at the Royal Academy for Arts and Sciences (Brussels, Belgium). Before getting into the details of this event and addressing the future challenges, we first want to look back on what has been achieved in this respect over the past years or so.

The roots of the idea of a Belgian STS network can be traced back about 2 years to a few PhD students carrying out their research within the broad field of social studies of science and technology. Working within the same tiny country, they couldn’t refrain from noticing how much easier it was to meet each other by plane than by train, for instance at international conferences such as the ones of 4S or EASST.

They came to discuss how Belgium indeed doesn’t seem to really have an STS culture, compared to other European countries like France, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Indeed, it is quite difficult to trace back a history of STS in Belgium. It is more correct to say that there have always been researchers interested in STS (perhaps especially in the late 1980s, not really in the 1990s, before a recrudescence in the late 2000s) while there was no real feeling of belonging to a community of scholars from the field — notwithstanding some individual exceptions. Conventional boundaries between universities, faculties, disciplines and methodologies are quite strong in our country, with academics being rather separated from practitioners, not to mention the North from the South.

Nevertheless these young researchers somehow shared a same general spirit, which they felt in fact belonged to the field of social studies of science and technology; a spirit of reflexivity, openness, engagement, and enthusiasm about mutual learning from multiple perspectives.

So they arranged to meet again — by train this time. What started with one or two informal discussion gatherings between a few people, soon became regular and more structured meetings, including people from all over the country that hadn’t met before, from political science, law, sociology, philosophy and so on. And there you go, the idea of a network, whatever clear shape it would take, was born.

Up until now we’ve had about 6 of these meetings, where in the morning we mainly brainstormed about the opportunities for a Belgian STS Network, and in the afternoon the different participants presented their institute and work, discussion always receiving a central place throughout the day.

We have zoomed in on specific topics like Technology Assessment, sustainable energy systems, GMOs, nanotechnology, radioactive waste management, electromagnetic fields. But we’ve also discussed more methodological issues, like the difference between quantitative and qualitative approaches, the merits and challenges of participation and so on.

Along the way more fundamental questions also came to the foreground, like do we see STS as transdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, do we want to stick to description or do we also want to be more explicitly normative, how dominant is or should constructivism be within the field of STS, or how do we deal with the feeling of the risk of irrelevance and disengagement on the one hand, that of lack of scientific thoroughness and respectability on the other hand.

To briefly address the roots and the rationale for establishing a network such as BSTS, one important point contrasts with the past activities related to STS in Belgium. Indeed, from the earlier meetings on, there has been a strong feeling, which we believe is widely shared among the members of the network, that we were making community. This might sound like a caricature, but the Belgian STS network is building bridges — with English as a working language — in a country that keeps tearing itself apart.

Now, in a short timeframe, we have already achieved significant steps. The network greatly contributed to mapping and locating the different emanations of STS thinking in Academia and beyond. It helped people to better identify which kind of topics are currently being addressed in an STS manner, and how. As a matter of fact, the network gained recognition as a “group of contact” from the FNRS (the Federation Wallonia-Brussels’ research funding agency), which is a first step towards institutionalisation. Lastly, it obviously brought to light the existence of an active and dynamic STS community, as the presence of a number of colleagues from France, the Netherlands, Spain or the UK at the inaugural conference attests (around 90 participants attended the inaugural conference).

Obviously, we wish to go further and to take steps towards formal institutionalisation. As a network, we wish to provide the STS-related researchers with critical insights and a relevant learning framework. Sure enough, we will strengthen the communication on the initiatives taken by each of the members. But we also wish to organize events on our own. There are many options. One of them is to organise an annual meeting, possibly less formal than this one, and maybe more organised around a single topic. Another one is to organise seminars or reading groups, around specific authors or major texts that attract the interest of a significant amount of members. Yet another one consists in organizing intensive summer schools, on the model of the Dutch WTMC for instance. A last one, if it appears to make sense and there is enough capacity around, would be to launch a dedicated high-quality publication. But that takes us too far in the future. At the moment, BSTS is driven by a rather informal steering committee, made of 6 PhD students or postdocs from the North and the South of the country. The next step will be to formalise the network and appoint a President, a vice-President, and 5 regular members. This should be done at the next meeting, which will happen in Liège in early May, 2012. Members of the steering committee are presently busy with writing a constitution for the BSTS network. Some personal contacts have already been established, for instance with some BSTS members visiting Sally Wyatt, the President of the very active Dutch WTMC, and one invited lecture to the second meeting of the Spanish STS network (to be held on 23-25 May, 2012, in Gijón, Asturias). Getting closer to EASST activivities and networks also stands as one very important objective for the BSTS network’s near future.

The inaugural conference of the BSTS network

So let’s get back to our inaugural conference. We had the great honour to hear three distinguished speakers who greatly contributed to shape the field of STS as we know it today. The way we conceived the conference was to slightly move from theoretical knowledge and most fundamental questioning to more practical insights into how this knowledge is or may be relevant in nowadays societies. The first two speakers, Dominique Vinck and Robin Williams, addressed the big issues in contemporary STS; which are the driving forces? Which are the most pressing issues to address with technological so-called “innovations”? Then the third speaker was Arie Rip, who situated STS theory in the real world, at the interface with other relevant institutions. Finally, a panel of high-level practitioners, including an STS scholar very active in the field of public engagement, engaged further with these debates, speaking from their professional situation and experience. Throughout the day, we decided to allow much time for discussion and for opening the floor to debate.

Lastly, but most importantly, BSTS today has received some funding from a number of partners who agreed to become “institutional members” of the network. This made the organization of the inaugural conference possible. In addition, we also need to mention the FNRS for its support within the framework of the “group of contact”. The institutional members of BSTS today are:

  • Spiral — a research institute from the Université de Liège that already has a specific unit of research dedicated to STS
  • CITA and CRIDS at the Faculté universitaire ND de Namur
  • IST – “Instituut voor Samenleving and Technologie” (TA institute in Flanders)
  • “Modern and Contemporary worlds unit” at the Université Libre de Bruxelles
  • SCK-CEN: Center for the study of nuclear energy
  • SEED – Centre for the sociology of the environment at the Université de Liège (Arlon)
  • The Université catholique de Louvain – Mons, and the service of Professor Schiffino, previously at Fucam.
  • VITO – Center that deals with technology for ecology and economy (vision on technology). VITO, Vlaamse instelling voor technologisch onderzoek.

The programme of the inaugural conference, held on September 30, 2011, was the following:

Inaugural Conference of the Belgian Network for Science, Technology and Society

Royal Academy of Belgium, Room King Baudouin

1 Rue Ducale, Brussels

September 30th, 2011

09:30 – 10:00: Registration and coffee

10:00 – 10:15: Welcome and introduction

10:15 – 11:15: Session 1 – Trends in STS questioning

Keynote speaker : Dominique Vinck (Université Pierre Mendès, France, Grenoble, FR)

Discussion

11:15 – 12:15: Session 2 – STS: Anticipating socio-technical futures? Or caught in the novelty trap?

Keynote speaker : Robin Williams (University of Edinburgh, UK)

Discussion

12:15 – 13:30: Lunch break

13:30‐14:30: Session 3 – STS in the wider world

Keynote speaker: Arie Rip (Universiteit Twente, NL)

Discussion

14:30‐15:00: Coffee break

15:00‐16:30: Session 4 – On the potential contributions of a STS network

Chair: Francois Mélard (Université de Liège, B)

Panel: Nicole Dewandre (European Commission)

Robby Berloznik (IST, Flemish Parliamentary Technology Assessment)

Wolfgang Eberle (IMEC)

Sarah Davies (Center for Nanotechnology in Society, Arizona State University)

Discussion

16:30-17:30: Reception

Mission statement of BSTS

The Belgian “Science and Technology Studies” (STS) Network brings together scholars from a wide range of scientific disciplines, from Belgium and beyond. It provides an open and flexible interface in order to share disciplinary perspectives, foster collaborations and raise the voice of a community of scholars, under the banner of STS.

The Belgian STS Network follows three key goals:

1. Foster learning and genuine cross‐fertilization from multiple disciplinary perspectives, e.g. through established and less established methodological reflections or concerns. It focuses mostly on a series of relevant thematic issues:

  1. Energy and sustainable development
  2. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)
  3. New and Emerging Science & Technologies (NEST)

2. Reinforce collaborations and partnerships among the different academic units, research centres and Technology Assessment (TA) institutions active in the arena of STS, in Belgium but also on the international scene. For this purpose, it aims at working on joint publications of high scientific standards as well as organizing conferences and workshops open to practitioners and decision‐makers.

3. Strengthen the voice and visibility of the STS community, especially in the Belgian science‐policy landscape. The Belgian STS Network promotes a research agenda of anticipatory governance of science and technologies: foresight, engagement, integration and reflexivity. For this purpose, it takes positions on societal issues according to the experience of its members, and it has a communication strategy aimed at reaching both the scientific, the industrial and the political community.

The Belgian STS Network brings together scholars from disciplines such as sociology, law, political science, history, philosophy, engineering, economics, anthropology, psychology and environmental policy. It is also open to interested natural scientists, engaged professional bodies or relevant policy actors. Naturally, it is open to insights and advice from leading international scholars active in STS. Lastly, the Network encourages scrutiny with regard to its own functioning, i.e. the role of scholars from social sciences and humanities in contemporary societies.

Website: www.bsts.be/

 

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