First Nordic STS conference, April 2013

First Nordic STS conference, April 2013

The first biennial Nordic STS conference was held April 24-26 in Hell, Norway. On very short notice, Ann Sætnan was asked to review the event for EASST Review. Special thanks to Henrik Karlstrøm, who was available and willing to review Brian Wynne’s keynote address at the event, as that was one part of the program Sætnan had to miss due to teaching duties

The conference in brief

The conference was convened at a hotel very near the Trondheim airport – convenient both for those flying in from afar and for those driving from nearby Trondheim. In spite of somewhat hit-and-miss announcement of the event, there were 145 participants – 77 from Norway, 41 from Denmark, 13 from Finland, 9 from Sweden and 4 others.

The program was a mix of pre-arranged panels, panels put together by the program committee, a time slot for national network meetings, the keynote plenary by Brian Wynne … and meals.

The panels arranged by the program committee were unusual in that they were not grouped according to subject matter. Instead of four papers on medical technologies or four papers on energy or four papers on physics, the committee had grouped papers according to theoretical and/or methodological approaches, with similar approaches applied to four quite different technologies or science disciplines. Many presenters were sceptical to this at first. “I’ve seem to have landed in a random group of left-over papers. I don’t know what my paper is doing in there or what we’ll have to say to each other,” was the sort of comment heard from presenters whose sessions had not yet been held. After the session, the same presenter might say something like “I didn’t know what we would find in common, but by some miracle it seems to have worked.” But from a listener’s perspective, this was no miracle. The paper combinations put theory and methodology in focus, which made the bridge towards relevance for listeners’ various own research topics that much shorter. It also gave some new excitement to the field, with theoretical similarities and differences standing out in sharp relief and a broad spectrum of empirical cases serving to illustrate those similarities and differences, rather than cliques of similar papers conversing comfortably amongst themselves. Furthermore, with only four or five parallel sessions to choose from in each time slot, this way of grouping the papers avoided creating time slots where no sessions met a listener’s interests. As a style choice for a small conference like this, the strategy worked well. It might not work as well for a large conference, however, as it might limit presenters’ possibilities for networking with potential project collaborators. We are more likely to form new collaborations around shared empirical objects of study than around shared theories applied to widely different topics, and at a large conference the parallel paper sessions are pretty much ones only chance of meeting new future collaborators.

Like Goldilocks, participants at the First Nordic STS Conference generally concluded that the format was “Not too big, not too small – just right.” The Norwegian caucus decided to form a loose mailing list network, much as the Danish and Swedish STS networks had already done, and the participants on the whole concluded that this was an experiment worth repeating. The
Second Nordic STS Conference will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2015.

Brian Wynne’s keynote address

Prof. Wynne held a keynote address titled “Risking Reflexive Reason, Tilting at Sacred Cows: Science, Publics – and Democracy?”, which packed a lot of interesting material into a short time. Here is a (doomed) attempt to summarize the main points in as short a space as possible.

The talk was centered on a discussion of the role of scientific knowledge production in the shaping of public discourse on political issues – and the specific role of STS in making sense of this role – and used examples taken from the activist science of synthetic biologists as well as the European debate over genetically modified organisms to highlight this discussion.
The starting point was a listing of some possible roles for science studies: it can describe how different versions of “science” are articulated and enacted in contemporary society (is it innocent research, a factor of production, public authority, author of meanings?), it can expose the “social” element in science, it can seek to understand and expose the contemporary fetishism of scientised politics, or it can (and this is seemingly the favoured position of Wynne) work to define a constructive normative public role for both STS itself and scientific knowledge in general. This last can only be achieved if one disposes of the usual “prescriptive-declarative pretences” that institutionalised policy-science entertain today.

The talk then went into the history of the “science” part of STS, showing through reference to the strong programme of the Edinburgh school how the study of science started out as a chiefly “private” matter – scientific knowledge production being studied in laboratories, mathematics departments and theoretical debates, that is, from within the academy itself. Wynne’s concern was making the sociology of scientific knowledge a question of public arenas, namely how scientific knowledge is constituted within the various “imagined publics”. In this domain, STS looks at what sorts of imagined publics are in play for different technosciences today, and how these are related to what one might for lack of a better word call “actual” publics.
There are various social roles that science might have in this regard. In modern capitalist economies, science features as a factor of production and innovation in the economic sphere. It also, however, has an interlinked set of public/social functions, acting as both an informant of public debate and policy-making and as justifier of policy decisions – a development which has turned scientific knowledge-expertise into sometime author of public meanings. The troubling implication is that science in this sense can alternate between the role as final arbiter in matters of the right interpretation of “facts” and the role of ever-expanding “work in progress”, a double communication which is bad for both science and society.

This point opens up a discussion of how “science” becomes Political Order, intimately linked to the institutions and justifications of modern liberal democracy. From Merton’s institutional imperatives (the CUDOS norms) which aimed at clarifying the ideal of scientific use value to society, through the techno-scientific determinism of the 1960s to the current state of co-produced science and politics, techno-science has come to be a sovereign author of public meanings. The question is: does science act to form compliant publics? The second part of the talk was an example-based discussion of these issues through examining the cases of the making of the very public field of synthetic genomics and the European Union policies of GMOs.
Synthetic genomics rose to public attention with the very public work of Craig Venter, sequencer of the human genome, creator of the first synthetic genome and raiser of much venture capital. Through the construct of a “minimal functional genome”, or a cell containing only the genetic information that is deemed “essential”, meaning pertaining to ability to reproduce, Venter has created a concept of “functional”, “viable” lifeforms. The central question here is what functionality means: is it the same for science as for society? And who decides?

In his announcement of the ground-breaking synthetisation of a living cell through removing all genes which are deemed non-essential, Venter is playing the role of the arbiter of the definition of life: if it has the appropriate properties (in the technical sense, self-replication), it is life. And yet, simultaneously, the same paper states that “no single cellular system [let alone therefore, multi-cell organisms] has all of its genes understood in terms of their biological roles”, rephrased by Venter elsewhere that “we don’t know shit”. This is the double communication of science-as-arbiter and science-as-unfinished-work.

The double communication, oftentimes delicately formulated from the side of the scientist, is not necessarily as expertly handled when it moves into the public sphere. An example is the science correspondent of Radio 4, who when reporting on the exciting new science claimed that Venter could delete 100 genes “with no ill effect”. Here, the carefully technical definition of functional and appropriate life – the life that “works” in the laboratory – is transmogrified into something that is societally harmless, all without the active effort of either scientist or public intermediary. And thus is the necessary social debate “negated and left undeveloped”, according to Wynne.

But science is not something that goes on independent of institutional contexts. When science goes international and talk about globalization and cosmopolitianism abounds, what is the role of the state in all this? A look at EU science policies can shed light on how an instrumental and reductionist view of science can stand in the way of realising the potential of science as a collective political heuristic.

Today, 50 years after the Coal and Steel Community of France and Britain, the EU represents a type of supra-state, chiefly concerned with presenting a common front against various external threats (military, monetary or climate change risks, to mention a few of those listed in their security strategy). The modern focus on biological risk within the EU is the last in a long line of risk assessment and management functions of science, from early animal growth hormones risks through hazardous waste management to today’s focus on GMOs. This form of scientised politics, says Wynne, “embodies and projects corresponding imaginaries of EU publics”.

For example, the use of scientific knowledge in evaluating GMOs is limited to estimating health and environmental risks, and only within the framework of the European Food Safety Authority framework. This is a form of centralised and politically controlled science which stands in danger of ignoring local scientific factors. When member states are allowed to assert control over GMO cultivation, it is with reference to social and ethical matters – the science is kept under central control with the EU authorities. To do this, the European publics must be constructed as scientifically illiterate and risk obsessed, and science takes on a declarative rather than a deliberative role.

Wynne closed by pointing to the classic questions which underlie all these discussions: who gets to decide what is said, and under which circumstances? How do we solve the problem of balancing expertise knowledge and democratic process? How are tensions between instrumental and relational ethics handled? He did not, however, venture to answer these conclusively…