Tag Archives: by other means

Doing and Talking Research Excellence: By Other Means?

As I was looking over my notes from the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona to write this essay for the EASST Review, a post on the Facebook page of Nature caught my eye. With the title “Young, Talented and Fed-Up: Scientists Tell Their Stories,” the article focuses on the experiences of three young scientists, suggesting that young researchers today face unprecedented pressure to publish, gain funding and secure permanent positions (Powell 2016). Intrigued, I perused further and realized that the article that had first grabbed my attention was part of a special issue of Nature on young scientists – and the implications their working realities have on scientific production. That the two concerns are deeply interrelated is quite unceremoniously stated in the first line of the editorial of the special issue: “Academia is more difficult than ever for young scientists. That’s bad for them, and bad for science” (Nature 2016). Importantly, one of the reasons for this “badness” is the increasing understanding that the focus on the quantity over quality of scientific output may be detrimental to science as an enterprise that is supposed to tackle the world’s big questions.

The narratives of the special issue of Nature could not have been more timely. In many ways, they give voice and legitimacy to the socio-economic uncertainties that many early career researchers around the world experience and try to navigate. It is also the topic that I have explored in my own dissertation work on young international scientists in contemporary Japan; focusing on the experience of the configuration of science, mobility and labor, I have suggested that, in the context of Japan, transnationally mobile researchers rely on cultural explanations in their attempts to make sense of the uncertainties embedded in global scientific labor regimes. The concerns of the Nature special issue also speak directly to the questions raised throughout the 4S/EASST conference track “Governing Excellent Science” and, importantly, some of the themes permeating the postgraduate workshop as well.

That unpacking the quite elusive concept of research excellence is a topic of great interest for STS scholars is reflected in the fact that the “Governing Excellent Science” track brought together many researchers: four panels with four or five presentations in each of them. The conveners of the track successfully pinpointed and rendered visible an ongoing moment of transformations in research policies around the world – that of the policy makers’ increasing reliance on quantifiable indicators to evaluate research processes and scientific thought (Sørensen, Bloch & Young 2015). In addition, the presentations of the track participants highlighted how reliance on bibliometrics and other quantifiable measurements of scientific productivity and quality have been more and more incorporated in the evaluation structures of research institutions themselves, despite the unease with and critiques of this shift.

The track addressed four major themes within the governance of excellence: funding for excellence, the excellence rhetoric, the management and evaluation of excellence, and the comparative aspects of research excellence. The presenters added flesh and inspiring nuance to these themes and inspired enlightening discussions: they examined a multiplicity of ways in which research processes and scientific outcomes are shaped by access to funding and mechanisms of evaluation; they highlighted the strategies scientists and administrators employ to navigate the excellence system; and they offered glimpses into the ways scientists “talk back” to the rhetoric of excellence.

At the same time, however, the “Governing Excellent Science” track presentations seemed to every time underscore an argument Chandra Mukerji already made more than twenty-five years ago when addressing the relationship between scientists and the bodies governing science: “[t]he successful use of science by the state gives science a potential value so great that it cannot be ignored. But scientists are rarely given much power” (1989: 85; emphasis in original). While in many cases supra-national organizations such as the European Union have subsumed the role of the state and non-state actors such as private corporations have come to be increasingly influential, the point still stands: research policies shape scientific outcomes in particular ways, and scientific practitioners seem to have no other option than to comply or quit. The special issue of Nature which I brought up in the beginning of my reflection highlights the fact that this unilateral shaping is deemed problematic not only by early career researchers but also by scientific practitioners in positions of relative power, and that the number of discussions on the topic should increase. It also suggests that both scientists and social scientists researching scientific work aim to address similar questions (for instance, the uses of bibliometrics in assessing research excellence).

It is for this reason that I suggest that STS examinations of research excellence would benefit from two simultaneous approaches: first, explicit acknowledgment that STS researchers are also affected by research excellence policies; and, second, a shift in the focus towards multi-faceted critiques of the excellence rhetoric with the goal of imagining its alternatives.

To address the first point, it was intriguing to note that, even though the presenters of the “Governing Excellent Science” track were at moments gently reminded of their own participation in the “excellence system” (van Kammen 2016), there was a dissonance between, on the one hand, efforts to unpack excellence and, on the other, lack of acknowledgment of the ways STS scholarship may also be shaped by changes in research policies. The fact that STS researchers are also affected by the narrowing definitions of quality scholarship and productivity, however, came to the fore during the postgraduate workshop. Focused on the theme of “doing (post)graduate STS by other means,” the workshop served as a venue for sharing ideas on how to be successful STS scholars in the changing research landscape. It offered its participants an opportunity to meet STS practitioners engaged in research, publishing and other types of careers that were at least partially outside the conventional path. As such, the workshop was a reminder that STS scholars – and in particular early career researchers, of which I am one too – are deeply implicated in research excellence policies and structures and have to invest diversified efforts in order to retain their employability in the job market. As one of the participants mentioned in a passing comment during the workshop, “It sounds like doing STS by other means just means doing more.”

To address my second point, I find it important that we offer multi-faceted critiques and imagine alternative futures. At a time when we – both as scholars of scientific production and as research workers ourselves – are provided with increasingly narrow definitions, operatializations, and indicators of research excellence, it is more crucial than ever to account for the interconnectedness of epistemic and social uncertainties (Sigl 2015). Reflecting my training in cultural anthropology, I suggest that this approach would imply turning an analytical eye to the examination of practices and affects, movements and desires, strategies and uncertainties of those who are enlisted to produce research excellence in different parts of the world and contexts of scientific production. Equally importantly, it calls for an exploration of practices of those who fail or refuse to meet the demanding conditions required by the rhetoric and structures of research excellence, as well as those who are actively involved in the search of alternatives. This approach would involve, as anthropologist Dominic Boyer has suggested, approaching scientists “not solely as rational(ist) creatures of expertise, but rather as desiring, relating, doubting, anxious, contentious, affective – in other words, as human subjects” (2008: 38).

Examining planning ‘by other means’: reflections on STS and planning from 4S/EASST

The Barcelona 2016 conference was my first experience of either EASST or 4S, and a welcome opportunity to get a sense of the breadth of STS research in different areas as well as themes that unify them. Against the background of a rich buzz of topics, presenters and tracks, which made planning each day an exciting but challenging task in itself, I also presented and participated in one full track, STS and Planning (T004).

The track, as introduced by the convenors, was an opportunity to consider how planning can be explored by STS prisms of inquiry, for example considering the role of artefacts, different forms of knowledge, and centres of calculation. Hybrid approaches were strongly represented, particularly with planning being conceived of as a discipline that actively draws together and works with the material and the social in producing space. The aim, in the track’s description and as seen in the presentations, was not just to critique and open up ‘black boxes’, but to consider how planning could be ‘reassembled’ in a more diverse and reflexive manner.

While not representative of all the papers presented, a major theme that crystallized in my reading of the track was the unpacking of how different types of knowledge are defined and understood when analysing planning processes. In particular, it appeared that certain types of knowledge, associated with certain actors, had a different influence on decision-making to what might have been expected. This played out on themes where STS has much to contribute, such as the role of calculation and calculative devices (e.g. Porter, 1996; Callon & Law, 2005) and interactions of expertise and lay knowledge (Epstein, 1995).

In the session on standards, for example, Alan Lewis described use of the ‘daylight factor’ by architects, a mathematical calculation of daylight that was adopted to signify a design approach based on verifiable principles. Despite requirements to use the calculation, he showed that architects didn’t routinely do so. Instead, the calculation itself was separate to the meaning it represented, as it created an impression of mathematically verifiable principles in design while the individual knowledge of architects still determined outcomes. In my presentation on the adoption of environmental assessment methods for buildings by local authorities, I aimed to make a similar point on the disconnection between the calculation provided by standards and how they are used in and influence actual decision-making. This emphasised that the environmental assessment tool was adopted not just for the knowledge it generated, but for what it represented to decision-makers as a standardised tool. In this sense, when decision-making processes themselves were the focus of study, rationalist decision-making fuelled by calculative devices could be shown as a veneer, behind which decisions relied on other forms of knowledge.

Other presentations spoke more explicitly about the involvement of different types of knowledge in the planning process. Looking at ecological controversies in Hong Kong, Anders Blok used the term ‘planning ecologies’ to consider how different publics interact and shift to challenge official planning practices, such as environmental groups suggesting new possibilities for river and floodwater management whilst up against a strong culture of engineering-based knowledge. Yvonne Rydin’s paper on planning hearings for an offshore wind farm in the UK showed how quite different types of modelled and personal knowledge on landscape and ecological values coexist in the decision-making process, opening up room for deliberation about the voices given to nature in planning. Isaac Marrero-Guillamon discussed the politics of participation in planning processes in a post-Olympic Games site in London, and charted how a particular group emerged as a respected site of communal expertise within that process, developing new categories of knowledge and influence within a particular representation of ‘the community’.

Yet other presentations provided a more materially driven sense of knowing about urban space. Helena Leino discussed the results of research focusing on experiences of the visually impaired in urban spaces in Finland, and their interaction with other people and material elements. Pedro Ferreira discussed the process of ‘spot-making’ by skateboarders, with special attention to the distributed agency of different surface materials, humans and their environments in this particular form of city building. These specific experiences of space are likely often overlooked by planners but still influence the experience of broader publics.


Fig. 1: Energy performance standards in real estate listings in France. Looking at the meaning created by standards can open up space for understanding the different types of knowledge at play.
Courtesy of the author.


While a rough brushstroke over the sources of different types of knowledge in planning, this led me to think that discussing planning ‘by other means’ (the conference theme) may contribute to rejecting a priori explanatory trajectories of how knowledge influences planning. It suggests that the knowledge brought by different groups (professionals, experts, communities) may influence planning processes in unexpected ways that are not usually associated with these labels.

Moving away from the modernist idea of a single knowledge reflecting truth, planning theory has grappled with the presence of multiple ‘knowledges’ and ways of knowing that need to be mediated by planners. This brings with it challenges such as how to consider scientific expertise alongside localised knowledge (Rydin 2007) and how to define what it is for planners to ‘know’ and expand their knowledge base, when acknowledging that knowledge is represented by different types of cognitive, moral and skills-based learning (Davoudi 2015).

The presentations in the track provided examples where otherwise accepted categories of knowledge, or typologies of knowledge, could be questioned, and even unravelled. As a result they challenged obvious explanatory dichotomies such as expert/lay, scientific/subjective etc. Rather than taking these categories of knowledge for granted, the ‘knowledges’ found in the papers were not easily categorised but instead mediated and established by other elements. Whether a scientific model (in the form of standards), community stakeholders (participatory planning), or expert judgement (planning hearings), in each case, these apparent types of knowledge were mobilised into these categories by artefacts, professional cultures and negotiations.

In some cases, examining the way in which the knowledge was built up and used seemed to weaken the knowledge claim, unpacking scientific rationalities behind standards for example. In others, it suggested empowerment, showing how spaces for lay knowledge, communities, judgement and multiple voices are made within institutional arrangements, and how these can influence the very core of planning decisions, despite appearances to the contrary. An STS-led reading, which invites questions about how taken-for-granted knowledge is established, could invite more analysis on the types of knowledge discussed in planning, and how they are established and categorised in relation to particular groups.

Another striking aspect of the track as a whole was its diversity, and what this signalled about what it is to discuss ‘planning’. There were sessions on planning and urban design standards; practices and operations; planning and ecological issues; and politics and participation. Some ethnographic presentations, such as by Pim Peters and Julio Paulos, brought the listeners up close to the daily practices of planners, and the meetings, discussions, interactions and practices that translate into their broader work. Marko Marskamp suggested a study of planning that decentres the planner from the process and focuses on planning tools such as codes as the object of research. Other presentations, such as by Anders Buch (with Anne Katrine Harders) and by Malve Jacobsen, emphasised that the implementation of plans is contingent on social practices, material infrastructures, discourses and ideas. Both of these highlighted the hybrid arrangements that fill the space between plans and their material implementation. As noted, there were also more material accounts of the interactions between particular users and the city and their voice within the planning process and city-making.

I was left wondering what ‘planning’ represented to the different speakers, and whether there is a gap between examining the practice of planning, and examining how planning emerges, ‘in practice’, or whether they are one and the same. In the context of thinking about what planning is and what it is represented by (e.g Alexander 2016), this sparked my interest to consider what STS in planning can bring to this question.

Politics by other means: Sitting at an angle

I understand the title of the recent 4S/EASST conference ‘Science and Technology by Other Means: Exploring collectives, spaces, futures’ as a play on Bruno Latour’s claim that ‘science is politics by other means’ (1988). The title draws our attention to the extent to which knowledge production and technological innovation is being seized by all sorts of citizens and activist collectives. The conference was crammed full of presentations, workshops and informal and formal discussions about science and technology being done and imagined in unexpected places, diverse collectives, multiple spaces and various possible futures. Latour’s widely cited phrase captured a subtly differently sensibility that was especially crucial to early Science and Technology Studies (STS). It reflected and inspired a wealth of work that exposes and explores science and technology as a deeply political achievement of assembling non-human and human actors in ways that create a ‘Centre’ and it’s ‘Others’.

Feminist Technoscience Studies (FTS) put more flesh on the bones of this work through attending to embodiment and situatedness in the processes of assembling, and to the differentially experienced effects, asking ‘Cui Bono?’ as questions of justice and to make other worlds possible (Star, 1995). F/STS is skilled in telling stories about the ways in which specific examples of science and technology build worlds. It attends to the multiple ways in which technoscience is embedded in the realities that we are coming to live with. Moreover, many of the stories at the conference participate in the collectives, spaces and possible futures they are engaged with in complex ways. In particular, researchers told stories that interrogate the objects enacted in technoscience as oozing essentialisms by way of critique, but also to participate in building more equitable worlds (Haraway, 1988). That is, the stories often explicitly consider what realities we would like to come to live with and how F/STS might contribute to their becoming. There is, it seems, a keen interest to explore the multiple ways in which F/STS is politics by ‘other’ means.

The walls of the conference, in Britain and in the US, parliamentary politics was extraordinarily visible and being done by very obvious means. That is, overtly and loudly by individual politicians proselytizing. I refer here to political debates around Brexit (British exit from the European Union) and the recent US presidency elections. These displays of politics have been full of stories that attempt to clearly define allies and enemies and they enact universals and polarisations. This is a deeply disturbing moment in which it seems urgent for our European Association for Social Studies of Science and Technology (EASST) to reflect upon how it should contribute to the making of the realities that are coming into being.

For me, some of the most inspiring theorising in F/STS is profoundly at odds with these recent events. This work appreciates the interdependency of human and non-human bodies and beings, in which connections and cuts are always in process, precarious and condensed to momentary stabilities. These insights challenge us to ‘stay with the trouble’, resist origin stories and remain curious and response-able. We need to tread care-fully so as not to flatten otherness but rather to seek ways of ‘doing difference together’ (Verran and Christie, 2011). It seems incredibly important right now to articulate the weights that are pulling against these sensibilities, inwards towards an illusion of the possibility of just and productive, stable simplifications. These weights are crafted from alluring ingredients – the possibility of durable solutions, obvious answers, so-called straight-talking and common-sense. This is evident in many spheres not only national government parliamentary politics. For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) ‘Lean In’ campaign urges working women to ‘sit at the table’, both literally and metaphorically, in order to achieve success. Her book and TED talk is described by Time Magazine (2014) as a hugely successful feminist mission (Sandberg, 2013; see www.youtube/TED). At the same time some feminist academics are critical that it is an example of neo-liberal corporate feminism that appropriates feminist terms to achieve capitalist agendas and creates divisions (McRobbie, 2013). The ‘Lean in’ campaign is problematic but seductive. It is catchy ‘politics by obvious means’ that has gained huge support. I have an unsettling feeling that while I have been ‘sitting at an angle’ to truth-claims and definitive knowledge, exposing and challenging the practices of centring and simplification, leaning in, talking straight and making problems doable has gained widespread support .

It is the above disconcertment that promotes me to ask; should our Association ‘lean in’ and engage in increasingly obvious political activities, and what would this mean? Or, perhaps our Association has a more important role to play in ‘sitting at an angle’. What are the ways in which F/STS does politics? The 4S/EASST conference showcased multiple ways of doing F/STS and the EASST Review wants to facilitate different modes of writing and presenting the work of the European F/STS community. For me, sitting at an angle is my favoured positioning because I consider it to be itself an interference, not only an intervention. It is critical of looking inwards, of centring, as well as of what is on the table. Moreover, I sense that sitting at an angle facilitates ‘politics multiple’ – by various means including allegory, quietism and ambivalence. As I learned from reading Star, when we ask cui bono? it is in order to imagine what other worlds are possible as well as to expose what has been hidden or denied (Bowker et al., 2016). This is more difficult to do if we are leaning in. I invite us to explore what ‘leaning in’ or ‘sitting at an angle’ might mean as we imagine the future role of EASST.