Tag Archives: Conference

EASST letter to members May 2020

Vienna, 17 May 2020

Dear members of the EASST community, dear colleagues and friends,

I hope this letter finds you well in these difficult and complex times. COVID-19 has actually transformed from a standard introductory sentence into one which points directly to the importance to care for each other.

I am writing this letter to give our membership a clearer idea of where developments are going in our community, in particular with regard to the – now virtual – EASST/4S conference in Prague (https://www.easst4s2020prague.org/). I will keep calling it “the Prague conference” as much of the thinking, preparing and caring has a place and many of the lines of work that happen in 4S and EASST council across many countries all come together there and are turned into the reality of a meeting in Prague. In particular Tereza Stöckelova and Filip Vostal have been working relentlessly to not only make this special event happen under such experimental conditions, but to make it happen in the best possible ways.

In fact, well before COVID-19 transformed the world in which this conference should have happened, we were thinking how we could create a conference which could give more space to virtual elements, as increasing concerns were raised among our membership and beyond about the environmental sustainability of our conference travelling. As was already visible in the submission process, we offered – under specific limitations – the possibility to join the event from all parts of the world without needing to physically travel there. This was well accepted and I am sure we will continue to think about these aspects, and how to institutionally support them, during the conference and in the future (see also the statement of EASST Council on COVID-19 https://easst.net/covid19-easst-council-statement-and-call/).

… read more

Reflections on the Local Institutionalization of STS


Opening words by Reetta Muhonen at the Nordic STS Conference. Picture by Petra Kotro

The Nordic STS conference took place in Tampere, Finland between the 12thand the 14th of June 2019. Judging from numbers, STS continues its steady growth in the Nordic countries. With 222 registered participants, 176 presentations, and 27 sessions (including the special panel we report here), the fourth iteration of this bi-annual STS encounter was the biggest to date. The event has become a stable meeting point for scholars based in the region. Even more remarkable, 57 of this year’s 222 participants came from a total of 21 non-Nordic countries, with seven of those countries being non-European.

As the conference – organized by the Tampere University and the Finnish Society for Science and Technology Studies – drew close, we started to reflect on the performative power of such an event in terms of the institutionalization of STS. From our own little corner in the University of Helsinki, we were aware that the level of such institutionalization differs across the participating countries, and even more in each of the universities and institutes that host each participant. While some participants are in established STS departments (or at least very STS-oriented departments), some find more challenges to achieve continuity, access resources, and give visibility to STS scholarship in their institutions. These concerns connect clearly with similar discussions such as those reported earlier this year in EASST Review (Mewes, 2019). In this context, we wanted to take the chance offered by the event to know more about differing experiences across the Nordic Countries.

The session The Local institutionalization of STS – Challenges, advantages and possibilities was organised by the research collective STS Helsinki. There were four panellists participating: Mianna Meskus, (New Social Research programme, Tampere University); Oili-Helena Ylijoki, (TaSTI, Tampere University); Karoliina Snell, (HCAS, University of Helsinki); and Andreas Birkbak, (TANT-Lab Copenhagen, Aalborg University). The speakers started by presenting the role, manner and impact of institutionalization (or lack of it) in their own academic environments, after which the discussion was open to the audience. In the following, we summarize and reflect on the main points from the overall discussion, and conclude with some practical considerations.


Variability in STS environments

From left to right, Mianna Meskus, Karoliina Snell, Oili-Helena Ylijoki, and Andreas Birkbak. Picture by Aaro Tupasela.

During the discussion it became clear that institutionalization looks very different in different settings, and not only regarding the level of institutionalization but also regarding the ways in which it has been achieved.

Tampere University’s TaSTI (Tampere Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies) was created in the 90s as a science studies unit. Over the years, the unit moved from being based in a research institute to becoming part of the Faculty of Social Sciences, while also surviving a merger with innovation studies in the early 2000s (which gave it its current acronym) and an attempted merger with higher education studies. In 2011 TaSTI started to shift towards a clear interest in politics, epistemology and technologies of everyday life, thus bringing STS to its core. Although TaSTI’s institutional recognition has helped it to accrue funds, the unit still exists in the margins of the university and depends on external funding. TaSTI is now looking to develop its teaching curriculum – which has not historically been a priority at the research centre – in cooperation with different faculties at Tampere university.

The history of STS in Helsinki starts in a similar way through HIST, an institute combining science, technology, innovation and economics in Helsinki. HIST was establish from top to bottom, in a collaborative endeavour between the Finnish government and different Universities in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Interests quickly centred on distributing the received funding instead of establishing common research interests and teaching. HIST slowly faded away together with the institutional status of STS in Helsinki. In contrast, current efforts to develop STS were started and driven by junior scholars in collaboration with senior researchers, who share a will to collectively develop STS scholarship through research, public seminars, communication and teaching. The activity has crystallized in the STS Helsinki collective. However, the lack of allocated budget limits the development of the group.

The TANT-Lab in the Aalborg University, Denmark is an example of institutionalization not taking place through the creation of units but rather as a result of teaching. While STS has not had a unit by itself, it has been through the formula ‘STS+discipline’ that the approach has found continuity. Combining STS with technoanthropology, IT, medical anthropology, or administration studies has generated spaces for STS to spread. It was the combination of these different synergies between STS and other disciplines that led to the formation of DASTS (Danish Association for Science and Technology Studies) in 2006. An important part of DASTS has been its free membership, which has led to large and very lively community despite the lack of financial means.

Finally, the contrast was offered by researchers from Lund University, Sweden, where STS is virtually absent in institutional terms, with only a handful of people working from an STS perspective. In such a context, attending international events becomes one of the few chances to interact and discuss with other STS scholars.

STS: An institutional space or an approach?

The level or type of formal organization has an effect on the vitality of STS. The growth of the Nordic STS community is an indication that the informal ways of creating research communities that the panellists discussed are an efficient way to create possibilities and identity in the field, without formal recognition in the guise of academic positions and study programs.

In the long run, however, issues of job security might appear. If all salaried top positions are non-STS, then it is hard to get good talent to take up STS as anything but an ’approach’. As a mere approach, STS can be understood as an epiphytic entity, dependent on academic currents and good will. While this may be sufficient to a few individual careers, it does relegate STS into fringes of academia and does not provide an inspirational leadership and career narrative for junior scholars to follow. There is also an involved risk for young scholars; for promotions, disciplinary merits often count more than interdisciplinary merits. Universities work with traditional disciplinary institutional boundaries, and genuinely interdisciplinary units seem to be an exception, and as such always subject to scrutiny.

As has been discussed, informal networks or collectives, such as STS Helsinki or the Danish example that centres on teaching, can be highly successful initiatives for mobilizing and recruiting new scholars to STS. Such quasi-rhizomatic networking and creative buzz is necessary for (and also a sign of) a vibrant field. The question to think about is whether this is enough for continued success of STS in Nordic countries and beyond, or should STS strive to create institutionally stable spaces beyond doctoral programmes and specialised research institutes?

Strategies for the future of STS

Professor Sheila Jasanoff (also a keynote at the Nordic STS conference) conveniently prequelled our panel  with her talk in Helsinki on Tuesday 11th of June. Prof Jasanoff discussed the early days of STS and how the field was established, and highlighted the publication of the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Jasanoff et al., 1994) and the popularization of the 4S meetings around the year 2000 as keystones of the process. Jasanoff advocated building bridges and partnerships to expand the influence and reputation of STS as a relevant field in itself. This call was echoed in the panel discussions. Reaching out (both as individual researchers and as STS communities) was explicated as a clear way forward for STS, especially as traditional institutionalization paths do not seem to sit comfortably with the epiphytic character of STS that we mentioned above.

One discussed area of interest in terms of attaining societal relevance was policy spaces. One of the discussants stated that if STS does not advice on scientific knowledge and its uses in society, someone else surely will. There was a suggestion that national STS associations or subject specific STS societies could take the lead on this for example in the form of inviting politicians to discussions on topical subjects. This would at best create a positive loop between politicians and STS scholars, with the attribution of ‘science experts’ rooting into the STS community.

Second, teaching is a key tool for STS to get a foothold in the disciplinary environments of universities. Especially if developed by junior scholars, teaching elevates scholarship and generates work experience that is crucial to accessing better salaried positions. At the same time, teaching and curriculums help to promote STS among undergraduate students, whose successful recruitment into the field is pivotal to both continuity and intellectual vitality of STS communities. Although developing new teaching in existing departments is not easy, there are opportunities to develop STS teaching during programme creation or renovation processes. Furthermore, senior scholars should be pushing for more cross-university teaching programs that can properly represent the interdisciplinary character of STS.

Finally, not only reaching out is key for STS to achieve continuity, but also reaching inside the STS community itself. From a more micro perspective, activities such as reading groups, writing retreats, or STS walks were mentioned as ways to develop STS communities, especially in the absence of institutional infrastructures and funding. These activities help to identify shared interests and a common theoretical framework that bestows STS identity to the group or community. From a more macro perspective, it is important for STS units, departments or communities to be in touch with each other. One of the panel discussants suggested more regular interaction between national STS organizations in the Nordic Countries that goes beyond the organization of a biannual conference. This would help to strengthen STS networks across the region while giving visibility to Nordic STS scholarship among international associations such as EASST and 4S.

Our discussion reveals a heterogeneous understanding of what the institutionalization of STS entails. While some talk about outward validation, job security, and access to funding, some make references to the social and intellectual aspects of STS, with a clear interest in the development and growth of the discipline. In our understanding, these different dimensions point towards the objectives of viability and continuity. While there are multiple strategies to achieve these objectives, we infer from the discussions that all of them rely on constant efforts to develop the STS community and the enactment of practical actions for and from STS. With this in mind, we think that it is crucial for STS to continue to develop in rhizomatic ways in addition to seeking recognition inside traditional disciplinary academic environments, ensuring the resources that such a status guarantees.





Mewes, JS (2019) Report: ‘Stsing’ – Towards inclusive forms of STS-in-Germany. In: EASST Review, Volume 38(2). Available at: https://easst.net/article/report-stsing-towards-inclusive-forms-of-sts-in-germany/ (accessed 29.7.2019)

Jasanoff S, Markle GE, Petersen JC and Pinch T (1994) Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Call for Application: Pre-conference Doctoral Workshop “Invent Your Job”


EASST Conference “Meetings” at Lancaster University

We invite early stage researchers graduate, postgraduate, and early-career scholars to apply to our workshop immediately prior to the EASST conference in Lancaster.

How can we translate STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices to the job market, or how could we create jobs to make place for these capacities? For many students this seems to be a real concern. The question is a hard one to answer, however, because fast-paced changes in society push the definition of work to new frontiers, and STS is a very diverse field. This is why in this workshop for early stage researchers we turn the question upside down and ask how STS knowledge, sensibilities and practices can help us invent/imagine/design jobs for the future! We will explore this proposition in three different settings, starting with:

  • A walk shop “Wild Ideas”. During an hour long walk in the beautiful surroundings of Lancaster, we will brainstorm in groups about what our capacities as STS scholars are and how they can be articulated into roles/careers/jobs.
  • A work shop “Prototyping Society”. With the help and guidance of two STS scholars who have developed their own, ‘unconventional’ careers, participants will develop speculative job descriptions and discuss ways of bringing these into reality.
  • A social dinner “STS Careers of the Future”. We will end the day with a dinner, where a group of students will be chosen as ‘Future-makers’ for having developed very unconvenitonal and inventive speculative jobs. As a reward, this group’s job desriptions will be published in the EASST Review.

What: A pre-conference workshop for Master students, PhD candidates and other early-career researchers to meet and share ideas, experiences, and enthusiasm.

When: July, 24th, 11:30 am – 20:30 pm

Why: Brainstorm about the jobs of the future and our place as STS scholars in that future. Network with an international mix of colleagues. Share refreshments and get to know Lancaster.

Cost: Free.

How: You will need to provide us with a short statement of motivation (max. 500 words) and upload your  CV (PDF or Word files only).
Apply online here

Application deadline: May 1st, 2018

We hope to accommodate all completed applications; however, due to venue limitations we are limited to about 25 participants. Applicants are expected to attend the EASST conference in Lancaster and be or become EASST members.

Remember you can also apply for an EASST conference fee waiver!

Please contact  Dara Ivanova (students@easst.net) with questions or suggestions.

Preliminary program 

11.30 – 12.00 Welcome and registration
12.00 – 13.30 Wild Ideas
13.30 – 14.30 Lunch
14.30 – 15.30 Prototyping Society I
15.30 – 16.00 Coffee/Tea Break
16.00 – 17.00 Prototyping Society II
17.00 – 17.30 Free time/leisure walk to restaurant
17.30 – 18.30 STS Employees of the Future Ceremony
18.30 – End    Dinner

Make Space for Place STS & architecture on place-making

In October 2017, the conference ‘Building Care: Intersections of Health and Architecture’ took place at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. The symposium brought together scientists, policy makers, architects and even some patients to talk about how places of care and place-making for care matter. The participants tried to connect and exchange on place as a unit of analysis in thinking about healthcare. Their different ideas about place-making (building-making for architects; people and budget centered for policy makers, and a process of meaning-making for the STS scholars) made for rich interdisciplinary discussions on how to think about and do place.

STS and Place 

The idea to organize a conference explicitly dealing with places and the making of places originated in what the organizers felt was an incomplete conceptualization of place in STS.  Certainly, the underlying importance of place has been there from the beginning, as knowledge production was tied to a particular site: the laboratory. From then on, STS has tended to categorize knowledge, based on the places where it happens (Henke 2000). Tom Gieryn made this relationship explicit when he distinguished between lab and field knowledge (2006) and tied knowledge production to particular truth-spots (2002). There has been STS work done on the importance of particular places as political and techno-cultural assemblages (e.g. Marres 2013 on eco show homes or Farias & Wilkie 2016 on studios), but the relationship between place-making and care has not been explicitly theorized.

How to challenge ourselves in thinking further about place? Looking beyond STS seemed like a good way to start exploring. The conference was conceived as an interdisciplinary, open conversation with policy makers, cultural geographers, historians and, importantly, the experts on place-making: architects.

Fig. 1: Participants in the workshop ‘Place-making’ work in groups on building care places.
Courtesy of the author.

Places: transient and concrete

The morning session was structured around three keynotes and showcased very different approaches to place. Tim Cresswell, a human geographer, broke down place into three ingredients: location, locale and sense of place and, quoting Tuan, referred to place as “a field of care”. He then outlined a theory of place, consisting of the overlapping spheres Materialities, Meanings and Practices, which are intersected by vertical and horizontal axes of temporality. This conceptualization becomes more intricate and is too complex to summarize here, but it is important to note that for Cresswell places are not bounded entities. Rather, places are intersections of numerous forces coming together and linking in nodes of relations that are always articulated in particular temporalities. In this understanding of places, they are emergent centers of meaning, transient and unbound.

The architect AnneMarie Eijkelenboom’s keynote was conceived with a very different concern: how are places of care built and what can this process teach us about place-making in healthcare? Her talk focused on the way built environments affect health and perception. Place was a concrete object in this keynote – it was a building, a garden, a room. Yet, it was also a process of continuous considerations of different materials, physical elements and users. In this talk places were broken down to numerous ingredients and the three overlapping spheres – Materialities, Meanings and Practices – were made visible in the examples of care buildings that AnneMarie discussed.

Designing Death and Dying

The afternoon parallel workshop sessions encouraged participants to think through the different conceptualizations of place, presented in the keynotes. Hands-on cases were the hospice as a place for dying and Maggie’s cancer centers as places of (physical and emotional) comfort. Ken Worpole, who had delivered a keynote in the morning on the history of hospices in the U.K., discussed how sense of place frames the experience of dying. The design and build of hospitals is geared toward cure. The materialities, practices and meanings of hospitals converge to fight for the preservation of life, often resulting in prolonged suffering for both patient and loved ones. CPR procedures have become so thoroughly embedded in western healthcare practices that it is now routine response to most deaths. The particular environment of hospices is, on the other hand, geared toward care: a dignified way of dying. This insight made an impression on the architects in the room, who started thinking about the ingredients necessary to create the intimacy and calm of places for death, but within hospitals. It is a good question to ask about place-making, as well. Does place-making consist of ingredients that can be pinned down? How can a place’s transient quality be captured and scaled up or down? Place-making for care is very different from place-making for cure. Materialities must align with practices and meanings; otherwise places ‘don’t work’.

Place-making is doing [together] 

In one of the afternoon sessions participants were challenged to build places of care in small groups. The groups were purposefully diverse, including architects, doctors, academics, policy makers and patients. Each group was given modeling foam and basic supplies to make a place by focusing on a care process. The idea behind the workshop was to do place, as opposed to talking about place. Each group had differing and sometimes divergent concerns, but these had to be articulated in very practical terms. The question ‘what is a healing environment’ was understood and answered in different ways. In the plenary discussions that followed, it became clear that place-making is about working with multiplicities, which sometimes fit together and sometimes fall apart. The doing of places – the correct lighting, sound isolation, view toward a garden, privacy, the feeling of comfort, the feeling of home – is even more complex in terms of healthcare. Places of care must be safe, for both patients and professionals, yet they must also be cozy. They must be a physical articulation of a balance between care and cure, between patient autonomy and professionals’ ability to perform their tasks. Beyond materiality, places are also “fields of care” and meaning making, but also of politics and policy. Places are made of people, objects and ideas, couched in particular temporalities. They are planned, designed and built, but are in fact contingent and emerging assemblages.

Place Agenda

The conference was an attempt to set a place agenda in healthcare and STS. Borrowing insights from human geography, we know that places are not empty containers that may be filled with the importance of people and practices, but that they are co-produced with people and practices, while producing meaning within particular temporalities. Furthermore, we may say that places are always there, acting as a backdrop, while linking practices and objects in nodes of relations.

What does such an insight offer healthcare studies? A place-centered analysis may be particularly useful for understanding governance arrangements and practices. Oldenhof et al. (2016) argue that the governance of healthcare is being done through particular spatial arrangements, which are often viewed as a neutral backdrop to policy making, but must be taken seriously as governance tools. At the intersection of architecture, design and health, place may play an important role in interrogating popular notions, such as evidence-based design (EBD) and healing environments. In STS, work on places as sites of knowledge production and even political ontology has shown that places have the capacity to unpack social complexities (cf Yaneva 2012). Using place as a productive analytic lens will mean developing the relationships between place and knowledge further and tracing the ways places are productive in multiple ways.

This ‘place agenda’, as the conference participants referred to it, is more of a tentative mapping of the issues and methodologies that may benefit from a place analytical angle, and certainly not a thorough program. Conceiving of places as “fields of care” in multiple may open up spaces for thinking further on governance, politics, ontology and the meaning of care.


The conference Building Care was organized by the Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management (ESHPM) with the support of the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC).



Farías, I & A. Wilkie (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements (Routledge: New York)

Gieryn, T.F. (2002) ‘Three Truth-spots, Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences’ 38 (2): 113-132

(2006) City as Truth-spot: Laboratories and Field-Sites in Urban Studies’, Social Studies of Science, 36 (1): 5-38

Henke, C.R. (2000) ‘Making a place for science: The field trial’, Social Studies of Science, 30 (4): 483–511

Marres, N. (2013) ‘Why political ontology must be experimentalized: On eco-show homes as devices of participation’, Social Studies of Science, 43(3): 417-443

Oldenhof, L., Postma, J. & R. Bal (2015) ‘Re-placing Care: governing healthcare through spatial arrangements’ in Ferlie, E., Montgomery K. & Reff Pederson A. (eds), Oxford Handbook of Healthcare Management (Ofxord: Oxford University Press)

Yaneva, A. (2012) Mapping Controversies in Architecture. (London: Ashgate)



EASST Student Member on the EASST Council – one vacancy

An opportunity for you to play a role in the future of EASST

We are seeking self-nominations for the following vacancy on EASST Council (following an unsuccessful earlier call). The position is for 4 years (but some previous student members have stepped down after 2 years if they are no longer a student). There will be an online election where all current EASST members will be able to vote.

To learn more about the recent work of the Council and the opportunities and challenges ahead please read our out-going President’s article in the latest EASST Review at https://easst.net/article/easst-achievements-opportunities/. A list of current council members can be found at https://easst.net/about-easst/easst-council-members/ and the formal roles of the president and council are described in the EASST constitution https://easst.net/about-easst/easst-constitution/. You are welcome to contact the President or one of the existing Council members (emails on the website) for more information. Candidates need to be a current student member of EASST.

If you are interested in this position, please nominate yourself by sending an email to easst(at)univie.ac.at providing a short statement (no more than 250 words) introducing yourself and saying why you are interested in standing for the Council and what skills and experiences you would bring to the role.  This statement will be made available to those voting.

Nominations must be received by Friday 13th January 2017.

The election will open soon after nominations close and all members will be sent an email with details of how to vote.


A note from Márton Fabók

Dear fellow PhD students,

As the outgoing EASST student representative, I would like to encourage you to nominate yourself to become the student member of EASST Council.

The student representative is a full Council member. The EASST Council takes decisions collegially, and often subdivides tasks among members (see this and other issues of the EASST Review for our latest activities!), so it is more than just raising a voice for fellow postgrad students and early career researchers. There are generally two Council meetings a year; one is often adjoining the EASST conference. Council membership is voluntary work for the community, but travels to meetings and accommodation are fully reimbursed.

Personally, being a student rep was one of the best things during my PhD. It provided a unique perspective to understand how our STS community and generally academia across different national settings work. Coming from a non-STS department, this was a great way for me to be involved in the discipline. The nice and collegial atmosphere of the Council provides a very supportive environment, so it’s really up to you how do you contribute to STS in Europe. For example, I have learnt a lot from the activities I was involved in, such as organising the postgraduate workshop before the biannual conference or revamping the EASST Fund. All in all, I fully recommend you to think about what you would do as a council member and to take a brave step to nominate yourself to the student rep position.

Please email me if you have any questions or have something to share at marton.fabok@gmail.com.

Márton Fabók

History, ontology, science studies How to study open science and scientific data

An event as the EASST/4S annual meeting can be a key object to study the ever- forming discipline of science studies. I will try to use my scattered experiences of two different tracks to draw a few draft conclusions about some methodological features of our discipline, and propose some more critical research questions that could shape science studies.

In the track Open Science we heard presentations, among them many case studies on how and which actors should be and are included in science (for example local communities affected by macro-level political decisions about the environment, the general public concerning GMO, Wikipedia-contributors, lay biologists, urban communities, etc.). There were lively discussions about who thinks what is important about open science. We also heard recommendations how to achieve the goal of “open science”. A considerable part of the scholars working on open science (and some of them presenting in Barcelona) are also working in policy-related committees or other organizations to foster open science.

Often, open science is contrasted with the issue of whom the data belongs to. Making such a contrast — we have to be aware — constructs a space where property issues are opposed to a concept of an open science where openness is a normatively positive entity (which should be achieved, with the help of scholars/experts in committees). If we understand science in this manner and in this context of contrast, then propriety issues will tend to attain a negative connotation. However, in my incomplete perception of this track and its presenters, not very often were such ontological questions about the category “open science” asked: it was not in the main focus to address why and with the help of which people or groups this category emerged and was shaped during history; under what political, cultural, scientific contexts it operates; what functions it has or had in shaping society, business, culture or science. Rather, most of the time, the discussions covered the different semantics of open science (of course, not always — for a detailed and thorough analysis of the track see Mayer and Aibar’s review in this issue, analysing the different semantics of openness in the presentations as well), about the different perceptions (for example of stakeholders, policy-makers) on what open science is, or about how open science is performed (on Wikipedia, in journals, in participatory science projects, etc.). We also heard many presentations on the question of how to implement open science; this latter question can be characterized as presupposing a normative understanding of open science.

The notion of openness that was so frequently used has not really been critically analysed in the majority of the contributions — apart from few, but notable exceptions. It seems for sure that “openness” is positively connoted. Such a connotation has been part of Western scientific tradition since modernity (see for example Merton’s scientific norm of communism, Merton 1942). In his paper on magic and science, talking about historiography, Láng (2015:127) rightly points out that “(r)esearchers simply accepted the view that openness is a positive value that supports academic research, and that secrecy, which is more characteristic of the history of technology, was fortunately abandoned by modern science.” But Láng (2015: 125) also observes that “many scholars have shown how secrecy in science became not only a tool of protecting knowledge from intellectual competitors, but also a dynamic social practice, a force that creates and organizes groups, and influences the mechanisms of exclusion-inclusion”. The analysis of these and similar questions in relation to the many practices around the definition and practice of so-called “open science” might produce valuable knowledge for science studies.

In a way Western democracy seems to be the normative backdrop of the dialogue on open science; but let us play a little bit: What could be the antonym of open science? It could be many things: closed science, science for the few, science for the privileged ones, etc. All of the antonyms shed light on one or another aspect of open science that could be studied by science studies scholars, ever more so if we wanted to accept the normatively positive notion of open science, as it is widely accepted nowadays. Some questions for future empirical analyses of scientific practices could include: What are the normative, scientific or political stakes for different disciplines in performing the movement of open science? Which groups are leading the discussion in this field? Why and how do disciplines, scholars, policy-makers focus on activities regarded as fostering open science? What are the performances in this field? What is regarded as closed science? How does this narrative of bad closed and good open science shape scientific activities? How did this opposition come into being in the first place? These possible questions would shed light on open science from a meta-level: they would show us the processes how the concept of open science is shaped culturally, socially or scientifically, and those cultural, scientific or social entities and their networks that emerge from these processes. Such an approach would not focus on – as did many of the excellent presentation we heard in the track — how a pre-defined “open science” is made, manufactured, constructed, performed or used. It would rather study how the thing we now call “open science” came into place, what its ontological status is, what its changing roles and relationships are in the cultural, political, scientific landscapes of other entities. Steven Shapin (2008: 222-223), in a similar approach, describes for example how what we now define as openness was a normality in the 1970s among biologists in the academia, most of them living scarcely off their salaries; but when the industry became aware of the profitable nature of genetics, scientists were tempted to change their workplace and work in less open circumstances. The opposition in the narratives about dirty secretive industry as opposed to pure and virtuous open science emerged because of these developments: “Since there was no money, a sense of sainthood was required in the situation”, said a student about research in academia (Philip J. Hilts: Scientific Temperaments: Three Lives in Contemporary Science, quoted by Shapin 2008: 223).

I will now propose some possible similar research questions based on another field in science studies, dealing with scientific data. Again, I will focus on what could be an ontological analysis about the emergence and ever-changing status of the different things we in STS call “data”.

In the track “Lives and Deaths of Data” the focus of many of the talks was on the different ways of the “interpretation” of data, the different stops of their “journey”, the “changes” in the translations of data.1 The topics were, among others: sensitive health “data” and their context, discussions around and interpretations of astronomical “data”, “data” sharing practices and inequalities, the commodification of “data”, configurations of public and non-public “data”, etc. Among the many possible definitions of data there was one feature that came up quite often: that data is something that can be circulated (implying as well that it can be used several times).

The secondary use of scientific data, that seems to be one defining feature of data in this view, has been a contested issue for decades. The relationship of what is usually called metadata and data or the relationship of data and context are not self-evident. Even these distinctions are under scientific scrutiny (Mauthner-Gárdos 2015). Postmodern theories have questioned the assumption that data are neutral or objective representations of the world. Performative scholars (Barad 2007) have challenged representationalist approaches (many of them postmodernist or constructivist ones); such approaches, these scholars say, still stick to the view that scientific data somehow represent natural or social worlds (even if these approaches do not necessarily narrate around terms like objectivity or subjectivity). It would be interesting to analyse — in a performative approach — how the notion that data can be circulated itself presupposes a specific notion of data and thus a specific way how data can be analysed; a question that has not quite been in the focus of the presentations in this track. If we understand data as something that can be circulated (and many presenters in this track shared this view), then one of the foci of such science studies analyses about data will be the ways data circulate or data are transmitted, and how different people “interpret” the “same” data. Scientific data will be a well-defined entity without borders that are contested, without ends that may fray. Science on data will be then somewhat less on what cultural, scientific, social, etc. traditions and surroundings influence what counts as data in the first place2, on what in our world does not qualify as scientific data, let alone on the ways how we as science studies scholars choose our objects of study; short: on the ontological status of data in sciences (in relation for example to other types of data, or other similar entities in sciences that end up not being called data) and, importantly: on data as the object of scientific enquiry in STS. In this track, the main focus – of course with exceptions, mostly ethnographic, close-up analyses of processes that result in the production of entities then called data – was less on these latter aspects.

It might be fruitful, if we want to reflect on our own methods as scientists, to look at our ways how we define data, or open science (or anything else as a matter of fact) and at the causes of selection of things that seem worthy of analysing. Also, I propose to analyse to greater extent the ontology of data or open science: what is regarded as data or open/closed science, which scientific, methodological or other traditions influence how these notions came into being in a specific scientific discipline at a specific time in history, at a specific place on Earth.

So: the questions that might be valuable to elaborate and that were – in my view – a bit underrepresented in the tracks under review: What is regarded/defined as data or open science and what not? What are the disciplinary, methodological, political etc. factors that play a role in the processes of and the practices resulting in a specific definition? What are the factors that lead to the concept of open (and closed) science and that of scientific data? How is the relationship of the things that then are called “world” and “data” in different methods, sciences and societies? Through which terms, methods and concepts is this distinction conceptualized, made through different practices, and then used in scientific narratives and texts or in the politics and policies of science? It seems to me that science studies might greatly benefit from including approaches and research questions about the ontology and historicity of the objects we choose to study and thus, in and through our actions and choices as researchers, bring into being as scientific objects.


1 I quote here the introductory speech of this track by Sabina Leonelli.

2 One of the notable exceptions in this track was Haider’s and Kjellberg’s analysis about the relationship of the structure of a big scale experimental facility and the type of data it produces. They stressed that the meaning of data starts before researchers begin their work.

Open Science in Practice STS

Approaches to open cultures in research

Open Science (OS) is currently regarded as the next ‘big thing’ in European science policy and elsewhere (Mayer 2015; Levin et al. 2016). It is broadly defined as science that is transparent, accountable, and shareable, involving the participation of (all) relevant stakeholders in the scientific process. Policy visions do not only highlight the transformative powers of OS in regard to research culture, they are also setting high expectations in regard to creation of economic growth, new jobs and innovation opportunities. In practice, tensions are emerging in how OS is enacted and governed by scientific communities, science policy organisations, funding bodies, the publishing industry, and science-related institutions, with diverse uptakes of commons, knowledge sharing, democratisation of technology, participatory design, hacking etc.

This conference track invited participants to explore OS from an STS perspective and to discuss what STS can bring into the broader discussion of OS, e.g. by studying institutionalizations of OS, appropriations of OS within prevailing traditional epistemic culture, or how OS is co-shaped by negotiation processes promoted by different stakeholders. Presentations covered socio-technical dimensions of openness in sciences – including the social sciences and humanities. There was less discussion of the “sticks and carrots” (Leonelli et al. 2015) or the perceived benefits to researchers, research organisations and funding agents of utilising open scientific methods, the “disincentives and barriers, and the degree to which there is evidence to support these perceptions” (Whyte & Pryor 2011) – though one of the papers remarked how pressures on scientists to collaborate with industry and commercialize their work, within the framework of open innovation, can work against policy expectations to share research data and results [Sánchez-Jiménez/Aibar]. The aim of the conference track was therefore not to gain consensus over how to define open science in research practice, nor to reach a conclusion on how STS should approach these matters. On the contrary it was an attempt to grasp the multitude of enactments of openness and approaches to study it without being normative about its valuation1.


Grasping openness

Most of the discussions in the four sessions revolved around diverse (and unusual non-idealized) forms of co-production of knowledge in various open configurations – involvement of local communities [Albagli et al.], local expertise [Dosemagen] and interdisciplinary collaboration [Oberhauser], hackathons, open consultation processes [Noel, Gruson-Daniel], the open and collaborative editing of scientific articles in Wikipedia [Aibar/Lerga], replication of scientific results, open institutional policies, open access publishing and its abuse by predatory publishers [Wyatt] and so forth. Eighteen speakers told very diverging stories about challenges and limits of collaborations in open settings, some highlighting the need for both normative and legal frameworks in order to safeguard open practices. [Spök et al] particularly pointed to the need of closed spaces for debate in controversy and risk research.

A number of speakers – involved in ongoing open science or citizen science initiatives – focused on collaboration between academia and different kinds of local communities in several countries [Fressoli/Arza]. The relevance and role of lay-expertise and the design of hybrid and innovative institutional settings were highlighted as key points in such experiences. The focus was implicitly moved, from open science as a more effective way of producing science, to open science as a new way to engage citizens (mainly as specific community members) and other stakeholders as active agents in the development of more socially robust research. While open science is commonly associated with access to peer-reviewed knowledge, the emphasis in our conference track was shifted towards peer production.

This line of inquiry understands open science as a social learning venture where the process itself is even more important than the specific scientific outcomes or products than can arise out of it. Consistently with this move from open science as product-oriented to open science as process-oriented, institutional experimentation and the involvement of local communities are considered much more important than technologically deterministic approaches to open science that place great emphasis in the use of new tools. Furthermore, some of the conclusions in our track highlighted the necessary soft-skills and adequate estimation of capacity of such participatory approaches, which are traditionally also a domain of STS.


Sharing data

Data and data sharing practices got also quite a lot of attention in the analyses presented. In times when new technology meets old forms of governance, contradictions emerge, illustrating the complex orientations of data generators, researchers and others to open science. Here, criticism was raised by some speakers about the neutral character associated to data in standard open science approaches and in usual calls for data sharing. They problematized data sharing by exposing how data encompasses compromises, ethical standards, different epistemic cultures and values, even different levels of privacy or security, which may entail severe problems in their re-use and replication [Harp-Rushing et al., Velden, …]. Such issues, which built upon traditional STS claims against the value-free or non-situated character of scientific knowledge, should be taken into account in the analysis of barriers to open science and the design of public policies to foster data sharing. Mainstream open data discourse (see the current implementation of data management plans) was criticised for its narrow concept of data (as text or numbers in structured form) and counter-illustrated with other forms of data or data generation, such as organic materials in biobanks [Murtagh et al.] or biohacking citizen labs [Bogdanov], but also urban social data [Perelló], and multimedia data from ethnographic or experimental settings. Besides raising awareness for the intractability of certain materialities or spatialities towards technocratic ideals of openness, the speakers were calling for more ambitions to open up the whole range of media through which “scientific knowledge is processed, validated and circulated” [Pedersen et al.]. However, when it comes to making data resulting from such studies openly available some of the speakers also experienced limits and challenges: unclear copyright issues or vague institutional data policies, for instance, are still hindering data sharing. But what about our own data politics as STS researchers? How could we share our data in its broadest sense, not only among ourselves, but with the communities we work with? We see that issue is prominently addressed in citizen science projects that treat citizens not as research partners, but as data aggregators.

Altogether the open research data theme provides a fruitful ground for many STS concerns. Besides the already mentioned issues, we should deal with the various expectations and imaginaries that science policy and research administration currently develop in regard to open data governance. From the quest of evidence based decision making to the realms of messy research data, following different data pathways could offer rich and exciting STS topics related to scientific ethos, interdisciplinary collaboration, citizen science, infrastructure studies and so forth.


Scientific ethos, predatory practices and metrics

Coming to questions of scientific ethos and trust, even if debated only briefly during the track, the phenomenon of predatory open access publishing triggered a discussion on metrics and scientific credit systems. In the predatory business model authors are charged publication fees for publishing an open access article without proper peer review or any other editorial services. In the last years this exploitative practice has not only created confusion about the quality of open access publishing in general, it has also made, once again, visible the problems of researchers from developing countries in need to play the game of scientific recognition and reward. Not to mention the emergent evidence – for instance while analysing EU policy documents [Mayer] – that open science can also be instrumental for worsening present trends towards the commodification of science, within the neoliberal agenda (Mirowsky 2014).

All in all, the fear of losing competitive advantages by opening up access to scientific knowledge production is not only present in innovation contexts, but much more so when it comes to planning one’s career [Attenbourogh]. Giving up control over use and reuse in times of vague institutional data policies and without an established reward/incentive system for opening up data would need more critical engagement with ethical dimensions of scientific practice such as trust and responsibility. Again a domain where STS would be best suited for involvement.

Open research practices shaped by digital technology offer a whole new spectrum of metrics to measure and assess scientific quality and productivity. But what does it mean to count social impact with downloads, clicks or retweets? Such alternative metrics would probably just plug along what we already have, but at least they put existing metrics for impact factors and rankings into perspective (Leiden Manifesto 2015). No doubt, they will also co-shape and preformat research agendas and increase impact driven research (which is not necessarily always a bad thing!). However, policy makers increasingly ask for impact measures to legitimate public expenditure. Alongside counting patents as indicators of innovation scientometricians work on new indicators to assess all kinds of open science including the cooperation of societal stakeholders in research.


A reflexive take on Open Science by STS

With open science currently being mainstreamed into western research funding frameworks, STS could help to demonstrate the situative appropriateness of top-down open science policies and engage with bottom-up activities as some of the track’s presenters have shown. Open should neither be defined in strict opposition to closed nor should it be a universalistic principle applicable to all research practices everywhere. STS would furthermore be able to study how such policies impact traditional communication and collaboration procedures, existing reward structures, timescales and hierarchies, as well as reflexively interrogating our own practices as researchers and our specific position with respect to other sciences. If STS were committed not only to study data practices in their diversity, but also in different scientific disciplines and regional contexts, we could critically accompany and help to realize the core principles of the open science movement: being as transparent, accountable, and shareable as possible, and involving stakeholder expertise on an equal footing in the research process.

Last but not least, in the context of open science, STS could once again reflect its own configurations of access to knowledge production and expertise. Maybe we need to step out of a disciplinary ivory tower constructed over the last years (with a whole lot of exceptions, of course!). We should take the opportunity to learn – also on a methodological level – from citizen scientists, hackathons and grassroots movements and rethink how open we want our epistemic cultures to be.


1 See also Judit Gárdos in this issue, who criticizes the inherent normative and largely undisputed dimensions of the term open science and in particular its taken for granted connotation of Western scientific tradition.

[Names] refer to presentations at the conference track and a more detailed description of each presentation can be found here:


http://www.openscience-thebetterscience.blogspot.co.at/2016/10 /open-science-in-practice-4s-easst.html

Reflections on science-society relationship Improving scientific communication and practice

Science has a great potential to improve the world. However, to utilise this potential the relationship between science and society needs to be positive and strong. A part of my professional ambition is therefore to improve this relationship, and I am worrying if I see these two entities drifting further apart. For instance, I see how knowledge creation is being liberated from the traditional source of the academic institution and news media, and at the same time being appropriated by individuals with special interests. So while there are groups successful in doing independent research, e.g. Ginkgo Bioworks (Turan, 2016), there are also in rising numbers those who claim to be a source of information, but offer mostly misrepresentations and lies, e.g. Breitbart (Toosi, 2016). From an STS perspective, information liberation is broadly perceived as a positive trend, but for me, there is also a real need to mitigate the negative externalities that come with it; namely the emphasis on shock, volume and repetition over factuality. This raises the question of how science, the ultimate source of facts, can strengthen its legitimacy as a knowledge source in the current social context described by many as the ‘post-truth era’. My experience at the conference helped me to rethink the relationship between science and society, and based on sessions I attended, I have formulated three questions to consider for the improvement of the relationship: ‘Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science?’; ‘Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of lay knowledge?’; ‘How can open data practices contribute to the transparency of science?’


Communicating Science

Objects of scientific interest are complex. They do not yield well to simplifications, and significant effort is required to understand even the best scientific explanations. This means that not all platforms which garner wide audiences are suited for discussing objects of scientific study. However, the fourth session of the Science Communication track showed how museums can provide such a platform, and how lay knowledge can be integrated to improve science communication.

Imagine museums as agoras of the present. On top of exhibiting objects, we could use them as places of public consultation, says Dr Belen Laspra (2016) who contemplates the challenges of promoting sceptical attitudes toward science. In our science community, we are naturally sceptical of all research, while understanding that this does not equal to distrust of scientific method. However, conflation of the two might lead to dislike of science in general. Therefore, I wonder if including people in the scientific process could correct this conflation? And if museums could be places to do that? Take for an example biodiversity, a topic of choice of Prof Alan Richardson (2016). His presentation on the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia nicely described the struggles of communicating complicated objects. When an object is so inherently systematic and contextual, how to best explain it? And going a step further, how to best enable people to engage with the process of knowledge creation in which these objects are embedded? Perhaps, museums could fulfil this exact role. And as Laspra argues, build capacity to think. I very much liked this idea, as I would certainly love to see more ‘STS citizens’ – distrustful engagers, loyal sceptics – people who Dr Laspra calls ‘much (risk) – much (benefit).’ By bringing the intricacies of science closer to people, we could facilitate the rise of the sceptical citizen who is engaged with science and its process, and improve trust in science as a source of knowledge.

In addition, and given the dominant deficit model of communication, more and better appreciation of lay knowledge could improve society’s relationship with science. However, Mr John Lunsford argued in his presentation (2016) that inappropriate usage of lay knowledge might be just as bad as the deficit model. One of the problems, he says, is that our communication practices are developed for high-income countries. For example, concepts such as technology, capital and democracy are usually implied, which would be the wrong approach for low to middle income countries. The lack of appreciation of cultural differences when communicating about science might lead to serious tensions between science and society. For instance, it could mean that people are asked to choose between science and their cultural practice, or that adoption of western practices becomes a tool for imperialism. According to Mr Lunsford, however, lay knowledge is a ‘flexible tool,’ and in his research it allowed to adapt communication to local practices. In my work looking at the communication practices aimed at pro-homeopathy groups, I saw a fierce disapproval of any lay knowledge as one of the main reasons for rejection of ‘scientifically correct advices’ in favour of homeopathic advices, which were but presented by people who first listened to and engaged with one’s lived experiences. In conclusion, including lay knowledge in our communications practices might be of a great benefit, or even a necessity in reaching certain parts of society, but its application must be carefully considered first, lest we deform it into yet another form of deficit model.


Fig. 1: Sphere of Science Communication (Lewenstein, 2011)


Despite talking about these issues in isolation, neither museums nor lay knowledge exist in a vacuum. Figure 1 captures this, and other relations, very nicely in a complex ‘sphere of science communication.’ While individual elements do have influence by themselves, their value is best realised in the connections they make with other elements of the sphere (system). In addition, we might also see that science-society relationship is not a simple issue, but rather a part of a system, and that it materialises across multiple relations, such as museums-public discourse, journals-news media, or lab/field work-general books. This visualisation enables me to do three things. First, validate issues that I brought up as relevant to the science-society relationship. Second, contextualise the issues to identify mutual dependencies. Third, given dependencies and relevancy, approach these issues with appropriate appreciation of complexity and with the appropriate resources. Ultimately, this allows us to create a framework for improving the science-society relationship, given the focus on museums and lay knowledge.


Improving science

Good communication of science and good science research are two sides of the same coin. One without the other will always achieve only mediocre results, if any at all. As such, my passion for science communication dictates me to be interested in issues around scientific method as well. One of the current hot topics is replicability of research and open data. Could being more open improve how science is done? The track on Open Data posed this very question, and its third session laid out the idea that open data might not help with the ‘reproducibility crisis’.

The limits of data sharing were portrayed by Dr Theresa Velden (2016) who categorised replication practices into four categories: local replication by originator; external verification by independent group; test of robustness by conceptual application; and generalization by extending the domain of validity. She argues that it are the last two categories that are the most important, but which also do not require data sharing. So while open data might improve verifiability of the research in itself, it should not be the focus of replication practices. At the same time, Dr Velden points out that data sharing is not just a technical issue, as it is very much a relational practice. This is important since it clarifies that even with sufficient resources, we will not likely achieve a higher standard of open data. The same sentiment was reiterated by a presentation on ‘Epistemic and Non-Epistemic values driving data-sharing’ (Murtagh et al., 2016). Tensions such as competition vs collaboration and open science vs secrecy and scientific competition force researchers into certain types of behaviour. It neither helps that we are all constantly being reminded of the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. Open data might therefore not be the simple solution to the ‘reproducibility crisis’ some believe it to be, as it does not serve the more important aspects of reproducibility, and it is interwoven with deeply rooted practices of the science profession that stimulate secrecy. Does this mean we should give up on open data and data sharing? Definitely not, but from the perspective of science-society relationship, open data should probably not be the centre of our attention.


The take away from Barcelona

Between sangria at the opening ceremony and great discussions at the beach bar with a beer in hand, I had an amazing time engaging with interesting research. I could not ask for more, and my first conference gave me enough courage, and some constructive criticism too, to enable me to advance my research further.

So what’s next for me? In connection to my passion, my frame of reference at the conference was the relationship between science and society. What I experienced was a mix of exploration of the current trends and identifications of problems of contemporary approaches. Daring, but sound, thoughts were the currency, and the environment facilitated open-mindedness rather than harsh criticism. What I picked up were ideas about science communication and scientific method. Four days of conference left me with these three questions:

  • Could we use museums as a platform for more direct engagement with science & rise of the ‘STS citizen’?
  • Could we improve science communication practices by a careful inclusion of a lay knowledge?
  • How to approach ‘reproducibility crisis’ if open data practices are not a question of a technical implementation and at best only part of the solution?

Will they turn out to be good research questions? I do not know, but I am confident enough to place them at the forefront of my next academic endeavours. And in case you have similar interests, I would encourage you to consider these questions as well.

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).

Towards a Just Society: STS in the International Panel on Social Progress

The International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP) is a novel attempt at understanding how far we have come and in which direction we should be heading in our quest for a just society. As different articulations of progress pit themselves against one another, each vying for influence on the global agenda, our society is under a great deal of pressure to be reflexive about how we know what we know. Conclusions have been drawn in different fields and on many issues. However, there is a need to come together to discuss how these understandings of our world have a bearing on our collective futures and on issues of justice, responsibility and solidarity – a task requiring inter-disciplinarity. When we consider the myriad interconnected and sometimes subtle ways in which society is affected by change, it is difficult to determine what exactly has had an impact and in what ways those impacts have in turn affected people’s lives in a cumulative way. What progress means is neither apparent nor neutral as it requires an interpretation of such complexities. We also need to determine, as a society, the kinds of power and influence our current systems of accountability allow, which elements of our day-to-day lives we are willing to accept or should deem unacceptable and the ways that we organize ourselves so that governance tends to those shared values in a , bearing in mind that not everyone is able to influence the systems that shape their daily lives. Recent social, economic and political shocks to the global system have made social progress a particularly salient issue. It is time to take stock, to understand more deeply and openly the kind of world we have created and the potential impacts of the ways we have gone about developing and envisioning progress. This need for a reflexive and interdisciplinary vision of progress sets the tone of the work going into the IPSP.

At the 4S/EASST Conference in Barcelona, we had the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Science, Technology and Society (STS) can contribute to this incredibly complex and pivotal understanding of social progress. We were given an overview of some of the reflections of STS scholars who are contributing to the development of the twenty-two chapters of the Report. The deeper the discussion became, the more striking the relevance of STS across the different issues appeared to be. The pathways that STS’ critical questioning enables, have found meaning in this vast chasm brought about by uncertainty in social progress, the debatable problem constructions and disconnected visions of the future. STS is concerned with process, how knowledge is made, for whom and by whom and its articulations become meaningful when it provides a perspective that closely reflects on the reality faced by knowledge producers themselves. The close involvement in the chapter-writing process has provided STS scholars with a remarkable opportunity to point out the value of STS as knowledge is being made. Moreover, the conversations and joint reflections on social progress can be enriched by the articulations that STS provides. These articulations include reflections on the role and influence of experts and expertise in framing and authority, reflections on power, ordering and governance and the social-construction of science and technology.

STS perspectives on the policy process challenge policy-makers’ preferences for a linear model of progress, wherein the expectations of policy-makers are met with positivistic ideas of science and technology and their goals systematically envisioned as incremental solutions to pre-defined policy questions. STS requires a different way of envisioning the science-policy relationship, as one that is far more intertwined with science, policy and society, contributing instead to the co-production of knowledge and social order (Jasanoff 2004). Change, as STS sees it, is something that should be negotiated with society if controversies are to be avoided. By stressing the social construction of science and technology, STS emphasizes the ways in which knowledge is made and how it is socially contingent, rather than objective or easily transplanted to policy contexts. STS roots its analysis of policy-making in the realities of knowledge production, considering how social contexts contribute towards the settling of facts, the different interpretations of evidence and truth, and the limits of change. The value of an STS perspective in the IPSP is thus brought to the fore as experts attempt to develop knowledge that is both a true reflection of what has been and of what should be done. If the STS perspective is indeed influential, the likelihood is that the expert advice in the reports alludes to more and different policy pathways than would be traditionally expected by policymakers.


Fig. 1: IPSP Authors Region of Origin
Courtesy of International Panel on Social Progress (IPSP): https://www.ipsp.org/people/authors


The contemporary context is one in which experts as well as scientific knowledge play a central role in politics yet they no longer hold the unquestioned authority and public trust they once did (Maasen and Weingart 2005). If we are to restore trust in governance and in the institutions that we entrust to maintain order in our lives, they should be made to reflect the diverse needs of communities around the world and protect the common values that bind us in our quest for a just future and reflect the kind of social progress that is sensitive to context and difference. As a collective group of academics, the IPSP is discussing the implications of global articulations of progress and how these ideas shape and influence the way we see and think of social groups and the kinds of things that influence them. Care needs to be taken to avoid the reification of difference, while the case is being made for equality and solidarity. STS is sensitive towards the effects of collectives, the assemblages that develop and the hidden power to shape interests and agendas through technologies of governance e.g. indicators, technical guides, organizations, practices, codes and rankings (Davis, Kingsbury, and Merry 2012). At the same time, a balance needs to be struck between governing institutions and local communities in shaping claims of justice, solidarity, responsibility, leadership and inequality. This implicates accountability practices, which need to question and align such processes as the courts, arbitration and peer-review. Global articulations attempt to apply norms to different countries and appeal to framings such as human rights as a means of harmonizing those efforts. Facts and technologies appear to be global but can fail to mean the same thing in different places. If a global vision of social progress is to be reached, the understandings should pay attention to the power of framings and their implications on local experiences. It is the hope of the STS scholars involved in the IPSP that these reflections shape the articulations of issues in the chapters.

The IPSP is modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the way that it enrolls experts in the writing of the report. Early in its establishment, the IPCC was criticized for its imbalanced geographical representativeness (Agrawala 1998), and took steps to remedy this problem. The IPSP needs to remedy its representation of authors if its work is to be seen as a credible and legitimate global endeavor. Figure 1 shows the low participation of African and Latin American authors in the IPSP.

The IPSP has the potential to provide a different kind of assessment that is both reflexive and interdisciplinary. STS has an opportunity to demonstrate the many ways in which its articulations are useful and can enrich the dialogue in a powerful way. This is a step in the right direction, however, knowing that there are social conditions that determine the acceptability of expert knowledge, it is important that STS influences the reflections further so that the global community recognizes the products of this endeavor as credible and legitimate.