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Science Shaping the World of Tomorrow

The workshop ‘Science Shaping the World of Tomorrow’ opened on March 18th 2015 with a lecture by the former president of the European Research Area, Helga Nowotny, on ‘Between Day Science and Night Science and Why We Need Both’. This was followed by a panel discussion on what kind of knowledge  is needed for the ‘knowledge’ society with the president of the research council of the University of Antwerp, Jean-Pierre Timmermans, and science philosophers from the Ghent and Brussels universities, Anton Froeyman and Jean Paul Van Bendegem. 

The ensuing two-day workshop gathered over 30 researchers from Europe and the United States to discuss their research projects on the role of imagination in science and society. Leading scholars in the field of Science and Technology Studies, such as Sheila Jasanoff and Peter Galison of Harvard University, science fiction and utopia (Tom Moylan) and environmental sociology (Matthias Gross) introduced the four sessions with a keynote presentation, followed by a panel of four paper presentations. 

At the opening session for the broader audience, attended by over 200 people, issues discussed were the tension between fundamental and applied research, mode 1, 2 & 3 science, the narrowing of science to technology, the impact of big data on the practice of science, output measurement and peer review procedures, the future organization of research institutions and alternative career paths for doctoral students, the movement for ‘slow’ science and the trend toward ‘open’ science and citizen science. 

You can watch the lecture online!

The workshop opened with a presentation by professor of the History of Sciences and Physics, Peter Galison and a preview of his latest documentary film ‘Containment’ (co-directed with Robert Moss) in which he raises scientific, moral and philosophical problems that surround the disposition of nuclear waste. This requires the elaboration of future scenarios for over 10.000 years ahead. 

In her response Anne Bergmans, programme coordinator of the Master in Safety Sciences at the University of Antwerp, elaborated on how the promise of technological innovation can lead to injustice for future generations. 

Tom Moylan of the Ralahine Center for Utopian Studies (University of Limerick) shifted from this example of practical ‘science fiction’ to other examples from literature. He illustrated, through Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, how science fiction, as a literary form deeply engaged with science, can produce both a critique of the times and a utopian anticipation of an improved life for humans and nature. Whereas in the former novel the thought experiment regarding the creation of human life ends in disaster, the latter novel sustains Shelley’s attention to the flawed imbrication of science and society and creates a fully realized eutopian alternative. 

Referring to ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers, Arthur Cools of the University of Antwerp, in his response,  raised issues regarding social resistance against innovation when it risks deregulating existing power relations and the development of techno-science and its consequences on social practices and imaginaries in terms of control, submission and adaption, as contrary to the ideals of equality, emancipation and freedom promised by scientific development. 

Sheila Jasanoff, pioneering the establishment of STS studies in the US, defines socio-technical imaginaries as collectively imagined and communicated forms of social life that both embed and are embedded in national scientific and/or technological projects and as collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology. She discerns five visions of the future in modern society: 

  • the vison of progress (unending growth and unlimited development) 
  • the vision of efficiency (Fordism) 
  • the vision of accessibility (electricity for all) 
  • the vison of eradication (of hunger and disease) 
  • the vision of transparency (‘clean’ development). 

Then she points out what is not being imagined (e.g. ‘technologies of association’ in an age of singularity and technologies of public reasoning). In his response sociologist Michiel de Krom of the Ghent University commented on the usefulness of the concept of socio-technical imaginaries in research on science and society. 

Matthias Gross, professor of environmental sociology at the University of Jena, presented a paradox: on the one hand public and political expectations targeted at science, technology, and engineering call for more safety, certainty, or precaution. On the other hand, empirical research delivers insights on real world decision making and everyday practices that increasingly uncover how actors creatively cope with unavoidable uncertainty and ignorance and thus circumvent conventional approaches to risk assessments or classical evidence-based decision-analysis. He referred to Georg Simmel’s classification of non-knowledge before pointing out how central ignorance, experiment and surprise are to the scientific endeavor and how the ‘laboratory’ has expanded to encompass the real world. This leads to decision making under uncertain circumstances as in the case of cleaning up contaminated sites or gearing the energy transition.

Science historian Raf De Bont of the University of Leuven made a historical excursion of the scientific experimental method and its reconceptualization away from the closed system of laboratories to the open systems of real life and how this has had its effect on research funding strategies.

Contributors: Arthur Cools (Center for Philosophy of Culture, University of Antwerp, BELGIUM), Raf De Bont (Dept. of History, Faculty of Arts, KU Leuven, BELGIUM), Peter Galison (Dept. of the History of Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA), Matthias Gross (Dept. of Urban and Environmental Sociology, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ, Leipzig, GERMANY), Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, USA), Tom Moylan (School of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication, University of Limerick, IRELAND), Helga Nowotny (WWTF - Vienna Science and Technology Fund, Vienna, Austria), Jean Paul Van Bendegem (Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science, Free University Brussels, BELGIUM), Maarten Van Dyck (Dept. of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Ghent University, BELGIUM), Frédéric Vandermoere (Dept. of Sociology, University of Antwerp, BELGIUM), Geert Vanpaemel (Faculty of Arts, KU Leuven, BELGIUM) and Gert Verschraegen (Dept. of Sociology, University of Antwerp, BELGIUM)

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