Steve Fuller gave a seminar on philosophy of science to our MSc students last week. Always good for a provocative one-liner, at one point Steve described 21st century science and technology studies (STS) as “the poster child for neoliberal knowledge production”.
These words haunted me for the following two days, as I attended an STS conference on “Neurosociety“. It was held at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, where much of STS at Oxford is based. Many other STS scholars across Europe similarly work in business schools, or at the very least have some sort of reference to “innovation” in the branding of their degrees, something Fuller made a slight dig about.
Saying STS has simply sold out by hanging-out with business types is both unfair and simplistic. However, there are questions to be asked here, especially about who STS serves, and how. I remembered a seminar I attended last year given by Jane Gregory (linked to this paper) where she argued much of the STS influenced “Public Engagement” movement had ended up being used as a way to sell novel products to the UK public (which wasn’t necessarily its initial aim). There are also ongoing questions about the ways in which STS ideas are used by climate change deniers, alternative medicine advocates or proponents of intelligent design.
One of the most entertaining papers at the Neurosociety conference was from Andy Balmer. His PhD looked at contemporary lie detection technologies. He suggested that in some respects, his work could amount to a form of market research; he wasn’t doing history and sociology as much as checking out competitors. Could he, armed with such knowlege, use STS to build the perfect lie detector? His paper’s joke, for those who are familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, suggested the commodification of the black box, complete with a range of attachments: headphones, a timer and, for the “deluxe model” a webcam and wifi. Everyone chuckled and someone suggested the black box might seem insulting, or at least limiting, to consumers: why not sell them in a range of colours? Still I don’t think STS scholars should just laugh off the ways in which their ideas might be used. Maybe the commercialisation of STS is a good thing. Perhaps it is an important way in which it can have “impact”, as the people most interested in how technologies succeed or fail to sell are those who want to sell technology. However, there are other ways STS might make their work meaningful to others (and find new meaning through such interactions) and other ways to funding such work too.
There was also a fair amount of talk at the conference about the ways in which neuroscience serves neoliberalism, with some debate over whether neuroscience itself critiques such a link sufficiently. I found quite a bit of this discussion a bit loose. As Will Davies asked in a question, is it neoliberalism people are talking about here, or just liberalism, or even simply “that which happens to be around in the west today”. This debate could do with a bit more precision. There was also, I felt, slight smugness (and short-sightedness?) over STS’s ability to provide such a critique and an apparent inability of neuroscience to do such work itself. As Nikolas Rose argued at the end of the conference, the idea that neuroscientists are not critical about their field does not hold true at all.
I still think STS-ers can still provide some service here; I’m not arguing that science is simply “self-correcting”. Indeed, I think precisely because neuroscience is such a self-critical area, they would be interested in any (productive) critiques STS had to offer, and have much to offer STS in return.
One of Fuller’s other lines to our MSc students was the image of contemporary science as a sort of “Bernalian nightmare” (as in a nightmare for JD Bernal) where science had become fragmented to serve the various interests of the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the agricultural industry, etc. In doing so, it has perhaps lost a coherent sense of what it means to be scientific. A Bernalian dream, rather than nightmare, would see scientists working together to develop a sense of global sense of science, to keep it ‘pure’ in some way. We could, perhaps, say similar things of science studies which is increasingly located, or at least funded alongside scientific research, with scholars embedded in large-scale projects (e.g. at the LHC, or in genomics).
As I wrote a couple of months ago, I’m quite happy with the idea of science communication studies having a rather fragmented existence. It doesn’t mean scholars can’t hold an independent position, or that people within science communication studies can’t come together to share and argue about the things they study. I’m just not sure they need a coherent sense of self. Moreover, I think they work best when they work with a diverse set of stakeholders. This is something I’ve said about science for years, and I’m happy to apply it to STS too (indeed, it was studying STS that convinced me of this, along with the importance of reflexivity).
Maybe I read too much Dorothy Nelkin at a formative age, I just prefer the “critical friend” model.
The picture at the top of this p0st, in case you are wondering, is of an administration building at Imperial College, taken from a walkway underneath it, looking up.