Scratching the proverbial itch – with Alan Irwin

by Joanne Heng

Joanne and Alan Irwin
Joanne and Alan having a chat in the STS library.

In the semester just passed, our department had the pleasure of hosting Alan Irwin. While he needs little introduction to those in the field, for those less versed in STS, Alan’s illustrious career spans over thirty years in which he has written extensively about scientific governance, risk & decision-making, policy and public engagement of science. Currently a Professor at the Department of Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, he has received multiple awards for his work and is even a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog.

During his visit to our department, I took part in his seminar entitled “Governing Socio-Technical Futures. Science, democracy and innovation in the 21st century”. Touching on many of his pet topics such as public engagement with science and technology and the enactment of democracy with regards to present-future relations, I felt Alan had a remarkable ability to really open up these issues to the class by highlighting contentions, questioning the roles of key actors in shaping these issues whilst also sharing with us his past experiences and case studies – it made for a very enjoyable and thought-provoking few weeks. At the core of his course was the basic argument that, whilst current actions shape the possible futures that await us, our sense of the future(s) profoundly shapes the actions we take today. In line with some of his previous work, Alan was especially concerned with the implications of future-present relations for scientific governance – with examples such as climate change but also innovation policy very prominent here.

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Can competition hurt science?

by Maximilian Fochler


Many of us privately or professionally interested in science think that healthy competition is what drives science forward. In current research policy and funding, this belief is so strong that competitiveness has become the central doctrine guiding the governance of research and of individual researchers.

But can too much competition also endanger the very aims we would like research to achieve, such as asking fundamental questions at the frontier of knowledge? This is what a group of high-profile life scientists, including a former editor of Science magazine, suggested in 2014 by warning that the current hyper-competition in the US life sciences may suppress “the creativity, cooperation, risk-taking, and original thinking required to make fundamental discoveries“ (Alberts, Kirschner, Tilghman, & Varmus, 2014, p. 5774).

But is science more competitive today than in the past, and if so, why and how? At least two main things have changed. First, in the late twentieth century, driven by rising societal expectations in the innovative capacities of research, many scientific fields have thrived and grown. The life sciences are a strong case here, but not the only example. However, this growth has happened much less in long-term institutional positions, but in a new form of the organisation of research work: project-based temporal employment. This has created a large generation of highly qualified young researchers competing for a basically stagnating or receding number of faculty positions. Second, the rise of new metric forms of keeping track and assessing scientific productivity has made competition seemingly more transparent, but also fuelled it. Impact factors, rankings and other indicator-based measurements do not only represent scientific work, they also shape it, as also Alex Rushforth and Sarah de Rijcke argue in a recent blogpost. Because they matter in competition they may also change the very nature of this work.


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Encountering Technoscientific Worlds through Austrian STS – Thoughts from a Conference

by Erik Aarden

Ulrike Felt and Alan Irwin starting of discussion in the closing panel of the conference. (c) Anna Pichelstorfer

How do we make sense of the technoscientific worlds we live in? This question was central to a conference in Vienna in December 2015, which celebrated the launch of a new national association in science and technology studies, STS Austria. The conference brought together a diverse program exploring the many themes of interest to STS (and in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the people responsible for that program). The founding of such a society is a good occasion for celebration, as was the diversity of cases and perspectives brought forward at the conference. Yet in the increasingly transnational context of both STS as a field and the technosciences it studies, what exactly were we celebrating? How to position an “STS Austria” in relation to technoscientific worlds that increasingly cross boundaries? As I hope to illustrate with some impressions from the conference, the thing to celebrate is both the vibrancy of the field in places where it finds firm footing and the openness to the great beyond such a solid base allows.

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Urban Infrastructure – (in)visibilities, rhythms and space

by Nikolaus Pöchhacker


Every day I go to my office or the university I take the metro. I go to the station, get on the train and a few stations later get off to start my working day. It is an integral part of my daily rhythms and it shapes the way I move through the city. When I moved to Vienna, for a while the first question when arranging a meeting with someone was: What is the nearest metro station? To me the city existed not as streets or houses but as the network plan of Vienna’s Public transport system. Infrastructure is important for our daily lives. Yet, it is not always this visible for us. So what exactly is the role of infrastructures in our society and how do they shape the city and the social lives of users and operators of these infrastructures? Also, how is social structure affected if these important elements of urban life are changing or declining?

Since October 2010 Vienna’s Metro is operating at night on Fridays, Saturdays and before official holidays. While this is a major improvement over the transport possibilities via night busses, it also is a change in the rhythms of the invisible maintenance practices. For example, the trains that go at night need coordination and central oversight – changing the shifts of the personnel in the central station.

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Communicating science, engaging publics: Open House at the STS Department

by Susanne Oechsner and Anna Pichelstorfer

(c) Universität Wien

The year 2015 was an exciting one for the University of Vienna: It marked the 650th anniversary of its foundation through a deed by Duke Rudolf IV. In order to celebrate this anniversary appropriately and in addition to a multitude of activities distributed over the whole year, the Faculty of Social Sciences organized the “Fakultätstag 2015” (i.e. the Day of the Faculty 2015) to present its diverse research areas to a broader audience. The Department of Science and Technology Studies participated here with an open house event that explored the question: How are technologies and our lives entangled?

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Can Technologies Fix Our Aging Societies?

by Leo Matteo Bachinger

Once the “Golden Age”, late life today appears increasingly problematic: late life has become a site of controversy. Asia (most prominently Japan), Australia, Canada, Europe and the US are facing the “greying” of societies in terms of a “care crisis”: With longer life spans and sinking birth rates, western societies struggle to finance and ensure the quality of their health and eldercare systems.

The good news is, we already seem to have found a solution: Technologies feature prominently in Europe’s care policy as well as in the US presidential plans (cf. this fact sheet, this recent statement, or this article). But what do these solutions look like? Two corporate films of LeadingAge, a key policy maker in the US eldercare sector, offer a glimpse into the technological future of caring.

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Investigating Austrian nuclear nationalism

by Florian Bayer

Greenpeace Austria campaigning against Hinkley Point C, January 2015. (c) Greenpeace

As I was born and raised in Austria I had been rejecting nuclear power production for most of my life, without a special interest in the issue. It simply occurred to me that the technology in question came along with too many uncertainties and risks. In that sense it seemed obvious that a technology of this kind was no solution for future energy demands. Fullstop.

However, throughout the last few years I repeatedly turned towards the issue of nuclear power production. It makes a good case for reflecting different aspects of the relations between science, technology and society. As a consequence of this research interest, I became acquainted with work in STS that highlights the role of technopolitical cultures in shaping the relationship between societal actors and technologies. From this perspective it became quite clear that “my convictions” on nuclear power production were not the result of “critical” engagement with nuclear technologies. Read More

From Theory to Practice in Arts-based Research!?

by Bernhard Böhm

Photo: Ars Electronica Futurelab

Can artists become researchers or are they researchers already? If artists are researchers, what kind of knowledge do they produce? How do they produce knowledge and finally, what are similarities and differences between artistic forms knowledge production and academic research?

In the last couple of years these questions have been high on the agenda of science policy makers, rectors of art universities, and theoreticians. This is due to recent political reforms, such as the Bologna Process. Through these reforms art colleges and universities have to function, in ‘harmony’ with the other European universities, as academic research and teaching institutions. Hence art is ever more discussed as a field of knowledge production. Read More

Fighting fire with fire: On using evaluation to counter the impacts of evaluation

by Andreas Hafner

Amsterdam_protests_Laauwen Media
Protesters in Amsterdam – Photo by Laauwen Media

During the last few years a number of bigger student protests have taken place in various countries (e.g. Chile or Canada). Some are taking place at this very moment. Protesters in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands are trying to improve living-, working- and studying- conditions for students and staff of their universities while also attempting to turn their universities’ structures more transparent. Let us take a more detailed look at one specific country. For a few months now students and staff of Dutch universities have protested for more democratic and transparent university governance structures and against precarious working conditions, financial speculation with university funds and the cutting and/ or merger of departments. Many of the conditions under critique are either directly about or at least closely linked to practices of evaluation in contemporary academia. The protests are not targeted at evaluation methods as such, but at the goals to which ends they are employed. These goals are financial efficiency and hand in hand with that the streamlining of knowledge production and teaching to the exploitation logic inherent in the currently dominant economic paradigm. Most of this critique of the current situation is not new. Quite a few authors have pointed out the problematic impacts of some forms of evaluation in academia, e.g. Shore and Wright with ” Coercive accountability: the rise of audit culture in higher education” (2000, pp. 58-89).

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