TEC - Techno-Epistemic Cultures in the Life Sciences

From biology to the techno-sciences - addressing fundamental scientific change in technology assessment

Today, the close connection of the life sciences and biotechnologies goes without saying. What we should make of this connection within science as well as within society is still open for discussion. This FWF funded project addresses this issue. It also aims at a (re-)positioning of technology assessment in answering to the new technosciences like synthetic biology or computational neuroscience.


In the 19th century, when biology acquired its disciplinary status, the field was listed as (natural) philosophy. Not short after its ensuing emancipation as a natural science, biotechnology started making its career as a new label within biological research. With the end of the 20th century, biology and medical research were combined under the umbrella term ‘life sciences’; the relation between biology and biotechnology remained unclear.

‘Bioengineering’ is the new buzz word of the early 21st century. It is distinguished self-confidently from former attempts at introducing a technological approach to biology.
Can all these categorical disruptions be explained by general changes in parlance and/or gearing towards media attention alone? Or, do the new terms represent completely new research approaches, maybe even fundamental shifts in the understanding of research and the role of science in society?

Technology assessment (TA) cannot evade these cardinal questions. Conducting a TA of biology as a natural philosophy or natural science seems uncalled-for – at least at a first glance. The assessment of the sociietal consequences of a philosophy or science is not part of the classical repertoire of TA. An assessment of biotechnological projects on the other hand is often asked for and conducted, e.g. regarding the genetic modification of organisms in agri-biotechnology or the creation of human-admixed embryos for medical research. Along which approach the new attempt at ‘bioengineering’ (as it is paradigmatically realised within synthetic biology) should be assessed and governed is a current bone of contention.

Theoretical approach

The project at hand will analyse and discuss fundamental changes and/or differentiations in highly topical biological research on empirical as well as theoretical grounds. It builds upon Karin Knorr-Cetina’s conception of ‘epistemic cultures’, conceiving of science as community, culture and practise and allowing for a comparative reconstruction of distinct ideal types. With recourse to the re-definition of science as technoscience, Knorr-Cetina’s concept is extended to include ‘techno-epistemic cultures’. In consequence, the categorical distinction of science and technology is blurred, allowing for an explicit re-discussion of the (techno)sciences’ societal role and governance.

Empirical results and advisory output

The project addresses the co-existence or prioritisation of diverse orientations in day-to-day research. Researchers may aim towards gaining new scientific knowledge and understanding, towards developing new technologies of intervention or towards creating new production systems. Such orientations that guide decisions and actions taken throughout the research process are investigated with the help of expert interviews and laboratory visits. On this empirical basis, the socio-political relevance of the re-constructed ideal types of doing (techno)science is discussed. Finally, current developments in the assessment and governance of emerging technosciences are presented and new options for future approaches are highlighted.

Left and right mice with green fluorescent protein, a key element in cell research. (Photo: WikiCommons)
10/2014 - 09/2018