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. The FWF-funded project “Techno-Epistemic Cultures in the Life Sciences” addresses this issue. It also aims at a (re-)positioning of technology assessment in relation to emerging technosciences such as synthetic biology or computational neuroscience.

Background

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 buzzword of the early 21st century. It builds on but also differs from earlier attempts at introducing a technological approach to biology. Can all these categorical changes be explained by general shifts in parlance and/or gearing towards media attention? Or, do the new terms represent completely new research approaches, maybe even more fundamental alterations 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 societal 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 regularly demanded, e.g. regarding the genetic modification of organisms in agri-biotechnology or the creation of human-admixed embryos for medical research. Along which approach emerging attempts at ‘bioengineering’ should be assessed and governed is still a bone of contention.

Empirical results and advisory output

The project has successfully addressed the general question whether newly emerging fields in the life sciences like systems and synthetic biology should be understood in fundamentally new ways. This was achieved on empirical grounds (participatory research in science laboratories and university courses, semi structured and in-depth interviews, documentary analyses, institutional case studies) as well as theoretical grounds (with Karin Knorr-Cetina’s concept of epistemic cultures and Alfred Nordmann’s and others’ concept of technoscience at the core). The general question was split up into four avenues of research and argumentation:

  1. Which concepts can be mobilised to explain the relevance of epistemic communities and cultures for the modern life sciences?
  2. To what extent and in which way do current life sciences exhibit specific epistemic culture(s) and practices and how do these become relevant in various contexts?
  3. To what extent and in which way do 21st century life sciences exhibit a change in their epistemic culture(s) and practices?
  4. How do we as a society make sense of 21st century life sciences’ (techno)epistemic culture(s)? Along this research programme, the newly proposed concept of techno-epistemic cultures has been elaborated and the scientific as well as socio-political relevance of a shift in understanding and performing science was discussed with a view to current developments of distinctly new modes of technoscience assessment and technoscience governance.

With the analysis of the accruing empirical material and the further development of the theoretical argument modifications of the initial plan were sought and implemented. The three most important modifications comprise:

(a) A shift from a focus on research groups and laboratories as central sites of science-in-action to a focus on institutions and institutional contexts: this modification resulted in a detailed case study (life sciences at the University of Vienna) and an analysis of contemporary innovation regimes and their role in shaping techno-epistemic cultures, as well as a historical data-base, covering life sciences chairs at the University of Vienna throughout the 20th century.
(b) An additional focus on (shifting) conceptions of identity and community, enriching the initially rather practice-oriented take on techno-epistemic cultures: this addition resulted in an international workshop held in Vienna in 2017 and a respective edited volume.
(c) A stronger focus on research question (iii) than initially foreseen: this shift of focus resulted in a strong historical dimension being added to the institutional case study and the addition of biographical interviews (implementing an oral history approach) realized within a small spin-off project (co-funded by the City of Vienna).

All three shifts point towards central results of this research project. They attest to not only incremental, but to fundamentally new insights, allowing for a much broader understanding of contemporary techno-epistemic scientific cultures as well as contemporary techno-epistemic regimes of innovation. Moreover, it can be argued that the much debated ‘epochal break thesis’ (Nordmann et al. 2011) can be re-discussed based on the historical as well as institutional scope of these results.

Publications

Publications

  • Kastenhofer, K. (2022). Natural Sciences in Academic Vienna in the 1990s: From “[Peripheral] Outpost Near the Iron Curtain” to “Central Hub”. Studia Historiae Scientiarum, 515-552. doi:10.4467/2543702XSHS.22.016.15982
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2021). The seamless web of next generation sequencing and Covid-19. Tatup - Journal For Technology Assessment In Theory And Practice, 18-23. Retrieved from https://www.tatup.de/index.php/tatup/article/view/6894/11612
  • Kastenhofer, K., & Molyneux-Hodgson, S. (2021). Making Sense of Community and Identity in 21st Century Technoscience. In K. Kastenhofer & Molyneux-Hodgson, S. (Eds.), Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences. Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8
  • Kastenhofer, K., & Molyneux-Hodgson, S. (Eds.). (2021). Community and Identity in Contemporary Technosciences (p. 315). Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-61728-8
  • Riedlinger, D. (2020). Die Wissenschaft muss bei den Fakten bleiben. Ita-Newsfeed. Retrieved from https://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/detail/news/die-wissenschaft-muss-bei-den-fakten-bleiben
  • Riedlinger, D. (2020). Buch: Digitaler Wandel und Ethik. Ita-Newsfeed. Retrieved from https://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/detail/news/buch-digitaler-wandel-und-ethik
  • Lösch, A., Böhle, K., Coenen, C., Dobroc, P., Ferrari, A., Heil, R., et al. (2019). Technology Assessment and Socio-Technical Futures – A Discussion Paper. In A. G. A. Lösch M. Meister (Ed.), Socio-Technical Futures Shaping the Present. Emprirical Examples and Analytical Challenges. (pp. 285-302). Wiesbaden: Springer. Retrieved from https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783658271541
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2019). Nichtwissens-Konstellationen in unterschiedlichen Wissenschaftskulturen der Natur- und Technikwissenschaften. In C. Thim-Mabrey & Brack, M. (Eds.), Verschiedene Rationalitäten im Diskurs von Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft? (pp. 197-227). Books on Demand.
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2018). Community and identity in contemporary technosciences: conceptual issues and empirical change. Easst Review, 37, 32-35.
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2017). Systems Biology: Science or Technoscience?. In S. E. Green (Ed.), Philosophy of Systems Biology: Perspectives from Scientists and Philosophers (pp. 157-167). Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-47000-9_15
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2016). Biología de sistemas y biología sintética como tecnociencias emergentes / Systems and synthetic biology as emerging technosciences. Isegoría – Revista De Filosofía Moral Y Política, 529-550. doi:10.3989/isegoria.2016.055.07
  • Lösch, A., Böhle, K., Coenen, C., Dobroć, P., Ferrari, A., Heil, R., et al. (2016). Technikfolgenabschätzung von soziotechnischen Zukünften. Retrieved from http://epub.oeaw.ac.at/ita/ita-papers/loesch-et-al-2016-technikfolgenabschaetzung-von-soziotechnischen-zukuenften.pdf
  • Kastenhofer, K., & Torgersen, H. (2016). Transhumanismus und Neuroenhancement: technowissenschaftliche Visionen als Herausforderung für die Technikfolgenabschätzung. Fiff-Kommunikation, 52-56. Retrieved from https://www.fiff.de/publikationen/fiff-kommunikation/fk-2016/fk-2016-2/fk-2016-2-content/fk-2-16-p52.pdf
  • Kastenhofer, K. (2015). Die Rekonstruktion idealtypischer Nichtwissenskulturen: Beispiele aus der Risikoforschung zu Grüner Gentechnik und Mobilfunk. In P. Wehling & Böschen, S. (Eds.), Nichtwissenskulturen und Nichtwissensdiskurse. Über den Umgang mit Nichtwissen in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit (pp. 63-117). Baden-Baden: Nomos.
  • Riedlinger, D. (2014). The Tomato Dilemma. Retrieved from http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/en/projects/project-news/das-tomaten-dilemma
  • Riedlinger, D. (2014). Das Tomaten-Dilemma. Ita-Newsfeed. Retrieved from http://www.oeaw.ac.at/ita/projekte/news/das-tomaten-dilemma
  • 1

Conference Papers/Speeches

Conference Papers/Speeches

  • 02/05/2022 , Wien
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Gibt es "gute" und "böse" Technologien?
    Schule Zeltgasse / Hegelgasse 14
  • 17/06/2021 , Trieste / Online
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Fighting Procrustes: moments of resistance in academic minds, identities and career choices
    STS Italia 2021
  • 04/11/2019 , Bratislava
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Value meets CRISPR: from value regimes of actions-in-context to TA diplomacy
    4th European Technology Assessment Conference
  • 08/07/2019 , Oslo
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Should we stay or should we go now? Introduction to an open workshop with examples from the histories, philosophies, and sociologies of systems biology
    ISHPSSB conference
  • 27/05/2019 , Wien
    Helge Torgersen,  Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Die Geister die ich rief .... TA, Missionsorientierung und TechnoWissenschaft
    TA19
  • 15/09/2018 , University College London
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    The biology that was? Generational patterns as a medium of disunity
    "Unity and Disunity" – Biennial Conference 2018
  • 07/06/2017 , Wien
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    The 'newly emerging techno-sciences' and the contemporary funding regime
    Eu-SPRI Annual Conference „The Future of STI – The Future of STI Policy”
  • 13/10/2016 , Bergen
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    "Systems biology is the worst label of all." Identity and community under techno-scientific conditions
    8th Annual S.Net meeting: The Co-Production of Emerging Bodies, Politics and Technologies
  • 13/10/2016 , Bergen
    Helge Torgersen,  Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Options for technology assessment in a techno-scientific innovation regime
    8th Annual S.Net meeting: The Co-Production of Emerging Bodies, Politics and Technologies
  • 02/09/2016 , Barcelona
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    "I am a Biochemist by Training": identity in systems biology
    4s/EASST Conference 2016: Science and technology by other means – Exploring collectives, spaces and futures
  • 04/05/2016
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    "I am a Biochemist by Training": Identity and Community in Systems Biology
    Vienna STS Talk
  • 04/12/2015 , Wien
    Helge Torgersen,  Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Speculative responsibility and the hermeneutic turn in TA
    Living in Technoscientific Worlds. International Conference Celebrating the Launch of STS Austria
  • 04/12/2015
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    Making Sense of Disciplines in Contemporary Life (Techno)Science
    Living in Technoscientific Worlds. International Conference Celebrating the Launch of STS Austria
  • 16/10/2015 , Liége
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    From trading zones at the micro-scale to trading zones 'at large': a discussion based on a case study of contemporary systems biology
    Trading Zones in Technological Societies. 20 years of SPIRAL Research Centre
  • 24/10/2014 , Vienna
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    The Power of Framing in Technology Governance
    second BIO·FICTION Science Art Film Festival
  • 18/09/2014 , Torun
    Karen Kastenhofer: 
    What does systems biology stand for?
    EASST 2014 Conference – Situating Solidarities: social challenges for science and technology studies
  • 1

Duration

10/2014 - 09/2019

Project team

Funding