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.
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.
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:
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.
10/2014 - 09/2019