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Home > Focus > European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 1

European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 1

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 22 June 2021

June saw the launch of the European Biotechnology and Society 2021 seminar series [2], a five-week long series of presentations and questions.

Week 1

This second series opened with a brief introduction from Robert Smith entitled A space beyond the project, before Maja Horst (well known to the Foundation due to her position within the VIRI [3]) opened proceedings with her opening talk Communicating the social responsibility of science.

Horst talked participants through one of her major projects on the social responsibility in science (based within synthetic biology) and resulting installation held at the Science in the City Festival, Copenhagen, 2014, raising the question of what scientists mean when talking about their work. She described 4 major discourses that were prominent during the research project, some of which she described as incommensurable.

See this article [4] in the Journal of Responsible Innovation for a broader explanation.

The installation Breaking and Entering [5] involved participants entering a white tower from one of four entrances, each of which is guarded by a scientist who recounts one of the four discourses via a pre-recorded video.

The participants were then faced with an object to manipulate in their hands, and asked to contribute with opinions about the problems that they would like to see science resolving and further questions including some related to the prioritization of research funding, before being asked to vote, an act that leads to conversation between participants and taps into individual discourses on science. This system allows participants to discuss their own hopes and fears.

Horst concluded her presentation with a section detailing the experience from the point of view of the social scientist group that carried out the research and created the installation. She described some of the lessons learned, the issue of how science and scientists should be represented (a single white man was used for the tower entrance videos), whether risk should be excluded or included as a conversation point (how many lives is it justified to put at risk in order to possibly save a million people?).

She rounded off with some thoughts on the performance of science raising a very interesting question: in science communication events, how important is people's understanding of scientific processes? (a question framed within the deficit of knowledge argument), arguing that the researchers are collaborating because they see science as part of society that can be discussed leading her to imagine that the aim might not be to explain but to interact with the public.

Matthias Stratmann of the Nova-Institut GmbH [6] followed with Assessing sustainability: Challenges of including multi criteria results in decision making.

In his introduction Stratmann explained that whether we like it or not, society needs to use carbon and carbon related materials, and as a result Nova-Institut GmbH is working towards developing systems for renewable carbon production for use in plastics and chemical production.

The speaker explained the processes and aims involved via a presentation of the MILIMO project [7], a consortium working towards the industrial scale production of pyridine-dicarboxylic acid (PDCA) bioproducts (bioplastics).

Stratmann then addressed the main focus of his presentation: challenges in sustainability assessment, explaining that assessment requires taking many sustainability dimensions into account (far beyond merely thinking about climate change) bringing various goals and impact criteria to the table.

After explaining that decision-making can only work if criteria on which to decide have been determined and agreed on, the speaker introduced the triple bottom line of sustainability, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Brundtland Report, arguing that an assessment must incorporate an almost endless list of aims and thus requires multidimensional criteria.

He explained that there are many different mechanisms in play which makes assessment extremely complicated, leading to the project's adoption of user life cycle assessment as their chosen method. Given the difficulty of determining what is relevant, the project uses comparison of many factors. Each different approach chosen will be better in some aspects (for example water use) but not as good as others in others (land use), but the results of the analysis are difficult to interpret as they present a series of problems, among which the following: the results may not be easily understandable; what do you chose to display? How are different factors weighted?

Stratmann concluded by summarizing: sustainability is a vague goal, every organization needs to prioritize individually, they must inform and educate and be both transparent and scientific, but accept that they cannot answer the question of whether something is more or less sustainable. Green/green conflicts must be discussed in public, and there will always be trade-offs.

There is no silver bullet, neither in sustainability nor in assessment schemes.

WEEK 2

The second week opened with Responsible Innovation in the Dutch Research Council, presented by Lieke Nijland (with Rob Heinsbroek also present) of Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek / Dutch Research Council (NWO).

Nijland presented an introduction to the NWO and its work, explaining that the NWO funds research and researchers as well as offering guidance to science and scientists, carrying out a major role in knowledge infrastructure and sharing.

The speaker presented a breakdown of different funding lines before moving specifically into the operations and work of the MVI platform [8] (the Dutch RRI section), in operation since 2008 (so one of the earliest actors in the field).

The speaker showed and discussed this video [9] that describes the MVI's work in several specific fields, notably self-driving vehicles, wind energy at sea and the role and use of big data in health, describing who is involved and the types of questions raised. She explained that the projects described are all public/private partnerships that aim to address societal implications of technological development at an early stage (reflecting the influence of the value sensitive design approach promoted by Jeroen van den Hoven that many regular readers will be familiar with).

The projects are all multidisciplinary (the MVI have a practical definition for this concept) and integrated, with the NWO playing what the speaker described as a Nexus role.

Nijland then moved on to the National Research Agenda, where the objective of sustainable development plays a key role in research into innovation, before concluding with a summary of the key principles for the NWO: Interdisciplinary collaboration from the outset of research; integrated, and innovative approaches; promoting and programming interdisciplinary collaboration; matchmaking; assessing protocols; and communication to broader networks.

The second presentation was Research evaluation in the Anthropocene by Thomas Fransen from the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University.

In this very interesting and entertaining intervention, Thomas Fransen proposed a new object of research evaluation, that of its problematization rather than that of impact that prevails today.

The speaker moves from looking at impact in terms of results to looking at the implications of conducting the research, raising the question 'how do we engage with the environmental consequences of research?' One of the problems he point to is that we are typically looking for positive impact so tend to avoid negative evaluations, leading him to propose the need to move to analyzing the problematization or the formulation of research problems.

Following the work of Michael Callon, Fransen argues that problematizations are performances, they have specific qualities and so are difficult to evaluate. He proposes an openness to other-than-human creatures before offering two examples of possible approaches of how the framing of the problem shapes both the research processes and the solutions.

The examples involve research into the bacteria Desulfibrio Aleskenesis, the speaker demonstrating how the framing of a problem (bacteria in oil pipelines leading to inefficiency or the non-recycling of platinum lost through catalytic converters in vehicles) guides how research is designed and proceeds. In one case the bacteria is framed as a problem but in the second as an ally in the development of a circular economy.

The second example offered is that of the problematization of green growth vs degrowth. In both cases modernization is seen as having led to increased carbon emissions, with technological solution proposed from both perspectives. The formulation of the aims is different however. On the one hand the aim is to lower carbon emmissions while maintaining economic growth while on the other economic growth is seen as the fundamental problem. The development of new technologies is necessary from both perspectives, but they will not be the same technologies.

Concluding with questions about how the problematic could be evaluated, the speaker proposes maximizing diversity within actors (including non-humans) and addressing the extent to which proposals could work towards achieving climate agreements and goals as well as raising a series of normative questions about extraction, technological fix, winners and losers.

A very constructive discussion followed that involved both speakers and their respective colleagues as well as many of the audience.

This is a very entertaining and informative series, with speakers of the highest level presenting on a broad range of topics. The format works well, with each presentation a sprightly 20 minutes long followed by questions, perfect for a lunch break, over breakfast or as a nightcap, depending on where you find yourself in the world.

(continues > read part 2 [10])

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/it/segnalazioni/2021/06/european_biotechnology_and_soc_1.html
  3. 3] https://www.virinetwork.org/
  4. 4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23299460.2014.882077
  5. 5] http://www.breaking-entering.dk
  6. 6] http://nova-institute.eu/
  7. 7] https://www.cobiotech.eu/funded-projects/2nd-call/milmo
  8. 8] https://www.nwo.nl/onderzoeksprogrammas/maatschappelijk-verantwoord-innoveren-mvi
  9. 9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5akGyEU-mw&list=PL5DH6isexdcDA14hjxia31vDL1_l3MGAG&index=3
  10. 10] /en/focus/2021/07/european_biotechnology_and_soc_1.html
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European Biotechnology and Society Seminar Series 2021 - Review, Part 1
Articles by:  Jonathan Hankins
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