Contexts and identities of research in Europe
Contemporary society is nowadays defined as “knowledge society” tout court. European Union itself, during the European Council held in Lisbon in 2000, recognized the foundational role of knowledge as the basis and pillar for the economic growth. Knowledge, therefore, stands as the unquestioned protagonist around whom not only economic but also political and social contemporary development pivot. In this context it becomes increasingly important to understand, in a more depth and reflexive way, dynamics that generate knowledge and people that, through their research work, contribute to build it. This can enable a better understanding of changes that are taking place nowadays within our society and the crucial role played by Responsible Innovation.
The modern Western science, whose development began between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, had always been conceived in realist terms, i.e, using a metaphor, as a mature building, already supported by a consolidated and substantially unscratchable method and contents. So, at least throughout the nineteenth century, but also in part of the twentieth century and often still nowadays, the prevailing scientific narrative has been that the depth mechanism of knowledge have been understood once and for all. Consequently, the role of research has been designed as refining and detailing something that was already completely indisputable. This had been possible because science had historically began as an enterprise of “genial” men of science who, with few technological tools available at that times, but with a strong methodological tool, were able to discover the laws that regulate nature.
The fundamental model of scientist, characteristic of that period, was drawn up by the Royal Society of London: to do science was necessary to devote much time to the description of the experiment because this was supposed to be replicable, with the ultimate goal of creating an impersonal knowledge, available to everyone and therefore universal. However, if we keep in mind the elitist conception of the members of this institution, we can understand that it had not been a case that only a gentleman with a certain education and belonging to a particular social class could be considered a “man of science”.
Surely the Royal Society had a scientific approach to the experiment aimed to search results characterized by a universal value, but the scientific message was produced and directed to a privileged audience, to a well-defined social class: the aristocratic. The objectivity to which scientists founders aspired, was an extremely limited intersubjectivity: a class-intersubjectivity.
The situation had radically changed in the European political landscape, while no alteration in the reference paradigm of science had occurred, when a strong interest in investing in scientific research emerged in two hegemonic European countries: France and Germany. The awareness of the importance of the technological potential of science made the figure of the scientist a kind of civil servant, permanent salaried and subjected to control by the State. As a consequence, the identity of the scientist, who no longer had to belong to a wealthy class or work on several fronts to fund its research activities, radically changed.
It became a real profession, the possibilities of access to this career increased and were extended to other classes, different from the traditional elites. Scientific development and indeed technological progress, in this context, became linked to the development of Nations and the competition between them: the State assumed both the burden and the honour to fund research and this gave it the right to use it freely, taking full responsibility for the impacts of its results. From here to the use of science and technology for military purpose, the passage was very short.
The universality of science, therefore, far from being something self-imposed by the evidence of its strength and the will of the actors involved, as it was believed at the beginning of the modern age, became a process of development and evolution made possible by the strong social and political changes concurrent to its development. In this context science delegated the part relating to its financing and the responsibility for its results to the State-customer. In the mean time it concentrated its attention on both an internal and an external development. The internal one became possible through an ongoing process of differentiation from what was “different from itself”, distinguishing between what was science and what was not. The external one became possible through an ongoing process of differentiation from what was “in itself”, demarcating in an increasingly articulated way disciplinary divisions.
The researcher, in this period, was often perceived as a specialist devoted to a more deep exploration of reality, considered by many released by the economical, ethical and political responsibility, completely delegated to the State-customer.
In the last decades of the twentieth century the frame has radically changed again. Following on from the major changes that had occurred in the 70s and 80s in the United States, in which the amount of private funding dedicated to research exceeded federal investments, there has also been a further change in Europe: National States has not been more the exclusive actors in doing science. First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that while National States were linked by a relationship of competition among peers, in the sense that their institutions were more or less symmetrical, as well as the ethical responsibilities and the policies, the competition between public and private was instead characterized by a substantial dissymmetry. Strong discrepancies about values and priorities of the various customers surfaced and this led to the differentiation between types of constraints that influenced the production of scientific knowledge. As a result of this change all the economic and social issues related to science, dozed off during the previous period, forcefully returned to the fore.
In this context, for example, the debate on freedom of research has emerged. In the previous historical period, the scientific community, did not consider the State as a stakeholder and then as a “conditioning contractor” for the simple reason that the customer provider relationship was essentially in a monopolistic environment. Since the end of ‘900 the situation changed and became fundamentally competitive, sometimes exasperated, among many customers. In the era of Big Science, where the research in many scientific areas needed of really huge funding, new customers appeared on the scene, both public and private, that were able to offer more opportunities to support the development of new scientific knowledge. So, economic constraints have become stronger and private actors are thus also decisive in the development of science and technology. The question that required attention, then, became whether and how this “post-academic era”, as defined by many authors, has influenced forms, contents and paradigms of scientific knowledge.
During this period the scientific enterprise, mainly through studies related to the sociology and anthropology of scientific knowledge, began to reflect and questioning itself about its epistemological foundations.
An interesting debate has emerged, for example, on the distinction between forms of “pure” and “applied” knowledge. The “pure knowledge”, also termed in some literature “theoretical research”, was historically traced back to the public funded university research. It has always considered its autonomy as a fundamental value. The “applied knowledge”, defined by literature as a process that begins with a tailored research phase and continue with the phase of development, has instead been seen as characteristic of the private sector. Generally, the strong conditioning action of the context is recognised only in the latter.
This dichotomous distinction, certainly initially very helpful for purposes of a deeper analysis, conceals a much more rich and complex dynamic of production and diversification of scientific knowledge. Its emergence, in fact, proved to be even more strongly influenced by the different contexts in which it arises and the awareness of this dynamic has deeply influenced epistemological reflections on the nature of scientific knowledge.
It should also keep in mind that the term “context” should be considerate in a polysemous meaning. It can referred to a geographical place, thinking of the difference between knowledge emerged from research with a precise geographical location and potentially low permeability as a university laboratory, often with a mono-disciplinary composition, and types of knowledge emerged by interdisciplinary research team, by company clusters or by international networks. The term “context” can also refer to technological and cognitive skills, such as those generated by enlargement of perception abilities enabled by new visual technologies, or even to more specifically epistemological conditions, as a different theoretical approach of a same object of study.
This differentiation, linked not only to the disciplinary sphere, as had been for the modern science, but especially to the context, has generated significant changes not only in terms of identity of researchers, but also at a paradigmatic level, namely in relation to the epistemological foundation of science.
Researchers, in this new situation, must become able to assume different identities: they are no longer just “researchers”, but a researcher in a university, in a company, there are researchers who work in the “research area” and those who work in the “development area”, who are “planners”, who work in “profiling”, who are” methodologists” and so on. This professional differentiation requires a troubled personal journey in which the researcher goes on a difficult search for the kind of job that suits better his skills, abilities and possibilities, even in terms of economic maintenance.
At the same time researchers have also to tackle the different (and new) communication challenges born with the contextual changes described above: the first linked to the need of generating a dialogue between different disciplines within large interdisciplinary research teams, needed more and more often to the advancement of research; the second related to communication with the non-experts public who are starting to become relevant, for example, through popular referendum, that have the power of maintain or end entire lines of research.
With regard to the epistemological nature of science, the quantitative and qualitative diversity of knowledge generated in the contemporary world led science to question its realistic foundation. So some epistemological studies, although recognizing the validity of the experimental method as a basis to differentiate science from other types of knowledge, today show how scientific knowledge, far from having been acknowledged once and for all, is far more extensive, varied, highly dependent on contextual, personal, social, economic, ethical and political constraints.
Each of these constraints are having the great power to open up a new range of possibilities for future developments in science. Only a few of these constrains, however, may develop within the contemporary context till being declared “scientific”.
Science then, today more then never, shows a large number of frontiers to explore, a lot of creative shoots and emerging knowledge that can be amplified or damped by contrast, both from the pure historical contingency and from the political, economic and social factors that come in the game.
Also the change of perspective implemented by the European Union, with the last framework programme adopted, Horizon 2020, developed within this context. Since 1984 even the EU, through its ambitious framework programs, has brought together the strength of its policies with increasingly high funds available for research aimed at strengthening the economic and social development of Europe. Up to the Seventh Framework Programme (7FP) for Research and Technological Development, aimed to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustaining economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion“, funds have been allocated on two large “containers” of scientific knowledge: research and development.
The economic crisis of 2008, however, has made the Lisbon strategy and the structure of the 7FP somewhat inadequate for a recovery in Europe, and this resulted in the need to trigger major changes on many levels. One sign of change is reflected in the reorganization of the Directorate-General Research in the Directorate-General for Research & Innovation that took place between 2010 and 2011 in conjunction with the settlement of the last Commission. Another strong sign of change goes back to 2010, when the Europe 2020 strategy was launched. It stands, as the first of three new priorities for the EU, a “smart growth” that aims to reach 3% of EU’s GDP (it was 2.03%in 2011) for R&D and Innovation.
To be able to implement the three priorities mentioned above and in line with the vision of Europe 2020, seven flagship initiatives, real driving forces to boost growth and employment, have been established.
One of these is the Innovation Union, fundamental to the development of Horizon 2020, the Eighth Framework Programme for funding research and innovation. On several fronts, then, Innovation begins to take on a key role within the European context. It should also be noted that for the first time the EU included within the research area a whole range of actions directly related on innovation, a factor that up to 7FP was financed with a different program, CIP (Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Program) not considered directly related to research and then with the production of new scientific knowledge. To overcome the crisis, Europe has chosen to radically change the focus of its Framework Program, moving towards innovation, a process, as EU itself defined, that goes beyond the classic stages of research and development, by including the application phase, the last stage of the chain that precedes the entrance of a product in the market.
This new ratio is concretely changing the structure of the research topics of European interest, redefining what is “significant innovation” for its development, and that, more or less implicitly, will influence the structure of networks that will be able to obtain funds and hence the development of particular areas of research at the extinction of others.
Such a position is likely to have strong repercussions both on future considerations related to the concept of science, and on the professional profiles that will be involved in research projects. The researcher, in fact, should be ready to pick a new challenge and to build a new identity that could be defined of “innovator”. An identity that will include within it multiple souls and sensibilities: that of a researcher, a communicator, a designer “responsible” of his own research, a funding searcher, etc. He should then be able to adapt his research and methods of doing research on the context in which he will be immersed, knowing how to modulate his work according to it. It should be also a “responsible” innovator. Horizon 2020, in fact, raises the question of Responsible Research and Innovation as cross-cutting theme in all its parts. RRI, according to the definition given by the EU itself, is “a process where all societal actors (researchers, citizens, policy makers, business) work together during the whole R&I process in order to align R&I outcomes to the values, needs and expectations of European society”.
The knowledge being drawn up will then be structured in such a way as to allow to anticipate and assess the potential implications and expectations of society in the field of research and innovation before being funded, and therefore be able to be born and grow.
Therefore we are witnessing an epistemological change in the process of construction of scientific knowledge, which will put more and more emphasis on all the aspects related to its forms of production, its dynamics and necessarily also to the different contexts and instances that guide its evolution.
This will definitely be a challenge of considerable thickness, because our mindset, our training, our language, our cognitive schemes have been historically and educationally structured around the knowledge of the “know-what”. The challenge of the contemporary world that is emerging more and more clearly, however, is to pay attention to the “know-how”, to the dynamics underlying the transition from the “non-knowledge” to the emergence of “knowledge” and hence to the instances leading to its realization, including responsible innovation, that now more and more is going to plays a key role.
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(photo: European Court of Justice by Gwenaël Piaser from Flickr)