A spectre is haunting STS, the spectre of ELSI.
Or perhaps not.
Lukas’s last post and Hank’s comment (including the Winfried Fluck article Hank linked to) evoked many thoughts in me. The kinds of “facts” brought up in Brooks’s column makes me wonder whether we will one day see No-Child-Left-Behind-esque standardized testing in universities. I want to add another layer to this discussion of the changing academic environment by discussing how funding might be shaping STS research.
The Human Genome Project’s program on Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) was founded in 1990. The HGP dedicated 3 to 5% of its budget to ELSI research. Since then other programs on emerging technologies have had similar ELSI-type institutions, including Paul Rabinow’s controversial tenure at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). Such programs mean a pot of money for STS scholars.
I’ve become very interested in how this funding has come to shape research in STS (broadly construed to include HOST). STS scholars often apply (and, in a Fluck-like manner, compete for) grant money. In some ways, this might be structurally akin to the kind of “corporatization” of research that Philip Mirowski has described in _Science-Mart_, though, for sure, most ELSI-type money is public, not private. I think this trend has had a host of influences on STS research.
I’ll just list some possible implications now, though perhaps I can expand this reflection later. First, this focus on emerging technologies may limit the amount and depth of possible empirical research. What kind of sources exist for technologies that have very little to no history?
Second, the ELSI framing explicitly focuses on the normative “problems” inherent in scientific and engineering research. This might lead STS scholars to ignore issues in science studies that are less laden with (socially-noteworthy) norms. And, thus, it might flatten and circumscribe our overall account of science and technology. (I think, for instance, that the Speculative Realism movement might suggest that we should move away from the normative aspects of S&T–a subject for another time.)
Third, even if STS researchers want to do normative work, ELSI research seems to primarily involve participant-observation, such as attending conferences, conducting interviews, etc. These methods necessitate the continued participation of the the scientists and engineers doing the work. Thus, ELSI-type researchers may be more likely to pull their punches, else they anger or alienate their subjects.
Fourth, since ELSIers focus on the emerging, they may tend to ignore age-old, ordinary, mundane, or industrial technologies that have real impacts on our daily lives. Consider the US electricity system, which appears to be headed no where good at all but is the subject of just about zero “sexy” STS research. At the SHOT meeting in Cleveland last year, an audience member stated that STS scholars focus either on the emerging or on mundane technologies in developing nations (primarily in Africa) but on very little in between.
Finally–and most simply and stupidly–what does it mean for ELSI-type researchers to have (at least parts of) their research agenda set by someone else?
But perhaps I’m just being one of Winfried Fluck’s romantic individualists?!?