• Warenkorb
  • Kontakt
  • Login

Exclusively online: Series "12 Questions to ..."

GAIA 1/2018: 12 Questions to Helga Nowotny

Helga Nowotny, Professor Emerita at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zurich.

Born in Vienna, Austria. PhD in Sociology, Columbia University, NY, and a doctorate in jurisprudence, University of Vienna. Professor Emerita of Science and Technology Studies, ETH Zurich. Founding member of the European Research Council (ERC), 2007 ERC Vice President, 2010 to 2013 President of the ERC. Chair of the ERA Council Forum Austria, member of the Austrian Council and, among others, Vice-President of the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

1. Science in the world of tomorrow: what will it look like?

The production of new scientific knowledge – and the research instruments that enable it – is accelerating at a breathtaking pace. The science of tomorrow will be pervaded by the instruments science and technology will have come up with – above all digital tools and algorithms. They’ll be captured by keywords like machine learning and general artificial intelligence. The impact on the way science is organized will be profound. An enormous amount of new data will boost teamwork in an effort to make sense of them. Virtual observations through data and their analysis will also transform the social sciences. While we can tackle societal problems with some of these developments, enormous challenges remain in the transition phase.

2. Mode 2 science developed rapidly, but mainly in niches. Is this what you had in mind when developing the concept?

What we observed was that Mode 1 was incapable of addressing "real world" problems. We therefore focused on the new production of knowledge, consisting of work on defining a shared problem where a variety of disciplinary knowledge and skills temporarily converge. We never claimed that Mode 2 would, or should, replace Mode 1. Looking at the situation today, I see Mode 2 operating not only in niches, but across a wide spectrum, even though it’s not called by this name. The concept has been taken up in a wide variety of different scientific and technological practices, and this is how it should be.

3. What would be a suitable way for Mode 1 and Mode 2 science to relate with each other today?

Over the past few decades, Mode 1 has also changed. Today we need spaces and funding modes to protect bottom-up, curiosity-driven research. For example, "frontier science", supported by the European Research Council, is open to the yet unknown. This kind of research is inherently uncertain. Yet it provides access to a wide range of emergent possibilities, including new application contexts. We need new insights and breakthrough ideas as much as we need carefully designed problem-solving research activities in the spirit of Mode 2. The boundaries between them have become blurred.

4. How can critical reflexivity be maintained when performing research that aims to contribute to normative goals such as sustainability?

Often too much weight is given to individual responsibility. It’s important, but institutions bear a much greater share of responsibility. They are to be held accountable. Sometimes, one gets the impression that academic institutions have become trapped in a fierce competition to obtain funding and high rankings. This leads to a distorted idea of what a university is, and puts their mission of being the voice of reason in society and of transmitting values like societal responsibility to the next generation at risk of being forgotten.

5. Newer approaches, such as transformative research, have been accused of "solutionism". How would you respond to such a critique?

I have no problem with solutionism, provided it neither exhorts hubris nor makes promises that cannot be kept. Experimental research has always been based on the idea of intervention. Interventions which were formerly performed in the lab are now done in the real social world. This brings with it additional responsibilities. But, it’s in line with how the technosciences have evolved in shaping societies to be ever more linked intrinsically with interventions in our natural environment

6. Real-world laboratories are seen as part of an experimental turn in the social sciences. Is this an answer to challenges of uncertainty and complexity in societal transformations?

Real-world labs are a great idea that has finally reached the social sciences. We need additional spaces to experiment with new ideas, tracing their possible consequences and impact. Simulation models and complexity science offer virtual spaces to try out policy measures before we allow them to enter the "real", social world. Uncertainty presents an immense challenge, yet it is something we need to continuously align with, as we are illequipped to see the unintended consequences of human action.

7. Can trends in sustainability research towards experimental and transformative approaches be seen as a wishful transformation of the science system?

Both trends are already underway, and I doubt they can be stopped. The science system is very dynamic and flexible when it comes to adapting to new challenges and opportunities, such as those offered by innovation. Transformative approaches operate in science as much as in innovation. Yet, they should not only lead to disruption, but to "creative destruction" as Schumpeter called it. We have to become more aware of the costs and benefits of innovation, and for whom.

8.  What has your experience been with regard to transferring scientific insights into practice?

If you mean influencing policy, greater humbleness is called for. Often, it’s a matter of timing and of fitting scientific advice into the political or economic context. But such transfers are never unidirectional. Practice-generated insights are also taken up by science. In both cases, transformation occurs at both ends of a mutual and often entangled process.

9. Overcoming the "pilot-project trap": what strategies can be used to transfer results of niche experiments into a broader context?

The pilot-project trap is real, but it points to a larger problem: how can real-world experiments, related experiences and tested practical solutions be scaled up? While we have learned the importance of handling horizontal transfers – for example, of policy measures that are successful in one institutional context to another – with caution, we are only beginning to explore what is necessary to scale up such transfers. In the social sciences, we speak of micro and macro levels. A huge gap exists between them and needs to be overcome if scaling up is to be successful.

10. Initiating interventions and observing transformation processes in real-world labs: how can scientists cope with this dual role?

Scientists are used to multiple, often conflicting roles, but often lack the time and training to reflect on what they are doing. This may result in contradictions they have difficulty coping with or end in sheer frustration. Again, it’s important within research institutions to create spaces where such tensions can be made visible and guidance towards self-reflection can be offered.

11. Which is the most promising current development in the science system?

The development of the science system is driven by the socio-cultural evolution which is overtaking biological evolution at an accelerating rate. One way of trying to follow it is through complexity science that renders otherwise invisible interconnections visible. It alerts us to the emergence of new properties of a system or new phenomena. But it also highlights that our value compass must evolve together with these amazing scientific achievements. In the race with the technological artefacts humans have created, we must stay ahead. Otherwise we are doomed.

12. When it comes to developing research policy in Europe related to sustainability transformations, what would your primary suggestion be?

Much will depend on whether sustainability transformations can be harnessed by business and industry as well. In other words, we need to include sustainability profits as part of the overall societal equation. If the future of green technology looks bright in the medium-term, it must be a greening of the entire value chain. Europe is well positioned, but as we are faced with global problems, it must act quickly and in a coordinated way.

DGH Jahrestagung 2018
Vom 24.-26.05. lädt die DGH ein, in Sommerhausen die Frage zu diskutieren: "Transformationswissen integrieren – Wie 'wirklich', 'wahr' und 'wirksam' ist Wissen?"
GAIA reviewers 2017
The peer-review process ensures the scientific quality of GAIA. Here you can find all experts who reviewed an article in 2017.
Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity
The series highlights existing compilations of methods useful for transdisciplinary research - now available for download!
Lernen Sie GAIA kennen!
Mit unserem günstigen Probeabo für nur 29,50 Euro inkl. Versandkosten weltweit!
GAIA bei Facebook
Schauen Sie bei GAIA-Facebook vorbei und geben uns ein Feedback, ob Ihnen die Seite gefällt.
GAIA bei Twitter
Aktuelle Neuigkeiten von GAIA gibt es problemlos über unseren Twitter-Kanal!
Journal Performance
Find out about GAIA's recent journal metrics!
GAIA new issue e-alert
Please sign in to set up a new issue alert for GAIA!