Report on the 3rd CPERI Workshop, San Diego, March 2015

Arriving in sunny Southern California from a long and very cold Toronto winter is bound to put a smile on your face – and it certainly did for me. It was also nice to arrive early and get a chance to explore a bit of La Jolla or just go for a walk on the beach in the sunshine. A lot of other participants seemed to feel the same when we started talking during the workshop. What about the workshop though? Well, it was a two-day affair – see here for details of the talks – and covered topics from historical perspectives on the political economy of science to national and regional strategies for innovation. It’s obviously difficult to summarize all the talks since it might prove slightly repetitive, so I don’t want to do that here. Instead I’m going to write about some general themes that emerged from the workshop itself and discussions around it, as well as the general discussion we all had at the end about future directions. A number of themes emerged quite strongly from the workshop:

  • Universities in crisis: While not an actual panel – and maybe it should have been – it was evident in many conversations and shared experiences that we are witnessing a tipping point in the future of the university. This is not just evident in the recent and ongoing strikes in Canadian universities or the implications of under-funding in European universities, most of the people I talked to had (horror?) stories to tell about threats to the university as a site for education and research. In particular, commercial interests are driving the university down a certain road which includes the outsourcing of the riskiest research to academics, while alternative visions of the role of universities in society are seriously lacking – creating these visions is something we need to do, urgently and forcefully.
  • What is innovation: As a key theme across all CPERI workshops, innovation obviously came up again and again, this time especially as it related to the idea of “responsible innovation”. What became obvious was that not only could we not agree on what these terms meant, it was also clear no-one else (e.g. policy-makers, politicians, business, etc.) could really agree either. Yet, innovation is frequently held up as the panacea for social and global issues (e.g. inequality, poverty, climate change, etc., etc.) and, therefore, as a social imperative. It’s possible that innovation has become yet another buzzword used to justify a range of deeply problematic assumptions about how we should organize society, govern ourselves and manage our economies. Again, it’s evident that we have an opportunity to ‘capture’ the term, and ensure that it denotes more than mere profit.
  • Entrepreneurship (vs. rentiership): Terms like entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial and entrepreneur came up again and again, especially as ways to refer to the ‘neoliberal’ transformation of research, innovation and universities over the last few decades. Here people raised concerns about entrepreneurship as the new motivation, incentive and driver behind science, research and innovation – for example, as a way to frame social problems and then address them (i.e. let the private sector get to work). The obverse of entrepreneurship – something I tried to think through in my own paper – is the idea of rentiership; by this I mean the increasing prevalence of technologies that do not produce anything new (e.g. product) but simply install some form of new techno-market structure that can extract economic rents by monetizing a diverse range of activities – think Uber, Airbnb, Google, etc.
  • Imaginaries: As should be evident, there was a lot of discussion about the cultural and social representation and expectations of science, research and innovation. Many participants addressed these issues through the concept of imaginaries – or, the visions of the future that are enrolled in the governance of the present in order to frame certain decisions as legitimate and others as illegitimate. What this highlighted was the importance of understanding the socio-cultural embedding of science, research and innovation in these visions, which brings me to …
  • The role of STS: A final theme was about what role STS has in all of this, which was especially taken up in the keynote by Philip Mirowski – see paper here. He argued that STS has abandoned political analysis altogether, or has headed down the road of defending science etc. against attacks from various fronts (e.g. climate sceptics, creationists, right-wing governments, etc.). Has this meant that STS is no longer providing a critique of science? As pointed out in the concluding general discussion, there was a sense that morality and values should be key to STS – as a discipline and mode of inquiry – such that we should not focus exclusively on analytical accuracy, but on why and how our research can matter to wider audiences. Moreover, participants agreed that while science etc. have definitely changed – as the result of neoliberal, entrepreneurial or commercial pressures (you decide!) – in contrast, STS has not done so; in the current climate, it is not possible to study science etc. without also studying commercialization, and this puts extra pressure on STS researchers to expand their skills set.

These are my impressions, so other participants may want to add their own. Kean Birch, March 2015

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