Sunday, August 7


Interview by Hilal Us, Istanbul Technical University
Science and Technology Studies MA Program

In 2019, IstanbuLab hosted Prof. Ulrike Felt in Istanbul with funding provided by the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST). Felt gave a public talk entitled “Taming the Nuclear: Between Past and Future Imaginaries” at Akbank Sanat as part of IstanbuLab’s Science, Technology and Society Public Talk series. We also organized a workshop on science and democracy with her at Istanbul Technical University (ITU) in collaboration with ITU Science, Technology and Society MA Program. One of the students from the recently reinvigorated STS program, Hilal Us, interviewed Felt for IstanbuLab Blog.

Ulrike Felt is a prominent scholar of Science and Technology Studies and is the head of the Science and Technology Studies Department and Responsible Research and Innovation in Academic Practice Research Platform at the University of Vienna. Felt is a member of regional and international STS networks including the Science and Democracy Network and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST), and she has been part of the editorial board of Science, Technology, & Human Values. In addition to her academic contributions, Felt has been part of science and technology policy decision-making processes as an expert in both Austrian and European Union institutional frameworks. Her research interests are sociology and politics of knowledge, politics of science and society, science communication, and co-production of temporalities and techno-scientific matters concerned with how the future shapes our socio-scientific present.

For more information, please visit Ulrike Felt’s academic website at:

As a leading scholar of Science and Technology Studies, how did you get involved in STS in the first place?

I actually started out with studying physics and mathematics, and I ended in 1983 with a PhD in theoretical high energy physics. While I was waiting for my grading and the exam and everything, I saw a job offer at CERN the European High Energy Physics Laboratory in Geneva. There was an international group of historians who were interested in writing the institutional history of CERN as the first big European research laboratory and they were looking for someone knowledgeable in physics and so on. I thought this would be a very interesting year between finishing my PhD and getting to my postdoc in physics. So, I did not deliberately think about leaving physics immediately. Then I went for the interview, I was hired, I moved to Geneva, and I started working there.

I must say that I was really fascinated by questions such as how the scientific knowledge production gets related to politics in the widest sense, how decision-making within and beyond this institution was related to the rebuilding process of Europe, how the scientific knowledge production and certain sociopolitical processes come together in such an institution and so on. I must say that these matters fascinated me to a degree that I did actually stay on, and I only left CERN about five years after that. Throughout those years, I have been trained in social scientific methods and got more engaged in understanding societal damage of research. These questionings brought me into STS which was back then in Europe an emerging field and it was not really established as we know it today until the late eighties.

How is STS different from other fields of study? How has science and technology studies, by its constructivist tenets, contributed to thinking with and acting towards the relations between science, technology, and society?

STS has been particularly effective in unpacking the questions revolving around issues like how knowledge production and its social circumstances mutually shape each other. Knowledge shapes society, nobody doubted that. But the question was, “Does society, and the values we live by, etc., also have an impact on the knowledge we generate and of course the technologies we develop out of, through that knowledge?” and I think, STS is quite good at looking at how the social and the scientific mutually build each other. In that sense STS is specific because it is built on a strong empirical research program, it takes empirical methods from many different fields, anthropology, sociology, and others and beyond. But it is also attentive to practices, it pays attention to the materiality of things, and it tries to be reflexive in the sense of looking into its own ways of producing knowledge–questions such as how we as STS scholars are also framed by the conditions under which we produce knowledge. And I think that is an important twist that STS takes so that it can pursue such specific questions.

You have been studying the relations between science and socio-politics, and science communication models that have been devised in public understanding of science where the deficit model is prominent. You have also been involved with the field of public engagement with science and technology that is based on social dialogue frameworks. How do you evaluate the benefits and shortfalls of this participatory turn?

When you look at the European context, or maybe this is true for every region in this world we live in, each has a different history of how this happened. So more or less I would like to speak to the European context. It is quite interesting to see how it started actually similar to the U.S. context with the question of “Do people know enough about science?” The research topics you mention got started with this train of thought: if you ask people questions about knowledge, then you can figure out whether they are really scientifically literate or not, based on your own definitions of what scientific literacy meant back then. This is a classical idea that follows like this: if people understand science, then they love science, then they support science and they want to become a rational citizen based on science.

Now, this approach to public understanding of science was actually quickly critically reflected by STS scholars pointing to the fact that knowledge production and appropriating knowledge is a much more complex process than simply being able to reproduce some kind of knowledge with all of its aspects. So, these STS scholars pointed to the fact that knowing is actually a social process and not just a cognitive process where you collect some information and are able to reproduce it. In that sense, a lot of interpretative studies have been done that looked into sense-making, meaning-making, and how people assess and judge and value scientific knowledge. And then comes the third move, if you want to name it so, which is the move towards becoming more participatory and there the idea was that if we would simply to come up with opportunities for people to raise their voice and to become part of making choices that are related to science and technology, then the world would just be fine.

As it always happens in STS, in the beginning, there was quite a bit of an excitement about this idea, STS research money flowing that direction and there are numerous quite well-known studies on the question of participation and what participation means and so on. However, critical voices were raised very soon pointing out to the fact that often times in participatory environments, the problems to be discussed in the first place are already fixed. So, you say, “Hey guys here is the problem, now you can deliberate on it” but the question of power relations appears with postulating what the problem is. A lot of times things to be discussed as part of these public frameworks were already out there or the technology was already realized and then we asked people, do you want it or do you not want it or in which ways do you want it? So, there was all this talk about moving participation upstream in order to have participation much earlier in the process of producing knowledge. Here, a different set of critical voices jumps in saying, “Look, this is a linear model, what does it mean?” On the one hand, if you ask people early on what they know very little about, what should be decided, and on the other hand, when you go downstream everything is fixed and they cannot decide on anything. So, you have the beginning of the problem and you have the end of the problem, and maybe it is not linear anyway.

There have been new forms of engagement mechanisms that were then tried out, but increasingly scholars noticed that, first of all, there is nothing like one model of participation that is the best, therefore you have to think with a multiplicity of locations in which science and society relations would be negotiated. We, as STS scholars, talk about the ecology of participation or science communication, and we tried to be more attentive to the multiple arenas in which the question of science, technology and society are being engaged with, thought about, deliberated and so on. We also pointed out to the fact that we must think with terms of participatory justice that takes into consideration questions such as: who can participate in these processes in actual terms, who can afford to participate, who has the time and the resources to participate, do we see new forms of exclusion or not? These questions are really important to care for and questions like that point out to the fact that these participatory mechanisms actually bring publics into being. We facilitate their construction by giving voice to a specific subset of people in a given social context. In a way, we make publics ourselves and I think this is not a question we will be easily solving because it is important to create spaces for voices that can be raised and where questions can be asked but it is not so easy to simply say, “Ok that is the best practice and just let’s do that everywhere on everything.” It is much more complicated than that.

I am interested in citizen science and public participation in scientific research. It has been both a scientific method and a social movement turning into an institution on its own. Despite the research quality and objectivity concerns, I value citizen science that democratizes science and enables extensive research against global or local challenges. Would you share your take on citizen science in terms of science and society?

If you would go back to the 19th century for a moment, you would see that there was a lot of amateur science back then in various special fields like biology or astronomy or other fields. These people were separate from the science system, they had their own exchange mechanisms, and they contributed to the scientific system in part but then the science system spent a lot of effort to exclude them from its domain in a way we try to bring them back in.

Now, my position here is a bit ambivalent. On the one hand, I find citizen science projects great occasions for citizens to engage with research and various topics in sustained and significant ways. I find it to be a really good opportunity for opening up. On the other hand, for many citizen science projects, I am not sure whether science is part of them. Very often, citizens are invited to collect data for scientists, but I am not sure if they really get the chance to see what science does with data because data is not knowledge. Data is comprised of the ingredients to make knowledge and my question is then, “If we do citizen science projects, how can we actually really integrate citizens also in the knowledge production that is extracted from data in a sustained manner?” According to my impression, sometimes the process of citizens bringing data stops very early, but these citizens do not see how their work becomes part of the data getting transformed into that thing that we would call knowledge at the end of the day. So, that might create the delusion that data alone is already something like knowledge without any interpretation involved and that is problematic. Why? Because in so many parts of our society we have started to collect data for all kinds of things, and believing that the data sets we talk about here deliver knowledge about ourselves on their own is a problem.

I think it is important to cultivate the understanding that data may be the raw material for knowledge but data sets are not the equivalent of knowledge. In order to emphasize that difference, and this is one of the STS things that I learned very early on, we have to make the data speak because it never speaks for itself in citizen science projects. Sometimes these citizens are simple data producers and data deliverers and sometimes they are really integrated into the knowledge generation process. So, I would say personally, if we go so far as to embrace the knowledge-making process in citizen, I would consider it a rich opportunity for citizens to contribute to and understand science. Otherwise, things get very difficult.

Now, in the medical field that is quite interesting because there is quite a long tradition of self-help groups to participate in medical research, since they hold data that doctors do not have. They know about the lives of people who live with medical conditions and things like that. So actually the medical establishment has understood this much earlier than the citizen science movement. You can look at Michel Callon or Vololona Rebeharisoa’s work. They provide nice examples in the French case and talk about how patients actually started to contribute to medical research in very important ways. In a sense citizen science is the expansion of these processes. This can be very valuable, but it can also run the danger of not being really science in the sense of knowledge generation. That would be my position.

Considering Austria’s engagement with nanotechnologies, following earlier nuclear and agrobiotechnology debates, you have argued that innovation governance led by cautious and knowledgeable sociotechnical imaginaries has enabled alternative futures with more responsible technologies. You have emphasized the dynamic features of such processes requiring lots of effort in order to come up with the right attitude. Could you talk about the essentials for constructing socio-technical imaginaries leading towards a better future?

Sociotechnical imaginaries highlight for us the fact that for every scientific and technological development, we could also reconsider our future and the lives we are capable to live. I think it is important to understand how we develop the idea that there are specific kinds of scientific and technological projects that should lead us towards specific kinds of futures and to give people their voices to express these futures they want to live. Whatever you want to use as a vocabulary, I think this is a very important part of democratic processes and in that sense, I think it is interesting to see how experiences with some technologies, like in the Austrian case with nuclear technologies, have become very important. That also helps us, articulates our position toward genetically modified organisms. Actually, with nanotechnology, we have never gone that far, because nanotechnology, contrary to nuclear technology, is a technology that is very difficult to grasp. It is more of an enabling technology that goes everywhere and so people are struggling quite a bit with making sense of nanotechnology and while they make sense of it, they have been using the nuclear case as an analogy which helped them to see certain futures as problematic and not others.

Therefore, I think the fact that Austria developed quite the strong opinion to stay out of nuclear throughout past years and decades should not be seen as an example of techno-criticism or techno-phobia. Sometimes people pretend that that was the vision, but it was much more than that. When you look into such technologies, you look into what kind of futures are built with it, and with the nuclear, we have to keep in mind that deciding to go down with the nuclear road means not only caring for the nuclear power stations and their security and all that, but also caring for the end of life of this technology. That means both for the waste, nuclear waste but also for the power plant itself and I think this has not been looked into that much. Speaking of nuclear energy technologies, the Austrian case showed very nicely how important it is not only to think about the technology in the present and to see the advantages it might potentially bring, but also to think about its complete life cycle, to look at how this technological choice has an impact on the next generation. Within such imaginary, the future takes up an important role and we do not only assess technology in the present, but we try to assess it in longer scale because we want to realize particular futures that come along with us, and I think in that sense inviting societies to look ahead more proactively and not to wait that society react to things afterwards.

All of mentioned above bring us back to the participatory question. Inviting people to actually co-create specific kinds of futures that they want to live in is actually a really important task in living democracies, because today science and technology have become such big and important players in many ways. If we want to take the notion of democracy seriously, we have to engage with citizens around questions of technological choices. This is not something that can only be decided by the state or by individual industrial players or whatever. This is a collective future we have to think about and I think the notion of sociotechnical imaginaries allows us to think in those terms or draws our attention exactly towards that point.

What would be your suggestions for those who are new in doing research in science and technology studies?

There are always two levels. On the one hand, you have to think about how you see yourself, the kind of things you really like and you really want to go for. After all, all of this is about your life as an STS scholar. The second part is about the specific research topics and the kinds of questions that are important for you. It might sound a bit naive, but I do think people should really question themselves about the kinds of issues they feel passion for. STS is this wonderful field that allows you to ask questions which are quite essential for contemporary societies and I think one should pick a question that one really feels strongly about. So that’s one thing. The other thing, as I said before, is about thinking what that means in terms of life as a scientist and I think for STS scholars the really interesting thing is, you can work in academia but there are many other places where STS knowledge carries importance. Being in non-governmental institutions, being in certain kinds of social science start-ups, being at the interface of art and science and other things.

STS is capable of inhabiting very different places and very different spaces where it can develop its capacities in a fulfilling manner and in that sense if it comes down as a recommendation, I would say, consider different options. This is really important. In many cases I see people saying, “I want to become an academic; I want to stay in the university” which is fine, I am not saying they should not do that. But I think one should always think about second and third plans and not think about it as something that is, “If I fail this, I do that” but really think of it as an option, as something that is good to do.

STS can do a lot of interesting things outside the academia. Also pick topics which you are passionate about because when times are difficult and bumpy, to be really fascinated by the topic you are working on is helpful. Being good and qualified in something not only in the academic sense but qualified in the kind of care you take for a subject, to the way you unpack it and the respect you show to particular modes of action, these kinds of questions are really important. Go for multiple options and go for something you really burn for.

Thank you so much Ulrike for this great interview.

You are welcome.

Editing by Mehmet Ekinci, Ph.D. Candidate, Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

Proofreading by Murat Ergin, Assoc. Professor, Sociology Department, Koç University