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<nettime> Stengers, What Science, What Europe?
Soenke Zehle on Thu, 2 Jun 2005 23:58:13 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Stengers, What Science, What Europe?

Having poured over the umpteenth attempt to give some meaning to the 
now-official 'crisis' of the EU, this one looked all the more 
refreshing, as the reiteration of Stenger's call for a democratization 
of the production of scientific authority reminded me of the many 
terrains 'beyond politics' where Europe takes (its) shape, sz

Europe's foremost philosopher of science offers a devastating indictment 
of contemporary European science

Isabelle Stengers

As a philosopher, I can imagine no better keynote to strike than: what 
are you doing, what are you trying to do? Organizing a discussion on the 
European Research policy matters! It matters because it is both urgently 
needed and difficult.

How to read the seventh framework programme? The first point to note is 
that this programme does not really invite political debate. Indeed we 
do not dealing with choices that could be discussed but with what 
presents itself as the simple enactment of the "Lisbon agenda", fully 
endorsing its slogans, such as "knowledge society", "economy of 
knowledge", "knowledge and its exploitation" as "the key for economic 
growth" and "the competitiveness of enterprises." All this, leading, as 
we should trust, to employment, while maintaining and strengthening the 
so-called "European Model", and also providing an improvement of welfare 
and well-being, quality of life, health and the environment; for such 
improvements rely, as history has shown, on the progress of knowledge 
and its many applications.

In other words, what we are dealing with is an assemblage of what, in 
French, we call "mots d'ordre". Mots d'ordre are not made to induce 
thinking and debating but to produce agreement on consensual perception, 
putting on the defensive those who feel constrained to a "yes, butů" Yes 
to employment, yes to the European model, yes to all those improvements, 
and certainly yes to the progress of knowledge. Butů The "but" is coming 
too late, after so many agreements, and it will be easy to fall into the 
trap, instead of addressing the means while ratifying the perceived 
consensual goals. It is the very functioning and aim of mots d'ordre to 
capture and inhibit the capacity to think, that is also the capacity to 
recall or keep in mind that there exists a world that demands thinking, 
that will not submit to wishful thinking.

What this conference is trying to do is thus as difficult as it is 
necessary both to resist the trap and to expose it as what it is. 
Otherwise, the danger is that the opposition against something everybody 
should agree upon will appear as sheer ideology. But whatever the 
difficulty, I would insist that this should be done. Indeed, the 
political point is not only what European money should support, which 
kind of scientific research it should privilege. It is also what kind of 
role is assigned to scientists and scientific research for problems that 
are first of all society problems, such as welfare and well-being, 
quality of life, health and the environment. And it is certainly what 
kind of scientists we need in order for this role, whatever it may be, 
and not to be diverted.

To give just an example, animal welfare has now entered European 
politics. This is not a result of the progress of scientific knowledge. 
On the contrary, many scientists have seen this concern as a 
manifestation of the irrational sensitivity of public opinion, and they 
demanded objective demonstration that animals such as cows, pigs or hens 
are able to suffer. But as soon as there is money, even sceptical 
scientists become interested. One of the propositions stemming from the 
researchers of the French INRA (Institut National de la Recherche 
Agronomique) was indeed an achievement. If farm animals indeed do 
suffer, it is because they are stressed by the kind of quality of life 
imposed on them. Thus we should obtain less stressed animals, that is 
select them in order to produce animals who would accept without stress 
the kind of life imposed on them. Selection, as usual, is the answer, an 
answer the great rational advantage of which is that it will not 
endanger the competitiveness of meat or milk production while answering 
the public concern.

Animals should thus be modified in such a way that they biologically 
fulfil not only the production criteria but also the competitiveness 
criteria that define as loss any money devoted to their well-being. They 
should only be defined as meat or milk production devices.

Such an answer to public concern does not identify science as 
intrinsically blind, calculating, and reductionist; because such an 
identification would exclude as scientists those ethologists concerned 
over the animal's capacity to feel and suffer. It does reveal, however, 
that those INRA researchers using European money made available because 
of public pressure, were quite indifferent to the reasons why so many 
people had spent their time protesting and fighting against what they 
considered as a shame upon humanity. The way those researchers provided 
the answer would probably have cost them their very reputation if the 
public had their right to evaluate how the scientists met their concern. 
The researchers would have been found guilty on two counts: that they 
both felt free to propose such a research project to alleviate animal 
suffering, and also that they had nothing but contempt for the reason 
the question was posed.

What is striking in the FP7 is the very clear signal sent to researchers 
that whatever the babble around sustainable development or public 
participation, they do not need to listen and think too much. They may 
go on living with the fairy dreams that if what they propose may be of 
interest for the industry and its obsession with competitiveness, they 
are still addressing the challenges of the future in the best rational 
way. They may trust that they will be protected against the so-called 
irrationality of those who, as it has already been the case with the 
GMOs (genetically modified organisms), refuse to accept and say "yes" to 
the laws of the free market as the only road to progress. They may even 
feel that if scientists leave Europe because some public pressure 
complicate their collaboration with their industrial partners, that 
would slow down or put into question that which should really be 
motivating innovation and the transition to a knowledge economy.

Some sociologists tell us that the mode of production of science has 
been transformed from what they call an academically centred mode 1 that 
values scientific autonomy and peer evaluation, to a flexible mode 2 
that deals with uncertainty, tying multiple transdisciplinary and 
participatory links, contributing to economical and social questions and 
adopting new norms of adaptability, accountability, openness and 

Today such a mode 2 production is but an apolitical dream-image, and a 
very tranquillizing and useful one. It is an image much beloved by 
European authorities, just like the "knowledge society", because it 
allows them to have the cake and eat it too. They are free to produce a 
list of problems that "flexible" scientists should be able to contribute 
to and avoid asking hard questions about the relevance and reliability 
of their answer, about how to enforce the so-called norms defining an 
accountable, open and responsible scientist; as that is said to be part 
of the contemporary mode 2 production of science.

It is very striking from this point of view that intellectual property 
rights are not mentioned once in the European document, nor is the 
matter of conflicts of interests or the freedom of scientists under 
private contract to play the role of whistleblower. There is no mention 
either of the need for the training of researchers to include relevant 
means of inducing and empowering sensitivity or a sense of 
responsibility in the face of public concern. Indeed the whole message 
is framed to reinforce the view that today, more than ever, lay persons 
must be kept at distance, must be kept in a position of trust and belief 
that this new science is the answer to their problems, that mobilisation 
in the economic war for competitiveness is the key to everything else. 
The public is asked to say "yes" to a Brave New World where all European 
stakeholders, as they are mobilised in this war, will contribute to the 
improvement of welfare and well-being, quality of life, health and the 

I am not sure at all that the kind of flexible scientists required by 
the new economy of knowledge will be able to fulfil their assigned role. 
I am personally impressed by the sadness and resignation of a great 
number of researchers I meet. When I tell them of what interests me in 
scientific practices, that are indeed specialized, but may be living, 
challenging and intense, they tell me it is a thing of the past.

Despairing scientists feel that what is coming under the charming 
features of the mode 2 production of science is a new mode of 
mobilization, that is a new mode of direct appropriation and evaluation 
of knowledge. They rightly feel that the so-called economy of knowledge 
asks for a new type of scientist who will accept being flexible, in the 
same way that workers today are asked to be flexible. They understand 
that they are told that scientific knowledge has become a much too 
serious business for scientists to keep what appears as outdated 
privileges; that they are told they must accept the common fate, that 
competitiveness is the general rule, even if it means relaxing the rules 
of sharing and collectively verifying knowledge in the scientific 
community when those rules impede the competition for and accumulation 
of intellectual property rights.

I think, however, that the great political challenge is to avoid any 
nostalgia for the famous mode 1 production, the Golden Age so many 
researchers are regretting. Indeed the so-called mode 1 was forged 
around 1870, a time characterized by intense relations with industrial 
production and coincided with the promotion of a new type of scientist, 
the specialized professionals, thinking away everything that does not 
contribute to the progress of their discipline and identifying the 
progress of their discipline with the only key to human and social 
progress. This is the "golden-eggs-hen-which-should-not-be killed" 
model: society should feed research and respect its autonomy in exchange 
for the fruitful applications that only a disinterested quest for 
knowledge will produce. This model was an apolitical model, since the 
golden eggs of science, as incubated by industry, were defined as 
serving humanity progress and well-being, transcending political 
conflicts. But those kinds of eggs are probably not what we need today 
in relation to what is now called sustainable development. What is such 
a development is still an unknown. What we know, however, is that, if it 
is not to remain sheer wishful thinking, and if science is to be able to 
contribute at all to what it demands, we need thinking scientists, not 
believers in the direct link between progress of knowledge and progress 
of humanity. Development, as linked to the mode 1 golden eggs, is 
unsustainable development.

We should thus be able to listen and amplify scientists' complaints but 
succeed in disentangling them from nostalgia, with the aim of inducing 
the scientist's appetite and imagination for what is so very interesting 
in the present. In order to do so, I would propose to take seriously the 
idea of a knowledge society, but turn into examples of such a society 
the story of the GMO protest, the growing unrest and opposition of NGOs 
against intellectual property rights, the questioning of pesticides and 
the beginning concerns about nanotechnologies.

In all those cases, protests gain some general public approbation, 
however vague, as if, at last, good questions were produced. But what is 
politically relevant is the effective learning process that enables 
concerned people to penetrate questions they were not meant to approach. 
And what is remarkable is a very slow, very timid recognition by some 
scientists, that maybe the questions those outsiders have learned to ask 
are not so irrational, after all.

It seems to me that politics means constructing a position the first 
quality of which is not some adequacy to matter of facts, but the 
production of the sense of possibility and the appetite required to 
transform matters of fact. It may be interesting not to denounce the mot 
d'ordre, order-word, that Europe has to become a knowledge society, but 
to affirm as obvious that the true measure of this becoming is the 
ability of all the concerned people to produce and assemble knowledge as 
it is relevant for the issue which concerns them. And to affirm as 
obvious as well that this dynamics, which is the very challenge of 
democracy, is also the chance for scientists to escape flexible 
enslavement, and enter into new relations with people who learn to 
become as interested as they are themselves, in the reliability and 
relevance of their contributions. Such affirmations are a very small 
half of the truth indeed, but what matters is that it is the 
interesting, appetizing half, and that arising new appetites is the only 
way I can think of to escape the trap of mots d'ordre.

This article is an edited version of her keynote speech to the 
conference, What Science - What Europe, organized by the Greens in the 
European Parliament, 2 -3 May 2005, in order to
launch a debate on FP7. Prof. Stengers is a signatory to the ISP 
Statement to the European Commission on FP7. Add your name here 

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