Living Changes in the Life Sciences

Tracing the »Ethical« and the »Social« within Scientific Practice and Work Culture

Project Collaborators: Ulrike Felt, Joachim Allgaier, Kay Felder, Maximilian Fochler, Ruth Müller, Stefan Treiblmayr

BMWF/GEN-AU/ELSA - 09/2007-12/2010

Genome Research in Society - Society in Genome Research?

“Science under attack” titles a 2006 Nature editorial describing how political context is intruding the core of scientific activities. “In today’s scientific labour market, just doing good science is no longer enough” underlined Science a year earlier, hinting at the difficulties of scientific careers today. And in 2003 the executive officer of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) stressed the importance of addressing “not only the inherent benefits, but also the limits, perils and pitfalls” of science. He points to the importance of more openly addressing the realities of scientific research and its impacts on society. These are but three examples showing that the scientific community is increasingly aware of the co-evolution of science and society, altering not only the ways in which knowledge is produced and disseminated, but also potentially affecting the knowledge itself.

Thus, our starting hypothesis is that ethical and societal (social, economic, legal) considerations gradually reshape the culture and practice of research in the life sciences. Building on experiences from the field of STS (Science-Technology-Society), having shown that external changes can alter the “epistemic core” (the very way in which knowledge is produced) of a scientific inquiry, it seems challenging to investigate the complex and subtle ways in which – to quote Helga Nowotny and her co-authors (2001) – “the ‘social’ has been absorbed into the ‘scientific’”. However, within ELSA (Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects of ...) research little has been done to investigate how these wider changes in boundary conditions of science are reflected in the culture and practice of the life sciences themselves.

Project Aims - Tracing Changes in Research Culture and Practice

The central aim of this project is to identify and better understand the process of co-production between society and the life sciences (Jasanoff 2004), focusing on qualitative changes in research culture and knowledge production. Addressing six groups of questions we want to trace the ways in which “society” is present within the life sciences.

  • How do researchers/scientists describe work cultures in the life sciences?
  • How do life scientists perceive their research landscape?
  • In which ways does socialisation of the scientific community take place?
  • How are institutional framings shaping research practices and research questions?
  • What are the main issues explicitly raised in public discourse, the hopes, doubts and fears expressed?
  • In which ways is gender as a central cross-cutting category inherent in narratives on scientific work culture and practices?

The role of social and ethical aspects within these changes – e.g. debates on ethically sensitive issues like stem cell research or agricultural biotechnology in public or media – are the analytical focus of the project.

Methodological Approach

To trace the structural changes through contextualised individual narrations we will deploy a set of different methods. At the core of the project are qualitative interviews that follow a biographical approach, emphasising narratives. To supplement this approach and to contextualise our interview data we are going to do

  • participant observations in 4-6 labs,
  • a mapping of publication and cooperation schemes of our interview partners,
  • an analysis of curricula within the life sciences to detect the role of ELSA in researchers’ socialisation,
  • an analysis of science policy documents,
  • a media analysis to develop an overview of the main lines of political and societal discussion,
  • and focus groups as an element of participatory research, that will be used as means of feedback
  • and to validate our research results.

Inducing and Facilitating Reflection - Trans-Disciplinary Relevance of the Project

Our approach addresses a need often expressed by Austrian scientists, policy makers and ELSA researchers alike, which is to develop spaces for a fine grained and systematic reflection of current developments in the life sciences. Thus we will involve the life sciences community as early as possible in the research process and will discuss our research results in focus groups. Furthermore, the project will develop a teaching module for life scientists in order to foster reflexive engagement with the life science field and its ELSA aspects.


We are collaborating with a life science advisory network of Austrian researchers and are supported by an international advisory board of three renowned international STS experts.

International Advisory Board

  • Prof. Pierre-Benoit Joly, INRA, Frankreich
  • Prof. Mike Michael, Goldsmith College London, UK
  • Prof. Helga Nowotny, European Research Council und WWTF, Vienna