Re-Thinking biosciences as culture and practice

Tracing "ethics" and "society" in genome research - a pilot study (GOLD II)

Duration: 03/2006 - 12/2008

Sponsors: bm:bwk, GEN-AU

Project collaborators: Ulrike Felt; Maximilian Fochler; Lisa Sigl

Project links:


When discussing with scientists about the changing boundary conditions under which they carry out their research, they highlight the following: higher competition for research funds, growing need to argue for this money with a wider relevance of their research beyond the direct inner-scientific interest, increasing demand to more explicitly consider ethical and social impacts of their work, the request to present research outcomes in the public space as well as the changing career perspectives in particular for younger scientists. However, when asking how these changes in the end enter their work procedures, their way of writing, arguing and selecting topics, and how they organise their work, they would generally underline that there have been no major changes, that they still are able to follow the lines of their interest and that the changing boundary conditions often only lead to “simply organising and arguing things” differently. Situating these accounts in a historic context and building on experiences from the field of science studies, which have shown the often complex and subtle ways in which the “epistemic core” of a scientific inquiry is altered by external changes, it seems challenging to question the latter assumption.

Rationale of the Project

Our starting hypothesis for this project is that ethical and societal (social, economic, legal) considerations gradually reshape the current culture and practice of organizing and carrying out research in the field of genomics. The field of genomics is of particular interest as it is characterized by rapid innovation both with regard to the methods applied as well as to the knowledge produced. Economic, social and legal boundary conditions play a considerable role for its development. Finally, it is perceived in the public sphere as a central supplier of models of life, health and illness, followed both with a certain amount of admiration but also with some suspicion. To identify and better understand the qualitative changes these boundary conditions induce for research culture and knowledge production, and to understand in which ways “society” is already present within science (genomics) is the central aim of this project.

These findings could be of importance for the scientific community in terms of a deepened self-understanding as well as an answer to the request for more reflexivity with regard to societal consequences of research results, for policy makers to critically assess the impact of stronger ties between science and society, but also for the public at large, positioned towards genomic research with a feeling of ambivalence, who could better grasp that even basic research is in many ways no longer confined to the “ivory tower” .

Methodological Approach

The project is a pilot study geared towards identifying a first set of key-elements in the research routine where ethical and societal considerations become visible as well as testing the way in which such a research should be carried out methodologically. It combines biographical interviews with researchers with innovative approaches of mapping the development of collaboration patterns in scientific fields. Focus groups will be used as a means of feedback and validation of research results.