The World’s Fair sits down with David Hess, author of Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (MIT Press, 2007) and Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY.
David Hess is a longtime leader in the field of STS. Like few scholars, this claim holds true by reference to academic leadership, mentoring, research, and community involvement. His past books, Science and Technology in a Multicultural World (Columbia University Press, 1995) and Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction (New York University Press, 1997), to name but two, reveal his deep-set analyses of science and technology in various social settings and his appeal to a range of scholars working to provide more thorough research on similar topics. In keeping with this, his newest book, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry, at once brings together research in social movements and social movement theory with STS and offers a possible blueprint for future research about science, technology, and society. The back cover says it “explores the interaction of grassroots environmental action and mainstream industry and offers a conceptual framework for understanding it.” But that’s sort of a dense summary, so we decided to talk more about it.
This is the fifth in our series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. (See them all here.) What follows is part one of a three-part conversation about Alternative Pathways. We encourage you to post questions or comments for Professor Hess and other readers.
THE WORLD’S FAIR: The book is about alternative pathways in science and industry, so I suppose the first question is, what are mainstream pathways?
DAVID HESS: You could think about science and industry as composed of fields in Bourdieu’s sense, where there are dominant and nondominant networks. In scientific research fields the mainstream pathways are the networks of researchers who control the major departments that reproduce the field by editing the journals, producing the graduate students, winning the most grants and awards, and running the academic societies. Of course the networks are very porous, and it is not always possible to characterize research fields in this way, but it is a helpful way of thinking about science, especially for the issues that I want to address. In industrial fields the mainstream pathways are the technologies and products put on the market by the leading corporations in each field.
TWF: Realizing that this question likely is best answered by saying, ‘well, there’s this whole new book about that,’ I’ll still ask: and how, more or less, do alternative pathways differ?
DH: In research fields the alternative pathways represent disagreements over methods, conceptual frameworks, and/or problem areas to be investigated. Because the research fields are aligned to varying degrees with the goals of government and industry, the alternative pathways can develop from ties to social movements. In industry the alternative pathways include what I call the industrial opposition movements, such as the antinuclear energy movement, and technology- and product-oriented movements, such as the renewable energy movement. Over time the pro-alternative technology movements tend to carve out new markets and become absorbed into the dominant industries.
TWF: Why do we need alternative pathways in science and industry anyway?
DH: They emerge when there are differences over which agendas and problem areas best match a broad public interest. Clearly, everyone will try to frame their research and new technologies as matching a broad public interest, but the alternatives emerge when the dominant directions of research fields and industries lose credibility.
TWF: And do we need to train scientists and engineers to seek them out? Or do we need new professional structures (new kinds of companies, new forms of government agencies, new NGOs, et al.) to make these alternative pathways feasible?
DH: Some of the alternative pathways in science get government funding, such as research on complementary and alternative medicine, organic food and agriculture, green chemistry, and solar energy. However, often the research budgets are only a small percentage of the budgets for the broader research area, and the research networks dedicated to the fields are generally marginalized. So it would be possible to increase government funding in targeted areas to make them more attractive. In the industrial fields, another strategy for innovators of alternative technologies and products has been to recruit countervailing industries to provide funding, and I go into some cases where innovators who have received a poor reception from the target industry have received some support from a related industry.
TWF: This is about industry and activism, and saying that is but to repeat part of your answers above, but…can scientists and engineers maintain professional credibility if they get tagged with an activist label?
DH: You’re right to assume that members of the dominant networks of a research field may seek to undermine the credibility of challengers, and that there are various ways to manage the credibility struggles that can emerge. Kelly Moore [in her forthcoming Disrupting Science, and elsewhere, as readers will find out in a forthcoming author-meets-bloggers forum] suggests that by forming public interest science organizations scientists can maintain credibility while also engaging public interest issues that involve research programs outside the mainstream. Barbara Allen [Director of STS at Virginia Tech's Capital Region Campus in Northern Virginia] has also explored some of the strategies and the trade-offs that scientists face individually. One strategy is to become an activist scientist and play out controversies in the media, with the hope that the publicity will lead to more research. Another approach is to distance oneself from activist groups and publish research for a peer-reviewed audience. My suggestion is also to show how innovation— the creation of new technologies and products— can be one platform for activist politics. This strategy is fraught with the potential for cooptation, as I discuss, but it should be recognized as part of the general field of social change politics.
Author-meets-bloggers I: Michael Egan, on Barry Commoner, science, and environmentalism.
Author-meets-bloggers II: Cyrus Mody on nanotechnology, ethics, and policy.
Author-meets-bloggers III: Saul Halfon on population policy, demographic science, and women’s empowerment.
Author-meets-bloggers IV: Kevin Marsh on wilderness, forestry policy, and environmental politics.
Future featured authors will include Lizzie Grossman (independent journalist), Hannah Landecker (Rice U.), Shobita Parthasarathy (U. Michigan), Aaron Sachs (Cornell U.), Kelly Moore (U. Cincinnati), and numerous others.