The normalisation of scientific progress, by Calum Kennedy

-“Hey, have you heard about the new Samsung Galaxy, it’s meant to be even sexier than the iPhone!”

– “Damn, I only just got the iPhone 6”.

-“Well, on the bright side you could get the Apple watch to go with it.”

-“But what about the new android series?”

This sort of conversation is completely normal to me. Any discussion of new science or technology becomes a series of segues into other announcements or discoveries. It has gotten to the point where scientific and technological change is now ubiquitous with modern life.

Change in this context is usually taken as a good thing. The announcement for a new medical treatment means that more people (possibly you) can live longer lives with more opportunities, new telescopes or other astronomical exploratory equipment can result in a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, and more efficient renewable technologies provide hope for a zero carbon future.  However, there are also negative reactions. People voice their displeasure at having their private emails and online activities read and monitored by new and complex computer systems, we worry about the effect of new and expensive technologies on financial inequality, and we balk at the development of new and powerful military applications.

No matter how we react to novelty though, it still remains that we expect it. The constancy of scientific ‘progress’ in western culture is so complete that novelty has become normalised.

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2015 Marie Jahoda Lecture: Promises in the land of scientific uncertainty. By Simon Hazelwood

In an age in which ‘impact’ is becoming the yardstick by which we measure research success, Professor Helga Nowotny founding member and former president of the European Research Council, has hadNovum-Organum-frontispiece more than most. A prolific and influential researcher in the field of Social Studies of Science, she is perhaps best know for her contribution to the concept of ‘Mode 2’ knowledge production.

It was fitting, then, that Professor Nowotny was chosen to deliver the 2015 Marie Jahoda Annual Lecture, SPRU’s annual lecture to celebrate the contributions of one of the department’s most prominent former researchers.

The lecture was based around the concept of promises. Citing the political theorist Hannah Arendt, Professor Nowotny explained that promises are a mechanism for reducing the unknown, creating reliability and predictability in the face of uncertainty. In fact, promises are particularly relevant in the field of scientific research, which Nowotny describes as ‘an institutionalised space for bringing futures into the present’.

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