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A Newbie’s Perspective on the 4S Annual Meeting

Annemarie Hofer

22 January, 2018

As 2018 begins, I am reflecting on the past year. One of the most influential events definitely was the 4S Annual Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. Being my very first ‘face to face’ contact with STS, it did not only give new input to my studies, but rather my perception of science itself.Photograph of a cup of coffee, 4S 2017 program, and conference badge

Back home in Vienna, still enthusiastic (and jetlagged), explaining to my friends and family what STS is turned out to be more difficult than imagined. One specific example, which – in my opinion – sums up the idea behind STS, proved to be very helpful: the research undertaken by Mark Vardy, a panellist at the conference.

For his recent project, Vardy spent several weeks at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike the other scholars at NSIDC, he didn’t observe the changing sea ice, but rather the scientists themselves. Through those insights gained during this fieldwork, he then analysed how the work undertaken by the NSIDC influenced the societal conception and political actions concerning climate change.

This example seems to demonstrate the concept of STS quite well: a sociologist trying to understand underlying processes of complex systems by working with natural scientists who are observing changes influenced by complex societal actions.

Mark Vardy clearly isn’t the only one interested in STS. More than 1,500 people from over 15 different fields of expertise in combination with almost 100 different events per day made this meeting a buzzing place of ideas, theories and controversies. The topics ranged from biomedicine and -technology, to gender, sexuality and feminism, from science communication and citizen science to computing and media technology.

As my own ‘scientific upbringing’ took place within natural science, climate change and more recently citizen science and the law, panels revolving around those topics were of special interest to me—for example, the talk by MIT’s Amanda Giang on ‘Engaging, Empowering, Enacting Community in Environmental Health Research’, where she focused on how engagement and research activities influence communities within different contexts. The most important question was the one about who defined “impacted communities” and the ramifications of this definition.

Norika Hara from Indiana University on the other hand already had her community narrowed down: Reddit users. Her panel on ‘Scientists’ Use of Reddit as Science Communication’ focused on AMAs (Ask Me Anything), threads moderated by professional scientists on r/science. Considering Reddit as a platform for direct science communication brings a new perspective to science communication as a whole. Not only the recipients interests were observed, but also those of the communicating scientists.

Another view on engagement could be found in the two panels held by my supervisor, Prof. Iris Eisenberger from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, together with  Melanie Dulong de Rosnay, ISCC CNRS Paris Sorbonne and Shun-Ling Chen, Institutum Iurisprudentiae, Academia Sinica. The panels presented a variety of projects, which all in some way focused on different forms of engagement within citizen science projects.

The variety of those projects could not have been greater. There was a talk on identifying mushrooms in the forests of Norway with the help of senior citizens and one on doing the same, but this time with kids in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other projects focused on learning outcomes gained through community wireless networks in Greece, France and Germany or the visualisation of thermal water pollution in exposed communities. Another study was undertaken while climbing the Peruvian Andes to monitor black carbon debris.

Despite the variety of projects and different research approaches one topic remained crucial to every discussion: the scientific framing of citizen science. One criticism frequently levied at citizen science projects is their seeming lack of scientific legitimacy. Panelists emphasized that citizen science projects should take this concern seriously, not only because of reputational issues, but also to improve self-reflection within the citizen science community. Another frequently raised concern was that the term ‘citizen science’ was merely used to improve funding chances, as it seems to guarantee public involvement in sciencephotograph f boston. Indeed, this phenomenon may explain the recent upsurge of citizen science projects in some fields.

Other panels I attended took me outside of my known comfort zone by challenging my perceptions of ‘traditional’ science. For example through visiting a panel trying to establish a connection between the practice of wire bending in Trinidad and Tobago, big wave surfing and hackathons organized by public education. One of my favourites was the enthusiastic explanation of secret USSR trade policies, which were so secret that they were never applied!

Scientific conferences are a great place to meet new people. Scholars and students from all over the world flocked to Boston to exchange ideas, thoughts and concerns. Nevertheless, this international diversity was overshadowed by the travel ban imposed by the U.S. president. 4S’s reaction was a Welcome Demonstration at Logan Airport, organised by the ad hoc ‘Committee in Support of non-US Travelers to 4S 2017’. Also, the Trump administration and its possible impact on scientific research were a recurring subject throughout the meeting.

The opening Presidential Plenary for example was titled ‘Interrogating ‘the Threat’’. ‘The Threat’ was the seemingly looming apocalypse, not only embodied by Mr. Trump, but also by nuclear conflicts and climate change. Kim TallBear shared her opinion from the indigenous point of view, framing the Trump administration as ‘the Threat’ and referring to it as ‘occupation.’ She explained that indigenous people have been living in a post-apocalyptic world since the time that settlers arrived. Recent political developments were only a sign of the ongoing of their post-apocalyptical lives. Her passionate speech sparked the most twitter-traffic via the #4s2017 hashtag that evening.

The conference was an exciting experience. I learned about new theories, new opinions, new techniques and met funny and intelligent people. I had conversations with international researchers and broadened my view of science and technology studies. Nevertheless, after 4 days of panels, workshops and copious amounts of coffee, I was glad to spend a few more relaxed days exploring the Boston area. Even today there are still many thoughts and ideas swirling around my head, trying to find a way into future research. I am very grateful to BOKU University for giving me the opportunity to participate in this extraordinary meeting.

Annemarie Hofer is a student assistant at the Institute of Law at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna (BOKU). She studies Environment and Bio-Resources Management and is currently finishing her thesis on privacy within citizen science.

Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.