Taxonomy at a crossroads
Department of Sociology, County College South, Lancaster University, LA1 4YD, UK
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Methodology - Consortium Building

STS scholars have recently become particularly interested in scientific innovation and the project ‘Taxonomy at a Crossroads’ draws upon the experience of a team of social scientists and STS scholars (Duret et al 2000), who, working together with a team of industrial innovators in France, developed a methodology designed to set up a working dialogue between the social scientists and the industrial innovators in order to bring science studies insights to bear in situations of scientific innovation. Their aim in doing this was to add value to the learning undergone by both teams in the process of innovation.

Duret et al.’s methodology was based on observations about how innovations have come about and been handled in the past. Among these observations was the idea that innovators often do not think about the process of the innovation, nor do they learn from it. Commonly, much effort is put into the innovation and it either succeeds or fails. Very little is learnt about the state of the world imagined through the innovation. Very little is learned about the innovation’s trajectory and how it could have been improved. The STS scholars highlighted a number of pitfalls as common threats to scientific innovatory processes. These included the following:

i)The tendency to focus exclusively on technical developments, neglecting the importance of social, cultural and economic factors;
ii)The tendency to discard opposing views as non-rational;
iii) The tendency to confine tests, trials and debates to a small circle of those already involved.

The ‘Taxonomy at a Crossroads’ researchers believe that discussion of these tendencies could be relevant to Bar-coding and CBOL when characterised as an innovatory process.

The creation of dialogue

Our plan is to use the three possible pitfalls highlighted (i., ii., iii., above) as a tool for the creation of dialogue with selected key CBOL players. Together with CBOL and regional partners, we will work towards explicitly bringing the social, political and economic dimensions of the ‘barcoding of life’ initiative into discussion. The aim in doing this is to place the unfolding development of this science within a wider conceptual frame for debate by those involved. In our project proposal, and in the project’s general information document, we refer to this type of dialogue as a ‘consortium building’ methodology. This is because it brings together social scientific and natural scientific thinking on the process of innovation underway. We hope that such two-way dialogue will work to enable the ‘barcoding of life’ initiative and the social scientists to think about scientific, public and policy expectations and needs alike.

The following are some of the kinds of questions that we would raise in dialogue with CBOL through the methodology pioneered by Duret et al..

  1. To what extent do/can CBOL’s working groups focus upon social/economic/infrastructural/political issues in parallel with the scientific and technological needs of barcoding?
  1. Where/by whom should the definition and practice of barcoding science take place?
  2. What is the taken-for-granted meaning of (biodiversity, or other) ‘policy’ or ‘policy-relevance’?
  3. Can views which question or even oppose ‘barcoding’ be incorporated within CBOL?
  4. How is the ‘barcoding of life’ initiative presented to different audiences? At what point, and how, is it presented as having achieved closure?

The researchers recognise that these are challenging questions. However we offer them in a spirit of openness in the collaboration between social and natural sciences. These are the kinds of question that STS has found salient to creating open, inclusive, and ‘learning’ innovatory trajectories in science. They are also the kinds of question relevant to attempts to create stronger and mutually positive bridges between science and society. The researchers have considerable experience in positioning these kinds of questions in open, non-threatening ways, for the purpose of creating dialogues and reflection. Our aim is to do this in full consultation with CBOL, hence this briefing.

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