The Epinet Project

At present there exists a great diversity for assessing the impacts of science and technology on society and the environment. This project explores new ways for bringing more of these methodologies into concert with each other, as well as with the concerns of innovators, policy makers and citizens.

EPINET introduces the concept of epistemic networks as a way of conceptualizing complex developments within emerging fields of sociotechnical innovation. It establishes a weak or "soft" framework within which the plurality of different assessment practices can be explored in a concerted and holistic manner. EPINET uses this concept to study four cases:

  1. Wearable sensors for activity and physiological monitoring »
  2. Cognitive technical systems (mainly robotics) »
  3. Synthetic/ in-vitro meat »
  4. Smart grids for power supply »

EPINET is an EU funded project under the seventh framework program, coordinated by the Centre for the studies of the sciences and humanities, University of Bergen.

Scientific Background

During the last 30-40 years a number of different assessment methods have been developed and implemented on national, international and EU levels to deal with the societal and environmental implications of new sciences and technologies. Although much has been achieved in fields such as technology assessment, ELSA studies and public participation these are also characterised by great diversity and a plurality of methods. Although diversity may be a resource it can also turn out a decisive hindrance to communication and action for principal end users, such as policy makers or publics. In part, the diversity of these fields comes from the fact that different forms of assessments are undertaken for a number of different purposes. To determine risk or toxicity levels will not necessarily increase public debate; public perception, debate and precautionary approaches to risk assessment may be perceived as obstacles to innovation, and so on. Where real underlying conflict of interest exists, it might be better to spell out the underlying values and presuppositions without seeking further consensus. However, differences of perception may also be due to (differing) values and epistemologies built into assessment practices and methods themselves. Especially here there is potential for improvement. We use the term epistemic network to refer to three levels of analysis and practice:

  • The first denotes contexts of innovation, denoting complex and intersecting relations of professionals, technologies, citizens, users, entrepreneurs, business and policy-makers forming new constellations of collaboration, experimentation and reflection to meet societal challenges.
  • The second relates to political levels of governance. These may try to accommodate innovation to meet so-called grand societal challenges, such as the goals set out in the Europe 2020 Strategy, but also with addressing concerns of publics and citizens.
  • The third level relates to the context of assessment, i.e. the activities of people working on the interfaces of different scientific disciplines and policy making in order to better assess and evaluate the implications of new and emerging technologies. It is the potential for tighter integration between three main fields of practice, i.e. contexts of innovation, governance and contexts of assessment, which serves as the analytic point of departure as well as the critical (regulative and normative) goal for EPINET.

The notion of epistemic communities emerged within the academic field of international relations (Haas 1992). EPINET proceeds to expand on conventional notions of knowledge and expertise by situating it as practice-based and locally contingent (Polanyi 1958), as also identified in the “Practice Turn” in Science and Technology Studies (e.g., Schatzki et al., 2001). EPINET also builds on and expands the notion of epistemic communities into that of epistemic networks by shifting the focus from epistemic and normative commitments of expert communities to networks forming as the result of new imperatives for S&T development as outlined in EU policy frameworks such as the Horizon2020 initiative. In principle, therefore, anybody responding to or contesting a grand societal challenge by engaging in innovation activities together with others is a potential member of an epistemic network. Such networks emerge on the intersections of communities traditionally separated as “expert” and “lay” knowledge. On that account, common experiences, insights, knowledge and creativity have to be included as relevant forms of expertise. The same, of course, goes for knowledge and normative commitments held by user-based communities, such as civil society organisations and other NGOs, patient organisations, professional organisations or labour unions. One shift of focus which we explore, but which has been recognised neither in the academic analysis nor practice of technology assessment, is to move from the implied assumption that methodological elaboration will be sufficient to encompass all the salient factors, to the idea that some of the issues here require appropriate carefully designed institutional changes.

The project runs through three main stages of development:

  • Initial assessment (months 1-12):
    The first stage corresponds to a general mapping of methodologies, networks and policy issues, including intrinsic values, framing premises and purposes shaping methodologies and procedures. Two work packages (WPs 1 and 2) will work on cross-cutting (conceptual and disciplinary) perspectives, investigating the potentials and limitations of methodologies, disciplines as well as central policy concepts dealing with grand societal challenges. At the same time, and in coordination with WPs 1 and 2, work will start on the specific cases (WPs 3-6). Here, each case will be studied in accordance with dominant TA methodologies whereas at the same time focusing specifically on epistemic networks, grand societal challenges and the policy concepts meant to govern them. Hence, this stage will also serve as a general mapping, both of the context of innovation (R&D) as well as the context of assessment (the different methodologies and their bearings on the cases).
  • Embedding assessments (months 13-24):
    The second stage expands initial assessments by bringing them into interaction with different epistemic networks; scenario development activities will bring together broad groups of thinkers and practitioners to explore pressing policy issues through two workshops. The workshops enables the co-creation of main issues on the intersections of policy and innovation, research and development and as such enables industrial players to engage in reflexive learning with diverse experts doing assessments of the particular cases. In order to bridge the institutional, philosophical, professional and cultural perspectives that are relevant to thinking systematically about the prospects of emerging technologies, the dialogue and research leading to scenarios is at once open ended and highly structured.
  • Comparison and integration (months 25-36):
    The final stage will compare, analyse and work out the general implications of the project. Here, the results from the implications workshop will be distributed through the project’s channels as well as attendant publications describing the process and outcomes to public and academic audiences. The feedback from participants and end users will be analysed along with preceding results from all work packages: first of all, for each case this concerns the results gained through the distinct methodologies; in a next step, this must also be placed in relation to the results from the cross-cutting WPs 1 and 2. Taken together, results will be used to draw conclusions and for recommendations for assessment practitioners, policy makers and other end users and interested parties.