Strategic Research Orientations

The Strategic Research Orientations (SROs) complete the set of activities and tools set up since the creation of the IFRIS.

The SROs correspond to a new stage in the scientific construction of the IFRIS. By defining four strategic research themes for the next few years, they clarify the IFRIS’s position on the global scientific and academic scene.

Before presenting these SROs, it is worth outlining the characteristics common to all these research themes:

  • IFRIS’ research, based on contributions to the study of science and technology over the past 30 years, is focused essentially on the analysis of the roles and modalities of knowledge production in collective action, be it public or political. This pertains not only to scientific knowledge but also to technical knowledge, know-how, forms of reasoning, and technical objects and devices.
  • Various research approaches are adopted, in which the knowledge-power nexus is analysed in different ways: discursive tools or regimes; forms of government or regulation; technical and material devices; and the relevant actors’ practices. The articulation between these different approaches is also analysed.
  • To encourage different ways of addressing these questions, the IFRIS:
    1. undertakes analyses on various spatial and temporal scales, and studies the articulation between them;
    2. adopts a wide range of analytical approaches, from critical analysis to action research. This explains why it grants so much importance to the comparison between various social sciences and between the social and the natural sciences, as well as to the need for a reflexive analysis of the different forms of contribution by the social sciences to action;
    3. develops tools for the social sciences (CorText Platform and Indicators Pole), with the objective of transcending the opposition between quantitative and qualitative analysis. The activities developed in the framework of the SROs will be able to benefit from these tools.

By defining four SROs, the aim of the IFRIS is not to divide up the research field. On the contrary, the Institute considers that the exploration of questions at the interface between the main themes identified is essential. Within the framework of the SROs, the IFRIS is launching a call for applications for post-doctoral grants (see Call). A call for proposals for complementary activities will then be launched: organisation of international conferences, carrying out state of the art reviews, seminars, etc.


SRO-1: Knowledge production regimes

The transformations of scientific spaces, regulatory agencies, international institutions and corporate R&D calls for an analysis in terms of regimes of knowledge production, a concept born out of SITES epistemic foundations. Knowledge, both lay and scientific, and expertise play a central role in the regulation of economic activities and this mobilisation of scientific knowledge makes more difficult to identify the boundaries between academic research and regulatory science, open science and scientific expertise, between public and private research. To expand, this SRO requires focusing on the complex interweaving of practices, organizational features and institutionalisation processes.

Topic 1. Reconfigurations of the frontiers of research

The analysis of research activities inside our regime of knowledge production has traditionally included research institutions, firms and industrial R&D. We need to include institutions that have been growing since the 1970s (representatives of corporate industry, regulatory agencies, standard-setting agencies, NGOs, think tanks, international organizations). These knowledge intensive organizations (KIO) need to be studied in order to understand how they articulate knowledge production with the creation of norms and standards in the long run. More research on firms and large corporations is needed to capture their growing influence, as well as the growth of corporate R&D units and public research centres in the world. Moreover, it is important to analyse how firms take part in the framing of regulation through their R&D strategies and out-sourced research activities, through their setting-up of global value chains, increasing the role of outsourced providers as knowledge producers.

Topic 2. The production of truth in public spaces

The production of scientific and technical knowledge plays a social and political role in areas that reflect important socio-economic stakes (e.g. chemical and pharmaceutical industry, agriculture, manufacturing, construction, or automobile industry). The way new knowledge is produced, the way already existing knowledge can be claimed without producing new knowledge (as can be the case in toxicology) supposes an in-depth understanding of the logic of knowledge production, and its integration into regulatory systems. The same logic produces ignorance since certain actors intend to shape government standards or policy frameworks. Moreover, knowledge production shapes also the environments, the systems, the frameworks within which knowledge is produced, transformation the way science relates to society. Our research needs to focus upon these spaces of intermediation between scientists, experts, NGOs, firms, administrators and politicians, where claims, issues, controversies, and more generally legitimating processes are taking place.

Topic 3. Governing by measurement

The aim of this topic is to examine how measurement, metrics and instruments are used in the valuation, regulation and steering of public action. As was, since long ago, studied in the case of risk assessment, where measurement of risk was an instrument of governance of risk issues in many sectors (insurance, health policy), it would be of interest to examine how metrics are used for sectorial policies (research, health, natural resources, education, etc.). The objective is here to analyse the contribution of the scientific sphere to the construction of these instruments, the use and emergence of new frameworks, and the changing nature of risk-measuring instruments in different institutions, as well as metrics used in monitoring and control of policies (public bodies, regulatory agencies, corporations and private audit companies, International Organisation for Standardisation, NGOs). Metrics (indicators, rankings, management instruments) are particularly active when promoting new research institutions, when modifying management practices, or when participating to struggles for legitimate knowledge production. Science granting councils, foundations, public and private partnerships, universities and research organizations are under the scrutiny imposed by these new metrics, indicators and quantitative objective. Empirical work is needed on the production and uses of these indicators and measures and the way they create or regulate markets, and on how scientific and technical knowledge participates in these economic regulations.

Topics 4. Mobilisations and collective action in knowledge production

Beyond academic knowledge production, this topic intends to address the many forms of knowledge production, in less legitimate spaces of knowledge production, in particularly in relation to the constitution of “commons” (e.g. environmental issues, biodiversity or digital technologies). The focus will be placed on actors that carry claims emanating from what is considered peripheral knowledge, and how these claims enter into the more constituted (scientific) knowledge, or how these claims modify the norms that rule the circulation of products (e.g. pharmaceuticals, plants, etc.). Many areas of interest appear under this topic: the development of participatory research, citizen sciences, crowdsourcing and the role of distributed infrastructures of data collection. Also, experiences of claiming ownership of specific plants, live material, objects used by some industry are common examples in developing countries. This topic covers a massive interrogation for the future as these new forms of collective claims interrogate very deeply the relationships between science and society. It relates to many other topics (e.g. the valuation of common goods or the valuation of environmental resources). The promotion of this topic reflects the consistent involvement of LabEx SITES into the development and improvement of relationships between science and society.


SRO-2: Politics of innovation

While the cross fecundation of Innovation Studies and Science and Technology Studies has been an achievement of LabEx SITES, further research is needed to address the complex issue of re-thinking innovation theories in the context of the Anthropocene. There continues to be a pressing need for research concerning the knowledge-intensive industries, on learning processes in innovation, on studying the transformation of technologies, the blend of the new and the old technologies. None of this is original, but we do need more case studies and historical analysis. Moreover, the LabEx initiated a series of studies on new socio-technical domains like biotechnologies and nanotechnologies and how actors participate in the definition of the new boundaries of disciplines, norms, practices that are mobilised in construction the new activities, knowledge claims, new technologies and their uses. Additionally, digital technologies pose major challenges on how our analysis can account for distributed and decentralized activities based on social interactivity, networking, but also participation and inclusiveness. The encounter of transformative policies of innovation and of the large array of explorations through “practices-based” and “niches-driven innovation” is a key scientific challenge. The LabEx had previously mentioned “responsible innovation” as a strategic thematic, but was less interested in the scaling-up phase. How is this socio-technical regime institutionalised? What are the policy mechanism and the norms at work? How do market infrastructures, standards and regimes of value adapt to these alternative innovations?

Topic 1. Transformative innovation policies

This topic aims at fostering investigations into the way discourses and practices of actors lead to the renewal and expansion of innovation models, not only from the point of view of emerging collectives but also the practices of dominant actors. Such an account is needed to understand how innovation is matter of sub-politics, in sectors and professions as well as in institutions and governmental bodies. This topic favours research projects that contribute to the frameworks used for the evaluation of these policies, notably by proposing characterisation and steering tools and indicators. The plurality of forms of innovation and of evaluation should be accounted in empirical studies to could contribute to renew the theories of innovation within the sustainable transition analytical framework.

Topic 2. The reconfiguration of socio-technical regimes

The studies of innovation processes have focused either on the long run socio-historical accounts of large socio-technical systems, or on more localized and short-term studies of the emergence of niche technologies, of competitive advantage, and their related success or failure. This topic calls for research that targets mid-range studies of what could be labelled generalisation processes (i.e. all the processes that occurs after the introduction of a new socio-technical system, a regularly unexplained chasm of innovation studies). Empirical studies of these reconfigurations should reveal knowledge infrastructures, management of organizations and professional tensions at work as well as brokerage practices and other intermediation processes.

Topic 3. The discontinuation of socio-technical regimes

This is another field of enquiry to come out of the dialectic approach opposing dominant design and incremental innovation. The way users of innovations are attached to a particular techno-economic regime, and politics involved in detaching from it, is largely under-studied. Market infrastructures and the associated creation of values need to be empirically studied and theorized. This is particularly true of new forms of social and solidarity economy that challenges the usual assumptions in a market economy. In other cases, inside the market economy, discontinuation is part of the changes that innovation is supposed to introduce: this was the case of “responsible innovation” which was supposed to be a political challenge to business management of innovation. Fieldwork is encouraged on the political nature of the innovation process and directionality of innovation policies.

Topic 4. The regime of values of innovation

This topic opens the floor to critical studies of innovation and to broader conceptions of innovation, taking into account social justice, the reduction of inequalities, sustainability and the improvement of democracy. By focusing on innovations that are not only technological but also social, organizational, political; not only exclusive and proprietary but also based on commons and public goods. These processes need to be analysed from different perspectives, beyond the competitive framework. These approaches are essential to understand profound changes when the regimes of value of innovation suppose transformations about the living (whether it concerns the environment, the biology or the body and health of individuals), with of course the heavy question of property rights and in the grammar of life itself, with philosophical and ethical issues that the LabEx intends to explore.


SRO-3: Governing global issues

This SRO seeks to expand our interests beyond the previous research on the negotiations on Climate Change, to examine how other major global issues will be governed. It is also a domain of great interest, and the LabEx has developed already a wide series of collaborations. The ways these global issues (such as climate change, energy transitions, biodiversity loss and agriculture ecologisation, global health, interna­tional migra­tions, education) are defined and governed is a key issue for the LabEx. Moreover, there is ground for comparative work, between for example the way these processes are taking place in health and environmental issues, or in different countries. Moreover, more theorising is needed about the distribution of knowledge across different countries, in the light of the growth of research organisations in developing countries, the emergence of numerous new national research funding, the appearance of massive philanthropic funds (in particular, bit not exclusively, in health), and the active role of international organizations. The interest in the government of global issues concerns also metropolitan areas in their quest for sustainability transitions —a main thematic for the I-SITE FUTURE.

Topics 1. The constitutive heterogeneity of global issues

The production of new knowledge and techniques involved in defining “global issues” is distributed differently in different disciplines or scientific fields. A broad range of actors composes the social world of “global governance”. Similarly, the construction of scientific and instrumental accounts of global issues relies on specific instruments and models shape their systems of accountability: decentralized measurement devices and IoT sensors, local model of resources, aggregative transnational models, indicators, scenarios, forecasting techniques schemes. Policies also are defined globally, and science is strongly mobilised in justifying the policies. In health issues, on education, on managing natural resources, on human migrations, on education, global issues are shaped through these assemblages include regulatory powers, national and international authorities, but also enterprises, stakeholders, funders and researchers. How can these heterogeneous assemblages survive for long periods, and continue to feed the debates about these issues? How do they participate in the public debates, bring the proofs of their claims, choose specific narratives and engage in particular types of activities? This is an important research question, and need to be examined through discursive, ontological and normative constructions that make up these heterogeneous entities.

Topic 2. Down-scaling and up-scaling global issues

What is called a “global issue” has agency and structure at the “local level”. A large variety of social and political processes need to be examined in order to understand how the global is “localized”: the experiences of the populations impacted by these global issues, the tensions and resistance that arise after the implementation of policies led by transnational organisations, NGOs or companies, the competition between governments on environmental issues or other global specific issues, the proliferation of local conflicts and concerns. But globalised issued do not only come from the top, or the international organisation, but also through other mechanisms such as the global circulation of knowledge, of persons and in particular the highly-skilled, and the circulation of products, e.g. pharmaceuticals, mobile devices… Field research at the local level is necessary to understand this complexity due to the variations in scale. What is global might no translate in local social activity, or on the contrary the local can only be legitimised by the global. In any case we always gain to observe, re-build and re-think, “from below”, the causality of the “global level”.

Topic 3. Distributed expertise and the geopolitics of global issues

Expertise on global issues is distributed globally, on different locations, unevenly, organized through large scale international scientific networks and numerous disciplines and interests. Information, data, objects, knowledge, people circulate along these networks in order to accumulate and compare evidence. Moreover, these scientific networks are involved in geopolitical discourses on hegemonies and tensions about resource management. The way these collaborative networks function is a classic of STS studies, but the way they relate to developmental issues or to the political agenda is a necessity. Moreover, the distribution of knowledge production is strongly unequal worldwide and global networks do need local institutional anchors to work properly. Does the expertise circulate only along these networks? Are these large consortia vulnerable to political action? Do they influence national governments or do they act through other global actors? Among the many new actors acting globally, the large philanthropic foundations, which not only provide funds but also influence governance.

Topic 4. The construction of the publics and their power

The politics of defining global issues raises important questions in a democratic order: at what political level are these issues to be defined and by whom? What should be the scale for the data collection? The construction of informed and evidence-based policies relating to global issues consists also in the construction of publics. But alternatively, normative action of public entities, rules, policies and the State about legitimate knowledge are now often challenged by social and organized mobilisations. The constitution of international expertise, policies and the relation they have with the society should be an interesting topic for research. It relates to the definition of research and innovation policies at the global scale, and scientific literacy.


SRO-4: Forecasts, futures and socio-technical promises: back to the future

Since the 19th century, the mode of economic development with its endless quest for growth is rooted in the promise of achieving better futures and greater welfare for nations. The mutually constitutive relationship between current techno-scientific activities and promising futures has thereafter been put into question. Visions of the collapse of civilisations, discourses about the risks and inequalities brought about by sciences and technologies, have all but casted doubt on these promises and expectations. The relationships between science and technology on the one hand, and the construction of futures on the other hand, is thus characterized by its ambivalence, and a mix of trust and contention. SITES intends to support research into the variety of ways in which visions of the future are used to legitimize techno-scientific and economic activities, across time and space.

Topic 1. The futures of the pasts

The construction of futures is not the preserve area of contemporary societies. History is of great use in documenting the relationship of past societies to their futures, and thus enables denaturalizing anticipatory discourses. Such “futures of the past” can first be examined through an investigation of future-claim in expert knowledge (futurology, planning, foresight). A second way is to pay attention to how the environmental, health, social or democratic concerns were raised to oppose technical progress in the past, particularly since the advent of industrial capitalism. Finally, a third approach is to look at the dynamics of renewal or at the locking-in of pathways of technoscientific development. Some promises quickly reveal their perishable character, while others are more durable, resistant to historical and political changes as well as to the production of new knowledge.

Topic 2. Modelling, anticipation, government

A range of anticipatory techniques, involving computational models, numerical simulation technologies, and analysis of big data by algorithms, now enables to foretell events. Prediction has become an area of technological investment and a scientific domain. It is becoming applied to evermore issues and integrated by evermore organizations. This expansion of anticipation through quantification remains to be studied. In particular, it should be contrasted with the decline of collective imagination, and the decreasing recourse to foresight, to the benefits of forecasting. While predictive and anticipatory techniques may be approached as technologies of government, the digitalisation of futures also affects epistemic cultures in many disciplines that are concerned by data sciences. What the open science and open data movements achieve in this regard is also at stake.

Topic 3. The futures: territories of promise and innovation

Promissory discourses surrounding technoscientific developments and emerging technologies seem to enjoy a high level of credibility in current societies, despite the failure to deliver past promises. Under this topic, we suggest investigating the regime of promissory innovation is a useful research line. The concept of technoscientific promise can be applied to new areas of technological development, notably to the “Digital Age”, or to the idea of “Smart Cities” to reveal the history of promises and their mutation. It is worthwhile to investigate the politics of technoscientific promises, namely the unequal distribution of “power to participate”. Finally, the modes of enunciation and enactment of promises pertaining to alternative models of innovation, such as social, interactive or sustainable innovation, including innovation surging from the Do-it-Yourself movement broadly remains to be to be analyzed, as well as their relationships to industrialisation processes.

Topic 4. Crises, disasters and ruins

Futures also take the form of discourses about crisis, disasters, collapse or ruin. The grammars and knowledge by which dystopic futures take form and are socialized can be studied. The studies of crisis management and of the aftermath of disasters are important entry-points for such investigation. This topic also calls for analyzing the mechanisms by which certain problems get constituted, and then governed as “crises” turning them into political resources for different institutions and interests. Finally, the investigation on dystopic futures take us toward the study of the ways in which we learn to live in the ruins of capitalism, meaning the forms of lives, knowledge and politics that emerge in the midst of yesterday’s and today’s global damages, as well as on the emerging, material culture of adapting to the worst, or on disasters as life experience involving renunciations, inequalities and pragmatic imperatives.