In this literature review, Hessels and Lente attempt to identify a promising approach to studying changes in science systems by examining how Mode 2 knowledge production—the most famous theoretical account of science system changes—compares with alternative theories and how it has been received by scholars. Hessels and Lante explain that Mode 2 is not only the most widely accepted theory on science system changes, but is also notable for it’s breadth.
Mode 2 knowledge production is characterized by five attributes, which Hessels and Lente break down as diagnosing seven changes in science system characteristics—more than is addressed by any of the alternative theories examined. And only one of the alternative theories diagnoses a characteristic change not also covered by Mode 2. They do not say this breadth necessarily speaks to the strength of Mode 2. But it would seem to contribute to its utility in identifying the most likely claims for science system changes.
Hessel and Lente’s effort to identify which Mode 2 diagnosed changes are most likely is a bit quixotic. The empirical evidence ranges from very little to zero. With little empirical evidence, they use a method of evaluation you may or may not put much stock in depending on your faith in theorizing scholars as a collective brain. Their evaluation has two parts. Part one compares Mode 2 with alternative theories looking for agreement. Here, the authors conclude two Mode 2 diagnosed changes are likely. The first is a change in the orientation of research agendas toward relevance and applicability in terms of innovation and policy. The second is a change towards more interactions between science and other social actors such as government and industry.
I don’t find this way of determining the most likely diagnosed changes particularly convincing. They also point out that these two claims happen to pretty much be the only claims around which there a few bits of empirical evidence. So perhaps theoretical attention has gravitated around what we can measure, rather than what is most likely true.
In the second step of their evaluation, they synthesize and weigh in on scholarly critiques of Mode 2. Here they conclude the biggest flaw in Mode 2, as Gibbons et al have conceptualized it, is the idea that Mode 2 attributes necessarily correlate. While Gibbons et al depict the attributes as part of a coherent set representing a newly emerging type of knowledge production, Hessel and Lente argue the attributes more likely represent separate trends. On a related point, they also argue Gibbons et al tell an artificially linear story about Mode 2 and how it relates to a traditional mode of knowledge production (referred to by Gibbons et al as Mode 1).
I find this point particularly convincing with respect to the attributes Gibbons et al describe as “knowledge produced in the context of application” and “social accountability and reflexivity”. I think it likely that these are characteristics have waxed and waned in the science system depending on the availability of resources for science and how grumpy or positivistic society is feeling about science.
Did Hessel and Lente succeed in their attempt to outline a more promising approach for studying changes in science systems? I think they’ve made clear that when it comes to understanding the changes taking place in the production of knowledge we’re mostly just doing a lot of theorizing and guessing. I don’t think that based on their first set of findings we should focus more research effort on changes in the orientation of research agendas toward relevance or science’s interactions with other social spheres. But their evaluation of scholarly critiques raised provocative questions and they provide an assessment of the theoretical landscape at a time when perhaps too many scholars have herded around a single concept of change without question.
About the authors: Lauren Hessels studied Environmental Chemistry and Philosophy of Science at the University of Amsterdam. Today he works with the Rathenau Institute, an institute in the Netherlands that “studies developments in science and technology, interprets their potential impact on society and policy, and fosters dialogue and debate in support of decision-making on science and technology”. Hessels publishes widely on scientific collaboration, coordination and the practical applications of research.
Harro van Lente studied physics and philosophy. He also resides in the Netherlands, where he works as an Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies at Utrecht University and Professor of Philosophy of Sustainable Development at Maastrict University. He publishes widely on emerging technologies, including nanotechnology and hydrogen and medical technologies.