Science in the context of practice: science is subject to economic and political demands which affect the research agenda and the standards of confirmation.
In fundamental research epistemic interest and feasibility are major factors in selecting research problems. Research under the pressure of application proceeds according to economic prospects and practical urgency. Feasibility tends to be disregarded. This could have an impact of standards of confirmation since research overburdened by short-term practical goals might become superficial. On the other hand, practical problems have repeatedly posed fruitful challenges to research and have created incentives for producing novelties in fundamental science. The context of practice seems to have an ambivalent role at first sight. But what are the conditions which could engender epistemic decline or, conversely, prompt innovative responses?
The two major recipes for producing practically beneficial research is proceeding in a knowledge-driven or demand-driven way. The former approach amounts to producing knowledge without any practical goals in view and identifying only afterward useful applications to which the knowledge can be put. The latter approach recommends research directly on the practical problems placed on the agenda by society. There are successful examples for both strategies. The question is whether conditions can be identified that favor the prospects of either recipe.
Responsible research and innovation (RRI) has been at the focus of science studies in particular in Europe for quite some time. However, it brings philosophical challenges in its train that have not yet been attended widely. In particular, one of the items on the RRI to-do list is doing research “for society” or on behalf of society. This seems to require the anticipation of results of future research and their social impact. The usual assumption is that the future course of science is unpredictable, but this is not true in general. There are instances of successful planned research. What are factors that make pathways of science predictable or unpredictable, respectively, and are there ways for anticipating social consequences of innovations that are not yet existing? An approach for meeting the latter challenge is looking into the social context of an innovation. If a technology is introduced in an intransparent way by using asymmetric power relations, prima-facie evidence militates against the responsible character of the innovation. Such considerations can detach judgments about RRI from knowledge of the future course of a research field.
Research in socially relevant areas such as nutrition and health is suspected by parts of the public to be unreliable and to be biased by economic and political influences. What strategies are suited to restoring the public credibility of science in the social arena? Pluralism in research fields and among the social influences on science is certainly a factor that could avoid one-sidedness and thus promote credibility. However, pluralism is not a good basis for giving advice on practical questions. Which auxiliary factors can be used for curbing pluralism and for arriving at helpful scientific policy advice? One relevant strategy is relying on the common ground of various competing approaches or disregarding any suggestions that contradict prevalent value-attitudes in a society and thus do not stand a chance of realization anyway.
Models in various branches of science exhibit topical and methodological similarities. Models can be generalized and form model templates that can be used to tackle a wide variety of problems. Examples are the Lotka-Volterra model or the Ising model. Together with a group of physical scientists and life scientists I seek to draw general lessons from comparing such approaches and to explore wthether such comparison and exchange can contribute to improve model-building.