Browsing through books: ‘Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science’ by Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers’ Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science is an important book for anyone doing research or dealing with research. It identifies problems in science and research today and suggest ways to overcome these. Although I’m not a natural scientist, I found this book useful and resonating. In fact, using examples from a different field helped me to see the issues slightly from the outside. The first 4 chapters are about describing ‘fast’ science and the remaining 2 chapters focus on slow science.

The most important take-away for me was Stengers’ ability to verbalise how contemporary mainstream ways of thinking marginalise other ways of being. In the case of academia, the symptoms relate to rankings, measuring, efficiency, expectations for delivering results, commodification, among other things. While these are annoying practices, together they create a sense of fastness. Still, they are the symptoms and the root causes are elsewhere.

What are the root causes? But briefly, the argument is that science is put to serve knowledge economy. She argues that many contemporary socio-ecological problems are known and shared by scholars but they are affected by ‘fastness’ and thus scientists and researchers cannot focus on ‘matters of concern’ (Latour). The tricky part is that no one has the right to decide on their own what is a matter of concern but it should be a dialogue among many people, and not only scientists, but also non-human others. In her analysis, such dialogue is not encouraged at the moment but circumvented or even denied.

In truth, the whole book is about articulating the root causes since it is a book about the philosophy of science. Thus, it would require more work from me to cristalise her analysis. While the same goes for her suggestions how to bring about slow science, I will still try.

I read that her proposals include researchers facing the question ‘You knew what you had to know; what did you do?’ (Chapter 5. p. 106). In her opinion, research institutions are not equipped to handle this and to admit that science is messy and not controllable. Moreover, facing the question requires negotiations (or reclaiming, p. 141), which always happens in a specific context – not in general or in abstractions. From the perspective of fast science, this seems like a terrible idea since negotiations require time. Still, time and negotiations are required for formulating answers to the question she poses: ‘You knew; what did you do?’ Moreover, engaging in negotiations as an academic results in need for diplomats who do negotiating. Sometimes scientists can be those diplomats, while sometimes the diplomat is someone else.

This is not a book to digest easily. Yet, it is definitely an inspiring and important one. So I’m happy that I did more than browse and spent time with this one. I have a feeling that I will return to this book later and compare the underlined parts and my notes to new highlights that I make. (And yes, I scribble in my books, but usually with a pencil.)