Accepted Paper:

Reverse Boundary Work, Researcher Responsibility, and the Promise of Neural Technologies  


Matthew Sample ( Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal)

Paper short abstract:

The features of recent technoscience (e.g. interdisciplinarity) are often oriented towards increased responsiveness to the public, but some researchers in neural engineering cite these very features in order to distance themselves from promises of benefit.

Paper long abstract:

A researcher in neural engineering tells me, "There has to be some realization that we're doing translational research, and that requires a lot of partners." This statement came up in my own ethnographic research at the National Science Foundation Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, which has the motto "improving lives by connecting brains and technology." The quotation and the motto, one organizational and the other promissory, illustrate a possible tension in recent technoscience. In this case, scientists and engineers cite the features of translational research, effectively reducing their individual responsibility to actually benefit persons with disabilities or spinal cord injury.

Scholars as diverse as Helga Nowotny, Yaron Ezrahi, and Alfred Nordmann have already noticed contemporary technoscience's "transdisciplinarity", increased justification to the public, and claims of artifice or control. These departures from the ideal of pure science, nominally, are ways to make technoscience responsive to society and its needs. But as promising to improve lives becomes the norm in neural engineering, I have observed researchers citing each other as "end users," emphasizing the power of industry and market, and generally dissolving the boundaries between neural engineering and its publics, a sort of reverse "boundary work" (Gieryn 1983).

Overall, I sketch a neural imaginary, part technoscientific (Marcus 1995) and sociotechnical (Jasanoff and Kim 2015), that combines a confident promise to erase human disability with an organizational blueprint that loses the individual researcher. I use this example to explore interactions between the regime of promising and new models for impactful science.

Panel T094
Emerging science and technology : questioning the regime of promising