Like father, like son

In Culture
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 12:42

As a little boy, for Wiebe Bijker there was hardly anything better than playing in his father's lab—not a lab with microscopes but with outdoor models of coasts and harbours, such as the Haringvliet (1:400 scale), where he strutted around in his boots. Like his father, later in his career he got the most pleasure from the combination of theoretical research and ‘hands-on’ work. And he also found his own outdoor ‘lab’: India.

Feminism can no longer be defined as the traditional movement of the white, heterosexual middle class. Just as black feminists brought race to the fore, Islamic feminists introduced religion into the discourse. At Maastricht University assistant professor Lana Sirri critically examines feminism at the intersection of gender and religion, including aspects such as race, sexuality and ethnicity. “The values that all feminists are struggling for can be interpreted differently by different feminists in different locations and contexts.”

The ins and outs of hacking

In Culture
Friday, 21 October 2016 07:40

What do you think of when you imagine a hacker? A solitary, nerdy guy in his mid-30s breaking into a computer system? Or the Guy Fawkes mask, the symbol of the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous? Reality turns out to be much more nuanced, as we learn from assistant professor of Digital Culture Annika Richterich.

Sisters doing what they love

In Culture
Thursday, 16 June 2016 00:00

Valentina and Mariana Mazzucato are both leading scholars in their fields of research: migration and the economics of innovation, respectively. Valentina, professor at Maastricht University, recently received the 500th prestigious Consolidator Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), while Mariana, professor at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, gained worldwide acclaim with her latest book The Entrepreneurial State. Judging by these sisters, if there’s a key to success, it’s enthusiasm.

The promise of nanotechnology

Monday, 07 March 2016 08:32

Emerging technologies are often held up as miracle interventions: by bridging the divide between the Global North and South, they could change the world for the better. Yet in the past, nuclear power, biotechnology and ICT all failed to live up to their promise. Could nanotechnology, the next big thing, make the difference? For PhD candidates Pankaj Sekhsaria, Trust Saidi and Koen Beumer, this question formed the starting point of their research. They will defend their theses on 10 March.

A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. Or, to put it differently: one strand of human hair has a breadth of approximately 80,000 nanometres. On this extremely tiny level, the physical properties of materials change radically. The secret behind nanotechnology is that these new properties can be used in a wide variety of products and processes. ‘I don’t know any other technology that could be applied in so many different ways’, says Wiebe Bijker, professor of Technology and Society. ‘Nanotechnology can be used, to name just two extremes, in cheap water filters as well as highly expensive gadgets such as smart clothing.’

Under Bijker’s supervision, Pankaj Sekhsaria (India), Trust Saidi (Zimbabwe) and Koen Beumer (the Netherlands) participated in what is known as an NWO-WOTRO integrated programme, resulting in three individual PhD theses. Their research addresses the question as to how nanotechnology could foster progress in developing countries, taking into account the risks to health and social cohesion that come with it. ‘An integrated programme starts from the idea that developed and developing countries can learn from one another, as opposed to the more traditional idea of the North offering development aid to the South’, explains Bijker. ‘International collaboration between researchers and partners in different countries is a logical consequence.’

Cultures of innovation
In India, Sekhsaria endeavoured to understand the ‘cultures of innovation’ in nanoscience and technology. ‘I visited laboratories where nanoscience and technology research and development is taking place to talk with scientists and understand the work they’re doing’, he says. ‘My main hypothesis was that different societies and cultures have different ways of doing things, which is reflected in what happens inside scientific laboratories. Through my research I’ve been able to show that societal constructs, cultural preferences, contradictions and limitations within Indian society play a role in the questions that nanoscientists choose to explore, in the solutions they end up finding, and even in the ways they carry out research.’

Sekhsaria, who describes his years of research as ‘hugely challenging and enriching’, stresses that his conclusions are not limited to India but can be translated to different countries and contexts. ‘I argue that India’s cultural, political and societal context influences its nanoscience and technology research and development – and there’s no reason why the same phenomenon couldn’t be witnessed elsewhere.’ Bijker: ‘Pankaj’s research has enabled us to draw conclusions that are more general, holding for Africa, the Netherlands and other places.’

Travelling technologies
The same is true of Saidi’s research in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He aims to show how nanotechnologies travel from laboratories to different user contexts. ‘Usually when scientists come up with a new technology, they expect it to perform miracles when it goes out into the world’, he explains. ‘Through my empirical fieldwork, I demonstrate that technologies don’t fit perfectly and unproblematically in different societal situations. Instead, they need to be reworked, redesigned and made compatible with the local context.’

Outside the laboratory, technologies are subject to considerations that scientists wouldn’t even begin to think of, as illustrated by the case of a smart nano water filter introduced in a Zimbabwean village. Saidi: ‘You’d expect that people previously forced to drink dirty water would embrace this technology – yet they didn’t. They see water as a shared resource, so a filter designed for use inside individual households poses a threat to their social cohesion. By introducing this technology, you’re actually dividing society.’

Context always matters, says Saidi. ‘As every community differs from the next, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution or model that we can apply. Only by taking into account the manner in which end users interpret a certain technology is it possible to understand how to best deploy it.’

Beumer, finally, studied how nanotechnology is governed in India, South Africa and Kenya; three developing countries that are pursuing nanotechnology as a means of promoting development. ‘One of my main findings is that these countries have very different styles of governance, which isn’t what you’d expect based on the existing literature’, he says. ‘Not only do they have different development goals, but they also have different ideas about what development means and how to achieve it.’

In India, scientists are entitled to make important decisions about the funding of nanotechnology. In South Africa, on the other hand, such decisions are made primarily within a political framework. ‘These differences can be explained by looking at the social structure and history of each country’, says Beumer. ‘In India, with its caste system and many religions, science is viewed as neutral. For that reason, it’s seen as the key to development. The situation is entirely different in South Africa, where since the end of apartheid the government has focused on eliminating inequality. As a result, scientists only receive funding if they can make a contribution in this respect. What I argue is that nanotechnology can only benefit development if it connects to local traditions and institutions.’

Looking back on their international collaboration, the three agree it has been a joyful experience. ‘The geographic diversity brought a lot of excitement and enriched the research’, Saidi says. ‘It helped us to take on different perspectives,’ Beumer adds, ‘and in this manner we’ve been able to learn a lot from each other.’ Bijker shares the enthusiasm of his PhD candidates. So does he think nanotechnology can fulfil its promise to bridge the gap between the Global North and South, where earlier technologies could not? ‘That’s one of the most important questions one could ask, but I don’t have a definitive answer. Nanotechnology is unique in the breadth of its applicability, and besides, the world has changed vastly over the past fifty years. Today, more than ever, countries in the Global South are willing to take their destiny into their own hands. Seen in this light, it’s likely they’ll use emerging technologies like nanotechnology for their own purposes. So yes, I’m optimistic.’

Pankaj Sekhsaria will defend his PhD thesis ‘Enculturing Innovation: Indian engagements with nanotechnology’ on Thursday 10 March at 12.00. Trust Saidi will follow at 14.00 with his thesis ‘Travelling Nanotechnologies’. Lastly, Koen Beumer’s defence – ‘Nanotechnology and development: Styles of governance in India, South Africa, and Kenya’ – will start at 16.00. 

It’s no modest mission: providing a platform for collaboration, fostering the exchange of ideas between researchers from different disciplines and facilitating research on European politics, law and history. The recently established Centre for European Research in Maastricht (CERiM) brings together researchers from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) and the Faculty of Law (FL) to conduct collaborative research connected to recent global developments.

When it comes to developing new technologies, what needs are we creating? According to Harro van Lente, UM professor of Science and Technology Studies, this is a question that needs asking more often. Social issues should be the starting point for innovation. And for the valorisation of innovative research, a good education is essential.

The art of collaboration

In Culture
Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:37

Each March, Maastricht turns into a magnet for art lovers, collectors, curators and the rich and famous from all over the world. No fewer than 75,000 visitors descended on this year’s TEFAF, the world's largest art and antiques fair. For ten days, the city becomes the centre of the cultural universe – a universe that is becoming increasingly complex. To tackle this complexity, academics and professionals from the field of arts and heritage have joined forces in a new and unprecedented collaboration: the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH).

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