Wiebe Bijker Wiebe Bijker Paul van der Veer

Like father, like son

In Culture
Written by  Femke Kools 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.

The interview on the occasion of his retirement begins with the life and work of his father, Eco Wiebe Bijker. As a coastal engineer, he led research in the North-East Polder on the strengthening of dikes, among other things. His great scientific interest, combined with his practical recommendations worldwide on the construction of ports and dikes, has always fascinated Wiebe Eco Bijker. “No, Eco doesn’t refer to nature; it’s just in our Frisian family tradition.”

Studying in Delft…
Although his father, later a professor of Coastal Engineering, never spelled it out for them, there was actually only one suitable study for his three sons: something in Delft. The family originally came from there, and his father had also studied there himself. When his eldest son, Wiebe, proclaimed at 17 that he wanted to improve the world through a journalistic career, a lengthy conversation followed. The message was that learning a scientific discipline first is wisest, and he followed that advice. So it became Physics, in Delft.

He remembers his childhood as very pleasant, with a mother who was always there and a father who worked a lot. “As one of the few engineers in his time, he went for his PhD. The image of him, working at his desk in the middle of the living room among the children playing, is still clear to me. I don’t know if I could work that way.”

... and Groningen
Once he started the Applied Physics programme in Delft, it soon began to gnaw at him: “I wasn’t so happy with the prospects for most engineering physicists, with multinationals like Shell and Philips. I was active in the student movement, was strongly opposed to nuclear energy and weapons, and was exploring questions about science and society.” He took the plunge and wrote a letter to professor Nauta in Groningen, asking if he could work with him to research the relationship between science and society. Nauta, one of the most prominent, politically engaged philosophers in the Netherlands, met the young Bijker at a Groningen café and after some refinement of the idea he suggested that Wiebe follow his weekly lecture for post-graduate students without being officially enrolled. No, not many people did this at that time, but Wiebe did. His first scientific publication was in a Dutch philosophical journal.

Teaching in Rotterdam
In addition to these two studies in two places, he also began teaching natural sciences for five hours a week at a high school in the Rotterdam district of Feyenoord. “My housemate quit and they couldn’t find anyone else. I thought, ‘why not?’. That was a fiasco.” As the most cinematic image, he remembers the moment he said to a 2 HAVO class, “Guys, if you don’t listen, I’m done. I'm going to read the newspaper.” It worked for that one lesson, but the following time the students immediately said, “Sir, did you bring the paper?”. After that first year, he was convinced he should quit, but the school director persuaded him to try at a different location. “Then it went well. I liked working with children and I liked physics again. I turned out to be an educator.” If he had not lost his job a few years later due to declining student numbers, he would still be a physics teacher, of that he is sure. The realisation that he could always return to teaching, like a kind of plan B, gave him peace of mind during his later career.

Working at the farmhouse
One and a half years after graduating, he got a job at the University of Twente with professors Boskma and Smit: the central figures in critical studies of nuclear energy and weapons at the time. Their department was housed in a former farmhouse that was integrated into the campus. Wiebe was given the freedom to convert an already funded research project from a quantitative to a qualitative study on how technological inventions come about. More specifically, he examined how society affected the technology.

And then it was 1983, the year he could give the first international presentation of the project in Austria, where he ran into Trevor Pinch, the man with whom he would develop the new scientific approach, The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT). “In the early days, I never used the name ‘SCOT’, because I found it too pretentious to give your own work an abbreviation; but now I dare to, because everybody does it.”

On the recommendation of Bijker, Pinch was appointed as a postdoc at Twente for one year. While working at the farmhouse on their first draft paper about SCOT, they did not realise that they were on the verge of something so big. Because of some enthusiastic reactions, they decided to organise a workshop in Twente about how technology develops. “Before that time, there was primarily research on how science develops, or on history of technology. We brought together historians of technology and sociologists of science.”

Although critical notes were struck during the workshop (“I remember a sceptical German who said, ‘Does this mean that if we now vote that this room is a plane, that we can fly off?’”), the excitement was so great that Pinch and Bijker were encouraged to edit a book about it. ‘And the rest is history’, so they say.

The famous book
In the book ‘The social construction of technological systems; new directions in the sociology and history of technology’, Bijker and Pinch argue, with their coauthors, that society has a decisive influence on how technology evolves, as well as on how a scientific fact is established. The development of the bicycle is the most cited example, and the penny-farthing, or high wheeler bike, is also prominently featured on the cover of the book. “The penny-farthing was technically a strange, high thing. But it fit perfectly with an athletic, risky way of bicycling that appealed to young men.” What is considered well-functioning technology is determined by social processes, say Bijker and Pinch, not only by physics and technology. Similarly, science is also a ‘human work’. “Nature alone does not dictate what we call a scientific fact. The social process that precedes it, the human work, produces the social construct.”

Though at the time no one doubted the validity of science, we find ourselves in 2017 in a world in which ‘alternative facts’ are sometimes considered just as valuable. “Back then, it sometimes irritated me how glorified science was. The earlier social construction work was also intended to put science in its place, making science more accountable. Now I hear myself over and over again explaining how special and valuable scientific knowledge is; how we can’t do without properly verified scientific knowledge in our society, as opposed to the ‘alternative facts’ produced by climate change deniers, for instance.”

Full circle
With this, he is not claiming that only professionals can have expertise. When it comes to some very complex technological developments, such as drugs that make use of nanotechnology, you need to talk with citizens and stakeholders; that was a follow-up step in his work. “If, according to science, the risks are not entirely clear, it's unfair to let science alone determine how you want to deal with it as a society. I’ve tried to expand the definition of democracy.” His work as chairman of the advisory committee of The Health Council of the Netherlands, which advised the government on nanotechnology in 2006, is considered by him to perhaps be his most ‘hands-on’ work trying to improve the world. And so, it has almost come full circle. Almost…

Because the question of how science and technology contribute to a better world kept recurring throughout his life. And if that is a pressing question somewhere, then it is in a country like India, which has been in his work and his heart for more than ten years. “For me, India is a kind of laboratory for the whole world. You can’t think of a problem or solution that you won’t find in India.”

A lab in the outdoors: that is reminiscent of the Haringvliet model in the North-East Polder. “Just a little more complex in my eyes”, he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “Social sciences are much more difficult than physics.” And to top it all off he cheekily adds: “For a better society, you need social sciences—in addition to physics.”

Wiebe E. Bijker (1951), professor of Technology and Society at Maastricht University since 1994, will be granted emeritus status on 12 May. He has held various positions within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and elsewhere, including the presidency of the Society for Social Studies of Science. His major contributions to science have been recognised and rewarded in various ways.

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