9 May 2017

Bye bye Bijker…

After a wonderful career in science, 30 years of which were at Maastricht University, Prof. Wiebe Eco Bijker will retire on 12 May. Together with Trevor Pinch, he developed the new scientific approach the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) in the 1980s. A portrait of a modest professor of Technology and Society in 25 statements.

Wiebe Bijker

The second name, Eco, has nothing to do with nature.
“It’s from our Frisian side of the family, where sometimes the name ‘Ekke’ also appears. My father was named Eco Wiebe and I, like my grandfather, am Wiebe Eco.”

My wife was glad that we had three daughters.
“She didn’t really like ‘Eco’ at that time, so that wouldn’t have been a given with a son. But we were both happy with daughters anyway.”

I want to make the world a better place.
“That was an ambition from an early age, yes. During my time as a student, I was also very concerned about the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. I initially thought I’d do a journalism programme, but my father convinced me that, also as a journalist, I could better learn a scientific discipline first—preferably in Delft. So it became physics.”

My study lasted a bit longer than normal.
“Right—seven instead of five years. But there’s a good explanation for that. First of all, in parallel with the study programme in Delft, I attended philosophy lectures for master students with professor Nauta in Groningen. That was an escape for me, because I did not like the prospects for most physics engineers, working with a multinational like Shell. I wanted to do something with the combination of science and society. My final thesis for the physics programme focussed on the arms race between America and Russia and whether it was possible to develop a disarmament strategy. The only way I sold that in the physics department was to make a computer model of it. Because it took quite some time to get the model up and running, I didn’t get to the underlying questions.”

During my studies, it appeared there was a teacher hiding in me.
“While I didn’t have that ambition at all. But a housemate of mine quit as a physics teacher at a secondary school in Rotterdam and they couldn’t easily find a successor. I wanted to try it, but it was a dramatic failure. I couldn’t maintain order. After a year, I wanted to quit, but the rector convinced me: try again in another location, with your experience. Then it went well, and I thought it was really fun. In fact, I would still be a physics teacher, if after six years the number of students hadn’t decreased which led to me being let go.”

If my scientific career had flopped, I would’ve become a physics teacher again.
“Absolutely. That awareness also gave me a relaxed attitude in my career. After leaving the secondary school, I worked for Utrecht University for a year and a half, and then I was able to get a job at the University of Twente, which was in line with what I had done in Groningen with Professor Nauta. The group was led by professors Boskma and Smit: the central figures in critical studies of nuclear energy and weapons at the time. We were housed in a former farmhouse, so we worked ‘on the farm’. I started on a project about the relationship between society and technology. Four to eight qualitative case studies on inventions.”

With Trevor Pinch, drinking champagne turned out to be good.
“That's the legend in any case … . In 1982, I met him at a conference in Austria, where my colleague Ellen van Oost and I gave a presentation on the project for the first time. Our faculty had some money and I was looking for an interesting candidate to be a guest researcher. Trevor's paper started, like ours, with ‘The social construction of ...’. That was a substantive match and it also clicked on a personal level. We drank the pink champagne that’s characteristic of that region ‘and that’s how it all happened’, which is also in the introduction of the book that we later edited together.”

Pinch was not only crucial for me, but also for my wife.
“He arrived with his Volkswagen Beetle in Hoek van Holland, where I picked him up. The first night he stayed with us in Delft, after which we were going to Enschede the next day. When we got home, my wife had cut herself on a wine glass while washing up and she had to go to the hospital. His car was too packed with stuff to take me as well, so he drove her to the hospital while I kept the food warm.”

Pinch and I complemented each other well.
“When it comes to being interdisciplinary, we’re both quite wild, but he was more grounded in methodology and literature knowledge. He also knew his sociology better than me. What I brought to the table myself exactly, uhmm ... . Well, while he really wanted to get into this research field and thus found our first paper presentation very exciting, I always had my plan B on standby, which gave me peace of mind.”

With that first draft paper on the Social Construction of Technology, we had no inkling of its enormous potential.
“Only after the first presentation, we realised that there might more in it than just that article. We organised a workshop in Twente about how technology develops, with historians of technology and sociologists of science. There was a kind of excitement in the group and we were given the task of thinking about a book. We then had the guts, as two young sociologists, of asking retired technological history powerhouse, Tom Hughes, to edit that book with us. And to our great surprise, he said yes. In addition, we wrote out of the blue a letter to MIT Press, asking if they were interested in our book. And that’s how ‘The social construction of technological systems; new directions in the sociology and history of technology’ was created. Among students it’s also called the ‘school bus book’, because those buses in America are yellow with black stripes, like the cover of the book. When I heard that, my cheeks turned red.”

The fact that technology, as well as science, is socially constructed and thus is human work, doesn’t detract from its great value.
“This has been mistakenly assumed by critics in the past—as if Trevor and I claimed that a mere opinion was tantamount to a scientifically substantiated fact. The term social construction of a scientific fact means that people, or society, have influence on the creation of this type of fact. Methods, nature and other matters determine the boundaries, but the outcome is human work—just as social processes determine what well-functioning technology is.”

Experts don’t have the exclusive right to expertise, even in nanotechnology.
“As chairman of the advisory committee of The Health Council that advised the Dutch government on nanotechnology in 2006, I called for the involvement of stakeholders, such as patients, doctors and insurance companies. It was clear at the time that, using nanotechnology, you could deliver medicines for cancer, for instance, at much lower doses more accurately to the right place in the body. Only it appeared that small nanoparticles were toxic, and nano researchers indicated that this toxicity isn’t yet fully understood and thus good safety standards can’t be provided. Should the scientists decide whether or not to proceed with the drug development? It’s not fair to put the burden of that decision on their shoulders—the scientists themselves said they had no complete knowledge of those risks. With this type of choice, you have to involve stakeholders and sometimes even citizens. We live in a complex world. Neither can we charge 150 members of the Lower House of Parliament to make such decisions on their own.”

Advisory councils are crucial for enhancing democracy.
“Based on our recommendations, there was a societal dialogue on nanotechnology that lasted two years, which resulted in more understanding among citizens of the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology. It cultivated more support for scientific research in this domain, provided that enough attention continued to be given to the risks. This societal nano dialogue has broadened the definition of what democracy can be about. This proved to me that you can also discuss such complicated scientific issues comprehensively with citizens, after which you’re really a step further in how you should deal with it as a society. For me, this task was really a ‘hands-on’ contribution to a better world.”

Looking back on my CV, the combination of research, education and social participation has made me happy.
“I’ve given the same lecture to second-year students for thirty years and I’ve never found it boring. Teaching made me enjoy my discipline more, and it made me a better researcher; and that research made me a more interesting teacher. As chairman of NWO-WOTRO, which funds scientific research on development issues, especially sustainable development and poverty reduction, I think that I function better thanks to my research and my experience as a schoolteacher, starting in Rotterdam-Feyenoord.”

In India, I’ve come closest in the last ten years to my initial motivation for research.
“I always wanted to know how science and technology contribute to a better world. If that’s a pressing question anywhere, it’s in ‘developing countries’. So when I was able to work with people in India, I thought: you're not worth much if you don’t try it. Because my wife weaves a lot in her spare time, I came in contact with weavers there. Handweaving is the most important source of income in rural India after agriculture. If you want to find a solution for strengthening society in the rural areas there, you can’t avoid handweaving. But I’ve also done research on nanotechnology, sustainable agriculture, TB control, small hydroelectric power plants and the debate on GM crops with PhD candidates and I'm still doing a project about biogas.”

In India, I found ‘my’ outdoor lab.
“I think that you can’t think of a problem or solution that you won’t find in India too. To study what role science and technology have in society, what kind of society you want to build and how to do that democratically, you can’t learn as much anywhere as you can in India.”

Handweaving, together with the bike, has a special place in my heart.
“Actually, I can’t choose which technology I find most valuable; that often depends on the project I'm currently working on. The bike remains the most efficient means of transport that exists, and I find handweaving fantastic ... .”

With pain in my heart, I left the farm in Enschede in 1990 for Maastricht.
“Yes, but when Gerard de Vries called and said that he had two UD places to fill as a new professor in Maastricht, that was too attractive to turn down. I held De Vries in high esteem, his plans sounded attractive and I could teach again with a permanent contract. Ultimately, I was department head as long as the faculty existed, until two years ago, and I was a dean for a period.

Things that continue to gnaw at me, usually have to do with people. I always start with trusting; I can’t do it any other way. Then you can sometimes get disappointed. Also in myself, if I don’t get something done for someone else. There are also other disappointments of course; there were sometimes research proposals that didn’t get funding, but with that after being in a really bad mood for a day I could get over it easier.”

I'm going to retire gradually from now on.
“I still have four PhD candidates I'm supervising, but I’m not taking on any new ones. I’m still a confidential advisor for PhD candidates of this faculty and I’ll remain chairperson of the committee that ethically examines research proposals from the faculties in the city centre. Until September, I'll still be working on my NWO biogas project, and until 2018 I have a part-time appointment at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In addition, I’ll be chairman of NWO-WOTRO for three more years and I’m the chairman of the committee that will evaluate the WRR this fall.”

In my spare time, I like to concern myself with my bees and my grandchildren.
“At my inaugural lecture in Maastricht in 1995, I received my first bee hive, because the name Bijker means ‘beekeeper’. Currently, I have three to four hives; it provides me with a nice form of relaxation. In addition, we regularly take care of our two grandsons who are four and two years old, in Hilversum. Then we often sleep over for a night. Grandchildren are so much more fun and intensive than I had imagined. That feeling for them runs very deep.”

In 2017, I’m still against nuclear energy.
“Although I say it with more caution than thirty years ago, because the context has been altered by climate change and the technology has improved considerably. I advocate for a comprehensive social dialogue on nuclear energy. On the one hand, it offers an alternative for climate change because of the limited CO2 emissions and, on the other hand, the security of nuclear waste streams is still insufficient.”

Ultimately, my father was proud of my career.
“For twenty years, he was a little disappointed that I didn’t work as an engineer, though he never said it explicitly. He was always loyal and supportive, but in his eyes the real work was in engineering. My brother did become a dike builder; he’s completely immersed in that world and was even taught by my father. I once said that I didn’t make that choice because I didn’t want to go to school with my father as the teacher, but that wouldn’t have been a problem at all. We Bijkers are emotional, but sensible. When I made a connection in my inaugural lecture in 1995 to my father's life and the Delta Works he co-created, he better understood what I did and he was definitely proud.”

On 12 May Wiebe Bijker's valedictory lecture is combined with a symposium.

By: Femke Kools (text) and Paul van der Veer (photography)