Social sciences and medical innovations: a fruitful and critical companionship?

Medical innovation is hot. The expectations of genomics (and many other omics), ambient care, telemedicine, regenerative medicine, imaging technologies, neurosciences etc. are very high. According to Helga Nowotny, the former president of the European Research Council, the current obsessive interest with innovation articulates a subconscious idea that only ’the new’ is able to navigate us through an uncertain global world.


However, the step from la-boratory to practice appears to be more difficult than these expectations suggest. That was already the case with the introduction of anesthetics in the 19th century and X-rays in the 20th century, and it is the case with new medical technologies in the 21th century as well.

While the social sciences and medical sciences have lived in two worlds for a long time, these fields have become closer since the 1950’s when medical sociology developed. This discipline focussed on the social role of the medical profession in societies, and left the heart of medicine – its knowledge and technologies – untouched.

With the rise of science and technology studies in the 1980's , the social sciences also tried to understand medical inno-vations as they developed in the laboratory and traveled through society. It became clear that innovations do not travel through society because of their effectiveness, but that, to become effective, innovations need to travel and to become adopted by users.

This new ap-proach to understand medical innovations resulted in new metaphors like co-production of science and society, interaction, mediation, interdependency, collaboration etcetera. In line with this, philosophers of technology have argued that these kind of collaborations are re-quired to enable anticipation on ethical problems of new innovations.

So, the social sciences should not only help to understand medical innovations, but also to organize interactions between ‘the social and the technical’ when innovations are in a still early phase to ensure that innovations will become ‘good innovations’.

In this lecture I will reconstruct the dynamics of the relationship between the social sciences and medical innovations by making use of different examples, like for instance genetic technologies. I will also raise the question whether a good marriage does not sometimes need a big row: in other words, we should be aware that a fruitful companionship between the social sciences and medical innovations only can be a critical companionship.