Flames. To what extent are scientific infrastructures one of the pillars of research policy? On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (Esfri), a symposium organized at the Academy of Sciences in Paris on March 25 recalled the concrete achievements of European research in this field, from the ESRF synchrotron in Grenoble used in archeology and paleontology to the spectroscopy of the European spallation source (ESS) under construction in Lund (Sweden), via the European Social Survey in social sciences.
This anniversary invites us to return to the field of infrastructure studies, which has asserted itself since the end of the 1990s. We owe Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star to have reconceptualized the notion of infrastructure to show that it overlaps both physical and material realities such as equipment, instruments as well as concepts and standards that aim to classify and prioritize information flows. By emphasizing the practices of cooperation and coordination of scientific activity, infrastructures materialize a relational dimension of science.
A new economy of promise
Admittedly, the notion of infrastructure is not new since it appears in the scientific vocabulary of the engineer as well as in the philosophical lexicon with Marx from the 19th century. In the 20th century, it will be associated with the fields of economics and planning. It is often considered impure, shared between the world of research and the world of public decision-makers and management.
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For historians of science, infrastructures pose a double difficulty: they are celebrated in great speeches that smooth out the difficulties in imposing these projects, the anomalies, even the failures; they are most often perceived as invisible in the ordinary time of research. Sociologists and historians have thus clearly highlighted this paradox of infrastructures oscillating between the imagination of the “sublime” and grandeur and the representations of infrastructures in ruins.
In the 2000s, the term “infrastructure” resurfaced massively in state vocabulary, attached to the adjectives “vital” or “critical”.
From a long perspective, these studies contrast the emergence, in the wake of the scientific revolution, of a revolution in the organization of the sciences with the absence of an ever-functional logic that presided over their creation. It was the period when the small intellectual technologies that the sciences and the first bureaucracies had in common also multiplied: from index cards to lists. From the great science cathedrals of the 19th century to the giant facilities of big science in the 1950s, they are now associated with a new economy of promise, indicators of prosperity and efficiency. It is the moment of emergence of the great technical systems which announce an infinite modernization.
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