Epistemic networks is perhaps the main organising concept of the Epinet project as becomes apparent in the full project title: Integrated Assessment of Societal Impacts of Emerging Science and Technology from within Epistemic Networks. It is also one of the keywords of the project, next to integration, responsibility and social robustness. The notion of epistemic networks is the best example of an infra-concept with its intermediary status between theoretical conception and practical aim.1 The DoW formulates this relation in the following way:
“[I]n order to serve as an integrating tool for TA the concept of epistemic networks needs to be worked out with regard to its theoretical content, its relation to TA as a number of different but related practices and, finally, with regard to work with the cases, i.e. with respect to epistemic networks as they emerge (and are likely to emerge) in the cases of wearable sensors, cognition for technical systems, smart grids and synthetic meat. Hence, epistemic networks take on the role of a heuristic tool aiming for interdisciplinary integration of methods. […]In terms of theory, we will work out connections between the concept of epistemic communities (Haas 1992) and more recent theories of networks. […] It is important to take note of the practical character of the project: an overly strong theoretical focus on the materialistic aspects of ANT could come at the expense of the task of seeking integration through policy-concepts such as responsibility, sustainability, human rights and good governance. […] As STS would put it, coherence in such networks, including epistemic coherence and identity, is an achievement, not a premise. Hence, theories of networks will be used as heuristic tools for approaching constellations of actors, technologies and institutions forming around societal, technological and political grand challenges, but cannot be made to stand in for the perceptions, experience and imaginaries of actors in the relevant fields.”
As a theoretical construct, the notion of epistemic networks is related to the notion of an epistemic community of professionals with recognised expertise and competence in a particular domain, and an authoritative claim to policy relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area. As a WP1 Memo puts it, this means that we are looking at different communities or networks of knowledge workers, that each draw upon different bodies of knowledge in the pursuit of some common good/a policy project. The notion of epistemic networks places a primary emphasis “on the ideas, values, concepts, imaginations and visions of the actors themselves, and on how they use these to influence and position themselves within the innovation/policy fields in question” (WP1 Memo, p. 9). The concept was worked out in D1.1 and used as a conceptual anchor and introduction to the Epinet approach in many of the embedding events. Given the description above, the concept is closely tied to a methodological three stage division of mapping, embedding and integration and to a sectoral division between contexts of innovation, contexts of assessment and governance.
Within Epinet the notion is used in several different ways to the extent that it both relates to contexts of innovation - the knowledge networks of social innovators - and serves as a way of approaching “contexts of assessment where it can also function as a possible resource for assessing and evaluating 'integration'. In the second sense the concept of epistemic networks takes on a more normative sense to the extent that it is used as both a goal and means for the integration of different assessment practices themselves, thus serving as a guide towards more integrated approaches of TA. Lastly, many of the participants of Epinet who focus on the interactions between science and society can themselves be seen as an epistemic network, with specific expertise on the often poorly understood and articulated zones of interaction between politics, law, society, research, innovation and the environment. In this last sense the concept of epistemic network also relates to that of intervention. That this intervention between assessors and the assessed can be a two-way process, became clear in the context of the smart grid embedding event. The very notion of an epistemic network itself here became disputed by one of the participants. A consultant on sustainable strategies and energy policy stated that the term epistemic networks is too narrow. The issue is not only knowledge, but economic power. Rommetveit (Bergen) responded, that members of epistemic communities have to stick to their knowledge base and that industry workers are not bound to this. This is thus a good example of mutual assessment.
1 This is of course not strange considering the fact that the notion of network as it figures in Actor-Network Theory is one of the prime concepts of infra-language in the sense in which it is used by Latour.