Mapping Controversies


In parallelo al Primo Forum Italiano Scienza e Società, organizzato da Observa nell’ambito dello European Science in Society Forum 2005, la Commissione Europea ha promosso la realizzazione di altri “mirror events”, in diversi paesi Europei, come l’Austria, la Francia, la Svezia e la Grecia. Fra questi, presentiamo l’iniziativa proposta da THE GALLERY OF RESEARCH|GALERIE DER FORSCHUNG di Vienna, intitolata Mapping Controversies, the case of Genetically modified food.


Science is generally thought of as a practice of calm and studied observation. However, from bioengineered food to global warming, science is rife with disputes, debates and ambiguity. “Mapping Controversies” invited the public to explore these polemic aspects of science.

On the 31st of January 2005, THE GALLERY OF RESEARCH|GALERIE DER FORSCHUNG held its first pilot event in its construction site: “Mapping Controversies: The Case of Genetically Modified Food,” showcasing novel ways of communicating scientific results to a large public of non-experts. As such, the event exemplified the Gallery mission and its methods, which will be developed on a larger scale after the official opening, in October 2006.
The event illustrated the Gallery purposes:

  • to tackle not only successful scientific findings, but also challenges, unpredictable turns, pitfalls, failures and aberrations in research;
  • to make citizens consider the social, ethical, moral and political implications of these issues, and the ways they become the basis of technological innovations and political decisions.


“Mapping Controversies” was envisioned as an experiment on science communication. The Gallery brought together researchers and artists, from Austria and abroad (from Holland, France and the United States), and engaged them in a reflection on alternative ways of communicating scientific results to the lay public. They came up with new, attractive types of maps analyzing the complex networks of actors involved in science and society debates: their arguments, positions, agreements and disagreements. These novel methods for mapping scientific controversies (issue-oriented web crawlers, scientometric tools, and data analysis engines) have been developed over the last couple of years, but have never been used by a science communication institution.


The Gallery team worked in close collaboration with a designer and a methodologist to conceive an installation – an irregular geometric platform, envisaged as a direct replica of an existing “network map.” In 3 kiosks presenters were illustrating results, explaining methodology and making scientific arguments with visual tools. Moreover, they were demonstrating in ‘public’ how they gained and manipulated the databases, and how they made assumptions about the GM food debate. A lounge area with small visual design pieces was especially conceived to catch the visitors’ attention and provide her with an overview of the various protagonists’ statements in the food debate – from the consumers point of view to the major political actors.


Throughout this experiment, the Gallery asked all participants to take an unusual position. For the researchers, the event was a departure from traditional lecture and conference formats: they were encouraged to make simple arguments through compelling visuals – projected onto large screens – and a lively talk – of no more than 3 minutes. For the visitor, the experience was atypical too: she was invited to enter a debate in a setting that was largely tentative in itself, as the historical building of the future Gallery is currently undergoing renovation works. However, we strived to use these constraints to our advantage, stressing throughout the idea of “work in progress,” with the context mirroring the content. The participants came from various backgrounds: policy-makers, researchers, journalists, representatives of museums, etc. Due to the situation of the building site, the number of visitors was strongly restricted and attendance was on invitation only. Albena Yaneva, director of THE GALLERY OF RESEARCH|GALERIE DER FORSCHUNG, opened the experimental event with a short guided tour.

The visitor entered the installation vectorial space, endowed with various tensions, echoing the dynamism of the research cartography. She was invited to stroll in the space and visit the 3 different kiosks, where researchers presented visually their findings about the GM food debate. Immersed within the social, ethical and political aspects of the controversy, the visitor was not a passive viewer or listener, but an actor of the debate.

The kiosks

The first kiosk was presented by Richard Rogers, lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, who uses the Issue Crawler software to map issues on the web. In particular, he located the Austrian web debate on GM food and found it was not taking place in the country, but imported from Germany, Washington and Brussels. This statement triggered some strong reactions, for some visitors found it provocative. Rogers was inspired by the possibility to do produce “live research” in such a novel setting. In the second kiosk, Christophe Bonneuil, from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, presented the results of his work. Using mapping methods, he explored the dynamics of biosafety research in the EU and the USA. His findings were also translated into new maps developed by the Gallery, trying to give a novel insight into the “black box” of science. Bonneuil himself was skeptical a couple of years ago, and has since been captivated by the power of the methods in his own work. Now, the maps and the presentation techniques need to be improved to convey this potential to a larger audience.

Lastly, Ulrike Felt, from the University of Vienna, showed the results of her collaboration with Andrei Mogoutov, based on a cartographic study of the Google Austria News output and the Austrian Press Agency (APA) database. She decrypted the story of these network maps, offering a different “walk” through the information landscape. For Ulrike Felt, this event was a great opportunity, not only to bridge science and art, but also to make experts and lay people meet and enter a discussion.

The lounge Area

This area lent itself to a calmer time for reading information about the Gallery and the event, consulting printed maps etc. The special visual design pieces invited the participants to continue discussions on the topic: A short slide show combined images, sounds and quotes from the big demonstrations of anti-GM activists in Seattle. The pictures were collected by the American anthropologist Chaia Heller, who did an extensive field work on this debate, following its heated moments in Europe and the USA. The video allowed the visitors to literally hear the voices of protests. The lowly positioned 3 monitors created a lively visual environment in the middle of the installation setting. An installation of shelves displayed empty tins, with especially designed labels of three major GM crops (maize, soybean and tomato). The labels drew the visitors’ attention on the E.U. labelling policy and its special requirements to indicate that some dayto-day products contain genetically modified ingredients. Visitors were invited to take a tin as a souvenir, allowing us to test the consumers’ willingness to get a GM product. The success of this installation showed the amazing discrepancy between negative opinions, usually expressed against GM food, and the consumers’ behaviour in the supermarkets.

Reactions and analysis

We conceived this event as an experiment: this means we are willing to take both negative and positive results on board to develop our methods in a creative way. Scientific findings are usually communicated in the specific, esoteric language of the field, and remain understandable only for a community of specialists. We argue that a radical change in the ‘genre’ of traditional science communication is needed, different from the established patterns of scientific exchanges, such as workshops and conferences. Richard Rogers remarked that this format contrasts with conventional museums, the exhibits of which are often already out-of-date at the time of their opening. Gerald Herlbauer (from the company “4youreye”) was also enthused by the mixture of new technologies and exhibition mode, that allowed visitors more involvement than in a traditional display. Nevertheless, Manfred Tragner (Technisches Museum Wien) believed that these new methods could find their place alongside more usual, object-based displays. Rather than displacing conventional museums, THE GALLERY OF RESEARCH|GALERIE DER FORSCHUNG will complete and enrich the science communication landscape.

Despite the unsettling context, the cold, the roughness of the site, the demanding content, we were pleased to see a genuine interest on both the visitors’ and the researchers’ side. The kiosks, design and small installations engaged scientists and the public in an active, unbiased exchange of opinions. Yet, we feel that the atmosphere, though nicely informal, could have been more interactive. The Gallery intends to use such ‘dialogue’ modes of communication by the means of inquiry-based methods. By so doing, it will facilitate and enhance public participation in research. In terms of space, the installation generally turned out to be a success: in particular, Christian Mandler (architect) appreciated the juxtaposition of the historical building and the modern installation, rendering a harmonious, original atmosphere. In addition, he was impressed to see that the conceptualization and implementation of the whole event was completed in just two and a half months, at such an early stage in the history of the institution. Martina Hartl (Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture) underscored the importance of making well-founded scientific insights generally accessible, and sees the work of the Gallery as an important source of input in future public discourse. Anita Silmbrod (Austrian Federal Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry, the Environment and Water Resource Management) views events such as this, as well as the work of the Gallery as a whole, as a key contribution toward making debates accessible to the public, with implications reaching well beyond the discussions dealing with genetic engineering.

In a broader perspective, for our team and partners, this has been a unique and fruitful experience, from which our budding institution will learn to develop some effective forms of dialogue and engagement with research at the European level. The installation positioned the visitor in a simulated public space, where the variety of protagonists in the debate was made present, talking, acting. Democracy is possible only when the whole range of opinions becomes visible at once. In order to act in a controversial situation related to technological risk, scientific uncertainty, conflicts of moral and ethical values, citizens need a visual map of all positions and interpretations. That is what makes us consider “Mapping Controversies” as a powerful tool in public participation and democracy-making. In the future Gallery spaces, a permanent interactive “Mapping Controversies” platform will provide the visitor with the unique possibility to follow up lively cartographies of polemic topics in Science and Technology, establishing a public forum for debate.

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29 giugno 2005 | in: Contributi, Ricerca,