- Toxicology as a nanoscience? – Disciplinary identities reconsidered

Toxicology as a nanoscience?
The establishment of socially highly esteemed research fields opens up possibilities for a variety of scientific disciplines to participate within innovative research questions and partake of available research funds. Controversial issues like the potential risks of nanoscientific research, open the field to disciplines like toxicology that are qualified in the analysis of such issues, due to their cognitive and institutional background. By entering the emerging field of nanosciences and -technologies, toxicology is not only faced with the question of its contribution to current social debates on potential risks, but furthermore – and this is the central theme of our article – also with implications for its own disciplinary identity. Is toxicology or will it become, one of the constitutive nanosciences and -technologies?

Within the field of the nanosciences and -technologies, toxicology is contributing significantly to risk research through its epistemic and ontological tradition as a testing science. In this, its orientation toward externally given problem definitions, such as the supply of concrete statements on the health implications of particles within the nanometer scale as a basis for potential regulation, plays an important role. Problem orientation and context sensitivity, particularly toward (future) nano-technologies, enables toxicology to undertake an identity-shaping role, from a cognitive, institutional and social perspective. However, in this phase of the 'nano-scientific challenge', different positions and perceptions exist on the current and future role of toxicology within or outside of nanosciences. Hence, the formation of toxicology's disciplinary identity is shaped by cognitive aspects, such as its long research experience on the health effects of different materials, and its production of practical knowledge bases. Furthermore, institutional aspects, such as funding acquisition strategies and questions of reputation are shaping its disciplinary identity. Currently, toxicology finds itself in a transitional phase. The development of its disciplinary identity is incremental, open-ended and underdetermined.

All of our interview partners stressed the necessity of repositioning toxicology. However, they all suggested most different approaches. While some exponents of particle toxicology are already propagandizing the establishment of a new discipline -'nanotoxicology'- others are more reserved and demand a clear separation between traditional and new research areas. Furthermore, some toxicologists are afraid of encouraging social controversies over the potential risks of nanotechnologies. Hence, they aim to demarcate the field of nanosciences and -technologies on the basis of terminology. However, this competes with the interests of neighboring disciplines, also interested in benefiting from the research funds available within this field.

In both cases, aspects of 'boundary work' can be observed. By expanding its boundaries, participating in new research fields, continuing its traditional research, and only vaguely defining its research area, toxicology is trying to find its way into the new field without giving up its current disciplinary self-conception. Hence, there are a variety of possibilities: Alongside a general technical reorientation (change in thought-style), it is equally possible, if not even more probable, that toxicology is responding with external and internal differentiation. Thus, it faces current challenges (nanotoxicology) without neglecting its traditional expertise (toxicology as a testing science). Why choose when you can have both?

The development of a discipline into a new research field is shaped by science-internal aspects (cognitive and institutional) as well as by an orientation toward external problem definitions. In the transitional phases of disciplinary development, research communities do not act consistently. Rather, they establish diverse options by canceling definitional, epistemic and ontological boundaries. The fact that toxicological knowledge of the bio-reactivity and material behavior of a variety of substances and materials can be put to therapeutic uses, plays a substantial role. In particular, this therapeutic orientation enables toxicology to transform from its traditional role as an attendant and testing science into a 'productive' discipline. In this way, toxicology can 'ascend' from being an auxiliary science into a tendentious constitutive position. The question of whether context and the disciplinary requirements of certain problems not only enable the establishment of a discipline within an influential research field, but, was assumed in the case of the therapeutic orientation of toxicology in the nano-sciences, also lead to a transformation within the previous discipline cannot be answered completely. The positions currently vary. This is also the assessment of Vicky Colvin, who sees the role of toxicology in the nanosciences as one between "gatekeeper" and "player". According to her: "The paradigm shift really is not seeing toxicology as a gatekeeper but seeing toxicology as a point of information that allows you to generate more biocompatible materials" [56].

Nevertheless, we assume that also here the shaping of disciplinary identities will proceed incrementally and opportunistically. This will not only happen through a comprehensive new formation of toxicology in the sense of a paradigm-shift (nanotoxicology) and not only through the expansion of its classical scope (toxicology as a testing science also within the field of the nanosciences and -technologies). Rather, this will happen through internal differentiation i.e., both of the above as well as external differentiation. Hence, it is possible that individual researchers or research groups working in toxicology will migrate into neighboring disciplines like 'pharmacy' or 'nano-medicine'. Everything still seems possible, and everything at the same time: Why choose when you can have everything?


We very much thank the Cogito Foundation, Switzerland, which funded this project. We'd also like to thank Mario Kaiser, Science Studies, University of Basel; Alfred Nordmann and Andreas Lösch, TU Darmstadt; Barbara Orland, ETH and University of Zurich, Joachim Schummer, Hyle; Jochen Hennig, HU Berlin; Kornelia Konrad, EAWAG Kastanienbaum; Christopher Coenen and Ulrich Fiedeler, Research Center Karlsruhe for their helpful comments on this paper at the workshop, Medien der Wissen(schaft)skommunikation: Erprobungen analytischer Konzepte am Fall, Nanotechnologie' des DFG-Projektes ,,Räume der medizinischen Mikro- und Nanotechnologie. Institute for Sociology at Technical University of Darmstadt. Last but not least, we'd like to thank our interview partners for participating in this study: Urs Baltensberger, ETH Zurich (CH); Paul Borm, Zuyd University Heerle (NL),; Arie Bruinink and Peter Wick, EMPA St. Gallen (CH); Thomas Eikmann, Universiy of Giessen (D); Peter Gehr and Marianne Geiser Kamber, University of Bern (CH); Heinrich Hofmann, EPF Lausanne (CH); Jörg Kreuter, University of Frankfurt (D); Wolfgang Kreyling and Holger Schulz GSF München (D); Harald Krug, Silvia Diabaté and Jörg Wörle-Knirsch, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe (D); Günther Oberdörster, University of Rochester (USA).

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