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The future is but a word

Exploring the scientist’s discourses on the future and their implications
L’avenir n’est qu’un mot. Exploration des discours scientifiques sur le futur et leurs implications
El futuro es sólo una palabra. Explorando el discurso científico sobre el futuro y sus implicaciones
Emília Araújo et Bárbara Guimarães


La recherche scientifique est conçue aujourd’hui comme largement dépendante d’une perspective court-termiste et en quête de légitimité sociale. On analyse ici la littérature existante sur le concept de futur et essaie d’explorer ses significations principales pour les scientifiques dans leurs recherches. Les auteurs analysent quelques conséquences de cette référence de plus en plus fréquente au futur dans les agendas de recherche en se basant sur des entretiens avec des scientifiques travaillant au sein de plusieurs projets dans des laboratoires de recherche portugais. À partir d’une revue de littérature sur les liens entre science, temps et futur, on constate que les scientifiques ressentent de nombreuses difficultés aujourd’hui dans leurs rapports scientifiques avec le long terme principalement en raison de la pression du marché sur les innovations scientifiques. En regard des profils et des discours rencontrés, il s’agit de pointer les risques et les défis qui s’annoncent dans ce conflit entre court et long terme dans la recherche scientifique.

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1This text provides some insights about two main questions: What do scientists and academics think about the images and discourses circulating in the public space that give accounts of a technoscientific future ? How do they position themselves in relation to an economy that increasingly sees the future as science and innovation driven?

2Indeed, sustainable development (Sachs, 2015) is often conceived as implying a deep intersection between natural time and social time (Adam, 1994 ; 1996 ; 1998, 2000). Neckel (2017, p. 47) asserts that “sustainability has a particular temporality: it is a future-oriented model that is to take effect in the present. Sustainability stands for a societal developmental goal that aspires to provide for the future by reaching an equilibrium between the consumption of resources and their conservation. In the time horizon of the present, sustainability is understood as a mode of action by means of which the overexploitation of resources can be curbed, and the developmental goal of resources security achieved”.

3In addition to this unity between social time and natural time, sustainability also assumes the permanent and stable alignment of these times (Adam, 2004). In Adam’s theoretical approach, Rosa (2015) provides a view on time acceleration that allows us to assert that the balance between all times, in order to assure constant development, is that is having increasingly tragic consequences. At least three main trends explain this tragedy: i) the pressure for technical acceleration; ii) the institutionalization of short time, that is the need to react to immediate queries and demands in all the spheres of life, and iii) the increasing pressure on economics to use the future as an object of consumption (and business) in the present. In fact, Adam (2012, p. 1) notes that “present future is the position taken daily in economic, political and institutional future-making practice.” In the present time, the economy increasingly strives to discover ways to explore the future commercially, thus making it an object of purchase; an object of libidinal consumption. From this point of view, even sustainability becomes marketable.

4In other words, the economy (the economy that values the future and the past as money) is largely supported by the commercial exchange and ideological manipulation of various types and modalities of time—such as natural, historical, and cultural time. These processes do not affect all societies and groups in the same way, or at once. It depends on their knowledge of natural and historical time, as well as on their resource based ability to deconstruct these processes. This is not very easy, like in the line taken by Appadurai (2013), the developmental economy “of the future,” as it is now being put into practice, is based on the disjunction between culture and economics. This kind of disjuncture expands without considering the time-memory or the historical time of the populations that it affects. It arguably creates even more of a chasm between past and the future—a future that Appadurai conceives as being a cultural choice (2013). Adam’s views are interesting here, as the author distinguished the present future, from the future present, the one that demands the assumption that “shaping the future is an inescapably sociopolitical act, [one] which belongs to the realm of morals and ethics (2012, p. 1).

5Nowadays the present future has spread into all the spheres of social and cultural life. Radical transformation of styles and modes of life is promised based on technoscientific development as presented, offered, and sold at every moment. Therefore, future (like the present) becomes associated with an extended series of images and discourses that produces a very homogenous sense of it: a technoscientific territory into which life is plunged—and within which life is expected to be lived. Copious health-related products, devices, and services are illustrations of the how the future is being dealt with to fuel innovation and to give shape to new features of the economy of the future, largely supported on the principles of prevention and anticipation. Cryopreservation of the umbilical cord is a good example. Many other examples could be mentioned, like in cancer prevention and treatment.

6Normally, the “future” is associated with other messages that emphasize its power to reduce uncertainty and to increase the ability to anticipate potential diseases “here” and “now”. In the areas of mobility, transport, and urbanization, messages are very centered around the “construction of the future”, signaling that the future is in the present (present future). A recent content showing the results of a collaborative project between the University of Minho and Bosch promises that it will show now “the cockpit of [the] future” (July 2018)1. Contents about recent innovations in car building also state that it is possible to already have “the bombs of the future at our feet” (Jornal de Notícias, June 8)2. Others say that at this moment “robots will debate the future of humans” (Jornal de Noticias, June 12, 2017)3. Even informative periodicals which are read by children convey the same idea of a determined technological future sealed with the jargon “how you will live in 2050” (Visão, January 4, 2018)4. These messages encapsulate several meanings. Most of them support the idea of a disruptive, essentially technoscientific future already being here. Not only do they tend to underestimate the past, but they also play with various meanings associated with the “future already [being] here.” They make a strong argument about the unknown and uncertain nature of the future and how it is being now tackled with revolutionary technology and innovation (because we live in “the now”). That is why they appeal to the idea that “the future is now” and that there is a need to “activate the future” now.

7Adam asserts that “there can be no scientifically objective/neutral trespassing on the future present of others or borrowing from successors. Importantly, the standpoint of the future present facilitates a recognition that we are responsible for time-space distantiated effects of in/actions in progress that will [materialize sometime], somewhere” (Adam, 2012, p. 1). This idea leads to an even greater interest in debating the images and messages that are being used and disseminated about the “future” (as present future). In fact, the whole grammar about the future does not relate to more visions. Rather, they are real facts—material objects—which dictate social practices. That is why they need to be identified, and problematized or deconstructed.

8Indeed, approaches about the future, sustainability, and long-term duration tend to be quite normative, insofar as the future (besides its “materiality”) is regarded as needing care and responsibility. And amazingly, technoscience is regarded as a source of “long-term creations” that “have the potential to threaten not only individual existences across space and time but also the continuity of all species, that is, life as we know it” (Adam, 2011, p. 16). Therefore, one could assume that instead of a future as a sociological and real category of action directed towards social action, we are increasingly exposed to a future that is used and manipulated in the present as a product to be commercialized (often as a lifestyle).

9This text starts with this idea about the prominence of the “technoscientific futures” and their embeddedness in daily life in the present. It continues the debate, assuming the role played by scientists today in fostering these discourses through their participation in rapid innovation in science and engineering, as well as in producing these messages spread in society.

10Therefore, we begin by briefly describing the theoretical framework before presenting the data analysis, with a view to providing some answers to the above-mentioned questions.

A brief history of the future

11The future has some tradition in social theory, particularly in the West, where it has been given great ideological and political connotations (Bell & Mau, 1971; Adam & Groves, 2007, Adam, 2011). In fact, conceptions about the future are highly debatable as they regard the in-use concepts of social and historical time (Koselleck, 2000, 2004), as well as of its reality (Mac Taggart, 1908). As stated by Lundmark, in the West “The” future was strongly conceived and imagined from the perspective of a linear and absolute time, by which the “basic relation between events can be placed along a stable time line” (Lundmark, 1993, p. 68). In any case, in Western culture, the future is represented as a “time ahead” of the present and, as we know, this is extremely controversial if we consider other cultures where the future, as an unknown, is represented as being “behind the present”.

12In recent years several studies in the West have addressed the concept, raising fundamental questions about the future as a time ahead of the present—questions which are of a political, scientific, cultural and ethical nature (Felt, 2018). One of the main points tackled in the literature is that of the type of conceptions of time underlying the views about the future, as well as conceptions of the actions taken aimed at the future. Adam and Groves developed a normative conceptualization of the future as an object of the present (2007)—the future present. Adam (2004, 2011) is particularly inspired by Mead’s approaches on the emergent nature of time (Mead, 1932) and by Jonas (2006). By bringing together several approaches on historical and social time, Adam gives relevance both to dynamics and permanence, cause and consequence, signaling that time demands an ethical and normative posture if it is to be analyzed and criticized.

13Adam puts together the concept of future and the concept of long-duration time to state that long duration does not mean permanence per se, or the absence of either change or process and dynamics. In Adam’s view the future is connected to long-duration time because it is expected to mean that human and social existence can be safeguarded in a time ahead. As a result, a long-durational time perspective means, above all, the recognition of a sense of consistency and responsibility both towards the past and the future (Jonas, 2006). It is heavily dependent on values (Adam, 1998, 2011); on what societies can establish as common goals for natural-world and social-world time—a condition of “world system history,” to borrow an expression from Luhmann (1976). That is why the author links the concept of the future with that of sustainability, by sharing the view that future is being made in the present. In fact, sustainability has attracted a lot of attention since the late 20th century.

14The concept of future goes hand in hand with it. Climate change, the expansion of artificial intelligence, mobility and migrations and disasters are just some examples of phenomena that have become general preoccupations about the future. Therefore, values and ethics are pivotal questions to be addressed. Notwithstanding, as stated above, existing approaches tend to link the sustainable futures or “possible futures,” using Shultz’s approach (2004), with a long-duration temporal perspective of the future. Similarly, they argue that the necessary conditions need to be built in the present to prevent the future from suffering negative consequences of present actions. This implies the need to advocate the “continuity” and permanence of past, present, and future. It also takes account of their linkage with a long-term temporal perspective, encapsulating the meaning given by Braudel (1980) to his concept of structural time. They are needed as conditions for sustainability. Nevertheless, one must remember that, in practice, various concepts of sustainability are anchored in different and conflicting values. This is also the case of perspectives of long-durational time. It is not possible to advance here without understanding the materiality and the reality of the future. This is an important step towards a clearer perception of the need to increase the debate about the issue. In fact, it is often accepted as axiomatic that the existing images and discourses of the future are the product of the arts. The idea that they are (pure) science fiction is found in at least three arguments:

  • There is a separation between religion, science fiction, and culture

  • Lay citizens (of societies) can understand the distinction between science fiction and “reality” and take it into account in everyday practice

  • “The” historical future happens independently of the images and discourses that circulate about it.

15This positioning is obviously critical. Adam and Groves (2007) note that the future is not external to society’s values and its imaginaries. They argue that cognitive time structures result from values and representations that are socially and culturally inbuilt. They also suggest that science has been responsible for the consolidation of a linear and an accumulative view of the future which is built on the ideals of Enlightenment for the case of western societies, and which are strongly sedimented on the Judeo-Christian thoughts on time (Clark, Golinski, Schaffer, 1999). This vision of the future coincides with a long-durational perspective in which change, and dynamics are commonly regarded as occurring incrementally as products of technological and scientific development.

16As has been repeatedly mentioned, the greatest dilemmas in social thought concern the linkages between long duration, permanence, change and rupture. Post-structuralist approaches focus on this question. Authors such as Giddens (1991), Appadurai (2013), and Beck (1992) called attention to some temporal specificities of modernity. In their view, modernity is characterized by an intense search to break with permanence and the long-durational time perspective. That is, modernity seeks to break with its past, and to impose the centrality of a future (as a product of the present). Scientific and technological developments are sought as the main driving forces for enabling that break to occur. More than uncertainty, the authors say this corresponds to the individualization of the risk and the experience of insecurity.

17Amongst other reasons, this is because they directly and rapidly model culture and society, thereby changing everyday life, social relationships, and lifestyles—doing so from within. The fact is that temporal perspectives are social constructions. They are constitutive of the social; but they are also products of the social as well as the cultural. In general, however, the social participation in the building of the future is low and lacks account of the temporal diversities that characterize each group, or society.

18Thus, Adam’s approach to future present is followed herein (2011; 2012). It is assumed that an ever-growing number of science and technology-based images and messages about societies’ futures are objects of cultural constructions. That they are being conceived in response to the increasing need for science to be in charge of bringing the future into the present and fueling the economic dynamics in informational and technoscientific capitalism (Adams, Murphy & Clarke, 2009). It is also assumed that these discourses impose a certain view of historical and social times on citizens, making them become conformed to a deterministic vision of the future that is mostly undemocratic, because it is not discussed. Nevertheless, being performative, they influence and frame individuals’ and collective actors’ actions and postures toward their future. For instance, making them believe that robots will interact perfectly (as humans) and will naturally be able to make moral judgments or express (human) feelings or emotions. Various advertisements are deeply rooted in that interpretation and significance.

19We should then revisit the idea that science and technology was greatly responsible for the building of a linear time perspective which lies behind the concept of present future. This has a marked influence on the ways in which citizens build time perspectives and comprehend their lives. It also considers that scientists are central actors, uttering and building all the grammar about science and technology; they are also responsible for the public perception of science and technology—and thus committed to reflection on it.

20As Adam states, “there is nothing in the concept of Scientia that would prohibit its extensions to theological causes and a redefinition of immateriality that encompasses immanence. In other words, the incorporation of future present, not only present future, into the scientific frame of reference” (Adam, 2011, p. 12). In fact, it is possible to establish the hypothesis that there is a dissociation between cultural and social times, and technoscientific economic times that jeopardizes the achievement of sustainable goals for humankind. But to what extent? Are scientists aware of that? Do they see the future as an important issue in their work? How do they assess their engagement with the future, and what importance do they ascribe to that? These are the questions addressed herein that analyze specifically what scientists say about the twofold futures: the future present and the present future.

Methodological Note

21Research and reflection on the temporal horizons entail making various decisions on research methods and the modes of information analysis, since studying time is also a matter of epistemology (Adam, 1990).

22This text results from ongoing work about the links between the temporal perspectives, social practices and temporalization (Araújo, 2018) in science and academy. This work is conducted through the observation of and interviews with teachers and researchers. It has addressed several questions on the importance and value ascribed to time and future in science, including those presented above. More specifically, this text results from a reflection based on 26 interviews made between September 2017 and July 2018 in Portuguese universities and research centers with full-time researchers and teachers at the university who also do research and perform administrative and management tasks. The interviews were made in the context of two studies (table in appendix): 23 for a study on working in and with science and 3 interviews for an ongoing study about academic times, experiences, horizons and challenges (Araujo, 2018).

23The sample methods for both studies obeyed the principals of the theoretical sampling method. As Flick (2009) explains, theoretical sampling is suitable when the subject of study is exploratory or difficult to apprehend. This implies using theoretical backgrounds to decide who is going to be included in the research. Teachers, researchers, as well as scientists who also have decision making positions were considered in the sampling process, which used the convenience method to identify the people. As noted, the study is still ongoing, and more interviews will be conducted in other scientific areas.

24The interview guide used in both studies included some questions on how and what scientists thought about the science profession, personal expectations, time uses, the role and value of their work as scientists, the concept of future they mobilize in response to the widespread idea of a technoscientific future. It is these last dimensions that are of interest to this text.

25To understand time, a comprehensive perspective must be adopted that goes more deeply into the meanings social actors ascribe to the world in which they are living. Although an interview guide was used with different questions addressing time perspectives in scientific activities, much of the information gleaned was from I, their interviewees’ descriptions of their work, and its positive and negative sides. As noted above, the purpose of the text was to discern how far they identify themselves with the widespread discourse about the inevitable “technoscientific future”, and the extent to which they consider the long-term perspective important for their work as scientists. Hence, the following dimensions were analyzed:

  • The posture indicative of how scientists evaluate the technoscientific future grammar. This may come in to the form of indifference, eagerness, irony (and humor), or critique.

  • The nature of the effects that scientists identify and/or foresee as relevant in the present as well as in the future (historical and sociological time). These effects may be classified as either neutral or determinative.

  • The degree of action expected from the scientists and citizens themselves in response to the presence of images and discourses about their technoscientific future. Reactions may be either positive (adaptation) or negative (rupture).

26The building of a typology was informed by classifications already in use by other authors (Giulianotti, 2002) who have worked on the concept of styles when studying individual behavior in football.

27Although we believe that scientists deal with time in such a way that it shapes a specific “time milieu” which can be responsible for variations in the uses and perceptions of time at this stage, our aim was to adopt a more holistic approach that could provide a first overview of how scientists see the future in the context of their work and how they position themselves as scientists in relation to time norms in science. The text is therefore exploratory and the results are not intended to be generalized. Other contextual data needs to be examined to discern what variables can explain the differences in the styles of scientists’ discourses and practices that interfere with the semiotics of future in the present time, including gender.

28The analysis presented below strives mainly to provide evidence of each profile and its meanings. The goal was to justify the different modes of perceiving the connections between time for research, and time in research (Schultz, 2013); we also address some of the central arguments presented by the scientists about what they mean by future; the linkages they identify between their research and society long durational time; and their main judgments and evaluation of the presence of technological futures in day to day life.

29Regardless of its limitations, the results are consistent with the conclusions obtained in other studies, namely that there is the lack of engagement among intellectuals and scientists with the debates on long durational time. Therefore, this text should be understood as exploratory, as it contributes to the debate on the positioning and the importance of scientists and science in general in determining social and cultural times. It gives a preliminary view of the diversity of scientists’ interpretations and visions about their role in society both in the present and in the future; moreover, it allows us to discuss or, at least, question some linkages between the temporalities of the informational and innovation driven capitalism, and the temporalities of continuity and well-being.

Findings: scientist’s discourses on the future and their implications

The positioning of scientists: Acceptance

30The scientists interviewed accept that the “future”—as portrayed by the media and in circulation in the public space—is heavily associated with the power ascribed to science and technology to help societies secure a better quality of life in the present. Therefore, they assume a normative positioning and declare that science necessarily deals with the “problems of the future (present)”—proposing ways to prevent, anticipate, and avoid such problems. In their view, these images and messages are intentional, and are socially inbuilt and socially apprehended.

31They also assume that contents result from the need to justify science as a field of added value for society. They say that the word “future” is used as a symbol of scientific research out of an eagerness to show science’s role in the search for continuous improvements. As we pointed out in the previous section, major social issues such as health, lifestyle, well-being, transport, and mobility are identified by the scientists as the areas most embedded in the grammar of the “future.” The scientists, therefore, use three main arguments to explain why they agree that contents are strongly linked to science and technology developments:

  • i) Arguments of an ontological nature that stress the anticipated and visionary character of science—stressing that it can have a “determinative” power over the times ahead.

  • ii) Arguments of a pragmatic nature that stress the idea that science is deeply oriented towards innovation and the market (scientific entrepreneurship)—and so, the future ends up being used as a marketing feature that induces people to engage in the consumption of science.

  • iii) Arguments of a justificatory nature that stress the need for science and technology to be accountable.

32The use of the future is a way of attracting people’s attention and gaining recognition as to the impacts of science. This profile demonstrates what scientists think about how the natural and historical future is being presented to citizens by means of the public dissemination of science and technology. However, it is very embryonic regarding its analysis of the temporal perspectives that scientists espouse, in relation to the research that they do day by day. Therefore, we will present four acceptance sub-profiles that elucidate the differences in the positioning of scientists, in light of the three abovementioned main dimensions, from which it has been possible to define a set of four main sub-profiles of acceptance: supporters, followers, silent protesters, and critics.

33We will now address each individually.

Table 1. Scientists’ Profiles in terms of their understanding of the present future



(10 interviews


(9 interviews)

Silent protester

(3 interviews)

Silent Critic

(4 interviews


Irony and indifference




Nature of the effects





Type and degree of action



Hesitation and care

Rupture and reaction

Most salient arguments

Pragmatic +

Ontological -

Pragmatic +

Ontological +

Justificatory +

Ontological -

Justificatory +

Ontological -

Source: Authors’ Elaboration based on the analysis of 26 interviews


The supporters

34The supporters accept the idea that even if the messages and contents of scientific communication refer to ongoing studies, they either carry or intend to transport citizens to spectacular interpretations that show the advances of science and technology. They therefore claim that various social actors reproduce these messages with no clear goal. Their positionings contrast with our assumptions. For them, such discourses do not determine any vision of the future; neither do they have any kind of impact on the temporality of everyday social practices. In fact, they consider that these images and discourses do not confuse citizens, since they have enough knowledge to distinguish science from science fiction. From their perspective, there is a clear disjunction between the future as presented and built by media and the historical future.

35In sum, the scientists interviewed with this profile accept that the representations in the media about the technoscientific future’s lack of reality are “futuristic.” That is, they are very exaggerated ways of presenting the results of scientific research. However, they view these as anodyne. That is, although the historical “future” is heavily dependent on science and technology, it is dissociated from the discourses and images that are circulating in a completely neutral manner—as incremental, historical, and social time is an external reality. They believe that science and technology are driving forces in society. Therefore, they share the idea that society needs to know how to “adapt” to technoscientific innovations, to reduce resistance or the sensation of rupture. Thus, rapid cultural changes need to take place in order to fulfill this project. That is why they say that the communication of science strategies needs to be improved.

The followers

36The second profile is that of followers—those that celebrate the democratization of the determined future; one that is scientifically, and technology built. They accept the existence and the widespread prevalence of the positive technoscientific messages and images of a time ahead and consider that such ideas will be concretized. Additionally, they consider that this will be positive for humankind and will ameliorate quality of life in many ways.

37The following statements also express the same ideas about the close ties between present-day science and the images being circulating about the future:

“The nanotechnology has social concerns… it will bring [about] great evolutions [;] and this boom will happen soon… new drugs, [and innovative methods of diagnosis]” (Interview13).

“There is strong concern with creating added value, intellectual property… [and with regard to] looking for local partners and helping them develop their technology and that may be a game of words and I’m just talking about helping economically [but at this time] that is also a social aid” (Interview 16).

“[Nanotechnology] will incessantly influence [the provision of] many things and [will completely change our] way of life. There will be a new wave of nanotechnology emerging that is called the internet of things and that just means that [Nanotechnology] will be connected to everything. A chair […] will have a sensor to say when it’s going break, the table [… and] the table [will have a ‘disposition’display] that will tell us […] how fast we are eating… [or] when the food is getting cold… We’re leaning towards the sensorization of everything […] All for our comfort of life” (Interview 16).

38These followers identify the natural future and the historical future as being products of science and technology, now being directed towards the resolution and eradication of multiple difficulties of human and social life. Therefore, for them, there are no great gaps between what people are able to represent and imagine about the future, what is being done, and what will happen. These followers clearly express the idea of time as a series of linearly progressive steps, arguing that the present is radically “better” than years before. For instance, nanotechnology will be an effective realization of an utopia, which began many ages ago and has accelerated through the modern age.

The silent critics

39The scientists considered under this profile accept that the strongest temporal image circulating today based on science is that the future will be favored by a wide range of technoscientific alternatives that will change people’s way of life. However, they disagree with this mode of dissemination and presentation of science and technological innovation. They consider there is no essentialist tie between the current practice of science and the natural and historical future. Mostly, they consider that the way future has been featured is overexaggerated. Their view is that it reveals a lack of perseverance about the practice of research in science which does not disclose the uncertainty that characterizes it.

40These scientists are skeptical about the use of words like “healing” and “eradication” because they consider such goals as being impossible to achieve—something that science cannot commit to. One interviewee declares that the science and technology circulating in popular culture is very focused on the idea of healing and on the idea of the end of uncertainty and insecurity in relation to diseases, disasters, and other calamities. In addition to rejecting this possibility, they also consider that these means of making a scientific and technological future come true only happens for one reason: because it urges the legitimization of science and gets its public recognition. Most parts of this hide the limits and the uncertainty of science and ignorance with regard to its future consequences.

41They also point out that within the science and technology domain, there will inevitably be a human factor. For them, this outcome is also a condition of that future. One of the scientists, being asked about the importance given to the future in her/his research, says that, although working with intelligent computing systems, they think that “the machine must have a human physical control” (E8). They consider that the “existence” of the society in natural time depends on the human capacity to control that technoscience and to prevent society from the construction of a technoscientific way of life. Interestingly (with regard to these interviews) they do not advance any guideline or proposal to overcome what they see as being an exaggerated, fictional, and “frightening” future. However, they argue that science is trapped in the short time, which incompatible with the evaluation of the impacts that some innovation will have in the future (Interview 11 and Interview 20), for instance coming from developments in quantic physics.

The silent protesters

42This profile has a lot in common with the previous one. The silent protesters propose effective manners of overcoming the representation of the “future.” In their view, present-day science is overly dependent on the market, patents, and innovation. In their view, the contents that identify and determine the future as technoscientific, whether utopian or dystopian, should be deconstructed. In their opinion, this is possible through public participation and understanding science and technology. Those interviewed consider it important for scientists to be able to show the weaknesses of science and technology research, and to demystify its commercial use.

Does the distinction between long and short duration matter?

43Following the debates already initiated (Schultz, 2013), we can say that this deconstruction of the types of discourse allows us to observe that, underlying the acceptance of the widespread imaginary portrayals of the technoscientific future, there is also a great disjunction between what scientists consider to be the ontological principles of science and what scientists can and will do to participate in the construction of images that work as triggers for the consumption of innovations in the present. One of the interviewees commented “sometimes I don’t publish because the work is not yet publishable, and I think: is that okay? Science is what is being publishable? Or is it something else… something I am… things I am trying to gather for the sake of society?” (Interview 31).

44In other words, what they consider to be the long duration development of scientific knowledge is disconnected from the comparatively short temporal horizons (or futures) and time spans within which scientists work.

45Contrary to what happens with the modes of evaluating the widespread messages about the high probability of a technologically already-determined future, we are not able to classify or arrive at such accurate typologies of long and short durational perspectives in relation to scientific practices, as understood by scientists themselves.

46To be precise, scientists say that they experience a constant tension between thinking about what they do every day and what they are obliged to do, and what they have been asking for, and/or when their work will be important (and what their work will be important for). They also share the idea that short-termism, temporal dynamicity, and variance in scientific practices are dominant factors. They are so dominant that scientists feel they have no time to care deeply about either the past (about what was done before them, and how), or the future, that is, responding deeply to societal challenges and challenges of humankind, considering the pressures and the contradictions they say they have to face in terms of funds, and evaluation procedures. There is a distinction between those scientists who share the view that historical and social times are intrinsically disruptive—necessitating the making of constant adaptions to contingencies (ones that do not per se constrain the development of “stability”)—and those who are of the opinion that there is an historical and social timeline to which innovations and technoscientific developments must adapt in order to maintain their order and permanence. All of them, however, state they experience great tensions between responding to short-term time demands (which they consider to be caused by the pressure to socially legitimize science and technology advances) and long-term ones.

47They declare that most of their research is on topics and subjects which are politically oriented and established. Moreover, they say that there is a conscious gap between the temporal extension and excellence of the research projects (as submitted to fund agencies) and the actual ability to provide an accurate evaluation of the impacts and consequences of each result in future. Therefore, for the most part, scientists agree that the science that is done in practice is only slightly oriented towards long term applications, because “I need to develop things that are literally applied.” (E20).

48The scientists that we can insert in this profile express a strong conflict between the pressure for short-term gains and what they feel is the need for an investigation without imposed time limits and without penalties. More often than not, scientists are restrained in time and freedom of investigation by the likes of what funding agencies and private funding establish as priorities towards the immediate future, as well as the deadlines set for publication or acknowledgment of the research results; as a result, scientists address short term goals and disregard a broader view of the major concerns about the future.

49Scientists who are also critical of the images and discourses of a high technoscientific nature share the idea that science and technology need to be combined with the temporalities of each society and culture and be matched to their rhythms, because the challenge is to reconcile this quite slowly in order to avoid ruptures that, in their understanding, can also be politically frightening. The interviewees argued that the temporal process associated to innovation and the societal need for originality to be inscribed through patents may be interrupted on condition that firms and stakeholders can delay the process or change their goals (for instance, by only conforming to commercial purposes). Interviewees stated that private institutions, such as pharmaceutical companies, can imprint a singular need on research practices since they have great interest in securing patents with commercial purposes, entering into the global commercialization of the future as a way of life.

50The interviewees claimed that uncertainty and risk are associated with two different things: the pressure to shorten testing times and launch the product into the market; and the fact that, in some cases, despite the potential relevance of the results for society, they are not considered to be profitable and are therefore not submitted for more in-depth research. In the latter case, patenting may be a mere indicator of research activity. This final statement allows us to establish the predominance of time as a resource, as well as time as a horizon. Both are deeply ingrained in cultural milieux, even though they have rarely been examined or discussed as political matters. As occurs with patenting-related timelines, reflexivity towards the time of media exposure also raises some important ethical time-related questions for scientists in terms of the nature of the time difference between science’s own temporal limits (imposed by uncertainty of both the results and the moment when they will be ready for use) and the interests that current media agencies have in terms of immediate and anticipated need.

51The most important concern conveyed by scientists about this type of relationship with the media is related to research results in areas that entail risk, such as health. In their opinion, there is a gap between the expectations created by the media, and the real length of time required for an innovative method, equipment, or medicine to take shape. They say that this process sometimes takes around 10 years to be developed and may be of no use for those expecting it within a specific time frame, that is, within the time frame in which the media had led them to believe the results would be available. Media time is of concern because scientists feel that they are being evaluated by society, and they also understand that they need to be accountable for their work and show its utility. However, they know that they cannot fulfill all the promises and expectations that society creates in relation to science—promises which, to a large extent, are engendered by media discourses that highlight the exponential potentialities of science.

52Together with media time, there is ethical time which encompasses scientists’ concerns over the need and duty to respond to a set of requirements related to responsible research. Attending to these ethical requirements also involves anticipation, as well as waiting (including delays), since various protocols need to be established with different entities, which also have their own timetables, and this is a lengthy process that is not always compatible with the deliverable time, that is, the need to constantly respond to and the research goals or research agenda. As stated before, the relationship between present future and future present is complex. The large majority of the scientists stated that the two were in permanent tension.

53However, most of them are effectively engaged with accomplishing what they consider to be the “problems of society,” “the need to change it and ameliorate this” or that aspect of it, and to work in collaboration with a chain of actors involved in innovation and increasing the social recognition of science. This means that there are those among them who do not completely share the view that science and technology research need to be committed to designing already socially embedded and construed technoscientific futures, and criticize the lack of a present future view of the science being developed. Along this line of reasoning, the words of the interviewee below reflect a sentiment repeated in many interviews:

“Sometimes we’re not very realistic because things are much more complex. But we can apply the knowledge and be more useful to society […] Bring quality of life… I mean… But of course, that’s subjective… I mean, I have a chance to get a lot of things… We always want more and more but… [I am] contradicting myself… We do not need a lot of that stuff. The [nanotechnology] can give us [a] powerful car… But do we need it? In the future, maybe we’ll get to the flying cars… Part of science has been inspired [from] these movies… now [do we] improve? [That] depends on a number of people! Now, [say we want to] develop solar cars… nanotechnology can have a very good impact. On figuring out how” “There may come a day when we can store energy [in ways never before seen] and then great, we can have solar cars”. But it depends on what it is; on the direction we take”. (Interview 4)


54As the last quote indicates, the data are worthy of a broader interpretation that links the design of the future with a long-term perspective on science. In fact, there are many concerns about extremely diverse aspects of sustainability nowadays and which appeal to the future and to long-term horizons of that future. They also require an opportunity to map and analyze time perspectives of the relationships between various systems and actors from a causality perspective. In the case of the discussion about the “overpresence” of a technoscientific future in people’s everyday lives, an analysis must be made of science and technology. The calls for science projects to recurrently use time dates and definitions (Horizon 2020, Europa 2030, Millennium Development Goals, etc.) demonstrate stakeholders’ preoccupation about the present future. Therefore, long-term concerns over the unknown are both part of the normative frameworks of scientists and are reflected in the ways research projects are built so that they can promise solutions and results with auspicious impacts in this “metafuture.”

55If the cultural ‘buy-in’ into sustainability is being made on the basis of a causal and linear relationship vis-à-vis social and historical time, then it is assumed that the libidinal and anticipatory images of the future, as experienced and believed in the present, are autopoietic and can affect the production of “the” future. However, it seems clear that from a perspective of a theory of practice, the extension and depth of the future, as socialized and integrated in the collective and individual cognitive structures, exerts great influence on both the understanding and evaluation of the link between sustainability, a collective future, and a long-duration perspective.

56Some studies have concluded that higher education and research institutions are traversed by multiple time conflicts, including between responding to short-time and long-time demands. However, as we can perceive through our interviews and observations, the depth and extent of these long-time perspectives vary considerably according to the scientists. That is, long-duration time and the metafuture (now understood to be equivalents) seem to be more components of the mystic (associated with the visionary power of science) than components of the daily practice of scientists.

57These characteristics would suffice to question why the “determined” technoscientific future permeates so intensely in the public space, favoring the social readings on new consumption practices and a new imaginary life that are disconnected from present historical time and from the historical future To some extent, this is useless or jeopardizes the construction of images of the future that can guide social and human action. Is the scientist too committed to the future present” or to the “present future? Do they deviate from the present future because they are constrained into doing so, or because they choose to do so?

58Despite the exploratory nature of the data, it is very apparent that scientists are extremely worried about the short-time immediacy, which is fragmented. They continue to be preoccupied with elaborating strategies to monitor and reduce the uncertainty.

59On demonstrating that scientists accepted the idea that the “future” and the long-term temporal perspective are the object of discussion in the public space, we identified three profiles of this acceptance. It was demonstrated that scientists in each profile assume that this discussion is justified in light of the need to legitimize science that is being “funded” in the present.

60The postures vary between irony, refusal, or full acceptance; and the responses of the scientists interviewed show that the “concern for the future” (translated into the long-duration analysis of the research carried out in this study) is fundamentally a linguistic resource. It is a resource that they pass on to someone to construct the project’s temporal architecture research. There are also ways to “promise” results that society will find positive and interesting. Long-term horizons and long-term impacts are thereby dissociated from the horizons of scientific practice, dated and chronologically orchestrated according to the production of indicators that are themselves the potential of future time, under the (promised and guaranteed) form of new projects. The analysis we have made finds a dissociation between long-term positioning (as a collective concern) and the daily practice of science that obeys the need to respond to the immediate time.

61Scientists assume that the reference to long time in the project’s goals is nothing more than a symbolic response to the temporal condition imposed by agents and external agents that determine the priority areas of research. This means that the practice of science produced today is extremely stratified as regards the temporal spaces of reflection on the present future, because time for innovation and the market take precedence over reflection over the consequences of innovation in the long run. The proliferation of images and discourses about the technoscientific future is no more than a consequence of this state of affairs.

62The idea presented at the beginning of the text remains robust. Much of the scientific dissemination that is now being made through various means of communication, including advertising for conferences and scientific meetings, uses discourses and images about the future. As an immediate response of citizens, this is an empowering consumption. And citizens are still unable to discern the frontiers between those images and the possible futures. Therefore, there is a risk of becoming socialized with such images and representations of the future and this will lead them to act accordingly regardless of any discussion about the values overlooked and the ensuing consequences. It is of the utmost importance to return to the discussion about responsible science (Felt, 2018, Miller et al., 2017, Konrad et al., 2017, Ottinger et al. 2017).

63In fact, responsibility means anticipating the consequences of possible actions and changes in the present and dealing with those choices in a cautionary way, according to the risks they may represent in future. The data collected show that there is a strong connection between what is happening in the field of scientific time and temporalities, and what is changing in people’s minds in terms of temporal representations. Revisiting the approach of the silent protesters, we could in fact argue that a pedagogical intervention is required across society, beginning with the ways in which the future is being communicated to different publics through different kinds of media, so as to avoid a determinist and conformist posture about the future and about the long-term outlook. As stated, we are not yet able to put forward a typology to understand the long term. However, many of the discussions within science on sustainability, and science for sustainability, are only tangentially supported by concepts and values concerning long-durational time and the ways and methods to build it.

Future: More than a word

64Data indicate that the economically-driven future (the economy centered on the future “here-and-now”) is given excessive weight and that politics also tends to be distracted away from discussions of long-durational time (Pillon & Quéré, 2014). Thus, and paradoxically, the (possible) historical future (a future as the future) becomes compromised by the excessive experience of the extensive future in the political action itself. Greater vulnerability to both natural and human disasters is therefore to be expected, as the present future dominates politically and scientifically. Various authors (Adam & Groves 2007 ; Appadurai, 2013) emphasize that culture (as well as history, memory, and aspiration) makes up part of the temporal experience of people It is fundamental to the design and planning of long-term timelines, thereby contributing to the construction of time horizons. Moreover, in keeping with the commitment to public participation in the design and planning of the future, culture can show developmental pathways that are consistent with temporal permanence and human perseverance in the future. That is, if we take into consideration Koselleck’s (2000, 2004) understanding about the role of experience and expectation in historical future enactment. However, in order for that to happen, politics must be involved in this cultural and natural choice.

65In line with Appadurai (2013), this text reaffirms that political action needs to be developed within the ethics of the possible rather than only within the ethics of the probable. International institutions with regulatory power, such as the UN, endorse this understanding. The “common future” that, in 1987, served as a motto to the UN Development plan remains a benchmark that highlights the ongoing importance of temporal considerations in political decision-making. They have proposed various measures to improve the relations between social, technological, and natural time. However, these measures lack realization in practice. In recent years, the economy and politics have discovered many ways of using the historical and social time; and they use both as marketable goods. The future is one of those seemingly ready-made products for selling and buying. Scientists are responding to this pressure in many ways which need to be discussed.

66The text leaves some ideas on the utmost importance of temporal perspectives to discerning what is happening with the different forms of commercializing the future, disconnecting it from a long-durational time historical and social perspective. A pedagogical and educative orientation on the uses and meanings of what constitutes “future” would be of relevance, if it is considered that doing so contributes to the deconstruction of the determined and technoscientific view of what “will” happen and changing it to a discussion about what “may happen” (Araújo, 2018). The data collected from the interviews allows for this potential area of future research.

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Table 1. Information on the interviews

Interview no.

Scientific area


Applied physics and computer technology


Theoretical physics




Chemical engineering


Physical engineering


Electronical and communication engineering








Engineering and material sciences


Engineering and Physics


Biomedical engineering


Chemical engineering


Physical engineering


Chemical engineering


Biomedical engineering


Chemistry (PhD in nanotechnology)






Biotechnology engineering


Biological engineering






Informatics *also teacher at the university and with academic management work


Engineering *also teacher at the university and with academic management work


Mathematics *also teacher at the university and with academic management work

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Emília Araújo et Bárbara Guimarães, « The future is but a word », Temporalités [En ligne], 28 | 2018, mis en ligne le 04 avril 2019, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/temporalites.5546

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Emília Araújo

Research Center in Communication Studies, University of Minho

Bárbara Guimarães

University of Minho

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