Fantastic week as an academic

Starting from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Meeting in Sydney, I had a quite intensive but very rewarding week. I am still in the process of digesting the large volume of information that I received but would like to share some of it here.

This year’s 4S experience began with the presidential plenary entitled TRANSnational STS: What? Why? How? by Prof. Kim Fortun. In it, she explored various ways that STS can be associated with the prefix of ‘trans-.’ The performance by DJ Alexandra Lippman, that followed Prof. Fortun’s talk, was an experimental endeavour to capture such a ‘trans-‘ character of STS. I found it both exotic and uncomfortable, wondering if that was what scientists might feel when they hear and read STS scholars’ account of their laboratory life, for instance. The theme of ‘TRANSnational’ somewhat continued to the next morning, as I first attended a session focusing on the concept of global STS. We discussed that both the idea of global, which is integrative and totalizing, and that of transnational, which requires presumption of national boundaries, need to be attended carefully.

The next session I attended was one on the governance of geoengineering. I was there as my PhD supervisor gave a talk in it but also because I am interested in the practices of science and technology governance. Over the last year or so, I have grown my interest in the research area called synthetic biology (broadly-defined), and one of the reasons is that it is an area where biologists and engineers meet. Geoengineering, of course, is another such area – while they don’t meet in a lab, they meet in a field instead. Therefore, their discussions tend to be framed similarly: given the possibility of resulting in irreversible change to the Nature, how much (cultural) intervention should be allowed, if at all. What interested me most was the idea of stage-gate approval procedure, which prevents discussion to be reduced to yes-or-no dichotomy and allows gradual transition with an option of withdrawing entirely at any stage where necessary. If we manage to come up with a really good and clear set of assessment criteria for each stage, it might potentially create a safe and controlled experimental space for technological development.

On the next day, I was also in the session talking about how governance mechanisms of science and technology travel. The talks covered quite a wide range of topics – from genome editing and 3D printing to innovation models and issue of inequality. I was particularly interested in the way other modes of governance are introduced in the discussion on local arrangements. The talk on genome editing in Korea seems to suggest that the idea that there is an intense international competition has been invoked to call for ‘soft’ regulation. Another one on nanotechnology also highlighted that the attempts to catch up the West by some Latin American countries all fail to have policy components addressing its ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI). Does this mean that discussions on ELSI cannot travel as much as science and technology can?

The open panel that I together with my Re-Conceptualizing ELSI project colleagues organized was exactly to explore this kind of question, while our idea of ‘travel’ was not just about across countries but also about across different areas of science and technology. We had two sessions under this panel, and each had a very interesting set of talks. Some of the talks in the first session suggested that ‘ELSI’ is about negative aspects of science and technology, which is often ‘left’ for social scientists to deal with. Scientists might also address it in some cases but often as part of the initiatives led by academic organizations. Pointing out that ELSI is a way of speculating the future of science/technology, Prof. Steve Sturdy (Univ. of Edinburgh), who we invited as a discussant, encouraged us to examine who can appropriately speculate such a ‘negative’ future, rather than limiting ourselves to the question of what is being speculated and their appropriateness. The talks in the second session then focused on the question of what would be the roles of STS scholars or STS perspectives in opening up practices of speculation and re-distributing legitimacy across different stakeholders – some effort was quite human-centric, while others highly technology-intensive. As Prof. Yuko Fujigaki (Univ. of Tokyo), also an invited discussant, noted in her remark, this is an area of research that we need to have continuing conversation about, and that is exactly what we would like to do in and beyond our Re-Conceptualizing ELSI project.

I was then invited to talk in a closed-panel session that focused on the theme of, again, ‘future.’ I talked about how regulatory arrangements have been mobilised to sustain a vision of the future that arose in Japan with the invention of a technique to reprogram cells and create non-embryonic pluripotent stem cells since late 2000s. The fascinating talks by researchers at Monash University and the comments by Prof. Ayo Wahlberg (Univ. of Copenhagen) reminded me that speculation of the future in biomedicine is tied closely to generation of capital (that is, biocapitalism) and that it often willingly sacrifices lives (and bodies) of the vulnerable. I would like to thank Drs. John Gardner and Samuel Taylor-Alexander for letting me take part in this great session.

Immediately after I gave my talk, I had to rush to the airport to take an overnight flight back to Tokyo for the event I organized myself. It was entitled “Cases in the Past and Health of the Future,” and using Making Genomic Medicine research project that I have been part of as a case, we explored in what ways historical and social science research would allow us to think about the design of medicine in the future. Prof. Sturdy first gave us a talk based on the project illustrating how the regimes of value emerged in the context of medical genetics changed in genomic medicine since the late 1990s, and then Prof. Robert Cook-Deegan (Arizona State Univ.) commented on it. Their conversation made us question what are the promises that have allowed the flows of money, information and biological samples to happen in the way it does now and which of such promises is least likely to be realized. That was followed by my own talk on what we can learn from success stories of patient organizations’ involvement in rare diseases research and orphan drug development, and Prof. Hiroshi Yamanaka (Osaka Univ.) in his comments described the challenges that such organizations in Japan face, highlighting the importance of paying attention to local specificities.

The members of the Re-Conceptualizing ELSI project also had a separate meeting with Profs. Sturdy and Cook-Deegan on the next day, and they gave us a lot to think about particularly in pursuing case studies in the coming couple of years. I am not going into the details here, but would like to thank both of them for their support.

Well, I also had a lot of informal interactions with fellow STS researchers at 4S Sydney and the event in Tokyo, and they were quite valuable too. As I said at the beginning, I am still in the process of digesting all the information I got over the week, but I can confidently say that I had such a fantastic week as an academic and would like to thank everyone who helped me in one way or another to make that happen!

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