Science and politics have an uneasy relationship at the best of times. Negotiations between them often take place out of view - in the corridors of Whitehall or the dry workings of expert committees. Now and then, particular developments spark controversy or become condensation points for a wider set of public concerns.
Since the 1980s, information technology and biotechnology have been two of the most potent sites of innovation. Rapid advances in both these domains -- from the internet and mobile telephony to genetic modification and stem cell biology -- have been accompanied by intense debates about their implications for human identity, equality and privacy.
Yet while the internet has also become fertile terrain for social and political theory -- most notably in the influential writings of Manuel Castells -- the dilemmas posed by biotechnology are in large part the preserve of philosophy and theology. More than 50 years after Watson and Crick's groundbreaking discovery, the politics of DNA remain far less discernible to us than the politics of cyberspace. The rise of "bioethics" as a discipline has shunted questions about the visions and values that shape biotechnology into the realm of private morality and individual choice.
All of which makes Designs on Nature an important book. Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard University, provides us for the first time with a vivid and compelling account of the politics of biotechnology. By comparing developments in Britain, Germany and the US, Jasanoff argues that we can no longer make sense of concepts such as democracy or citizenship without reference to the life sciences. "Will continued advances," she asks, " . . . produce a new genetic underclass, and will they simultaneously increase the state's already immense power to define, classify and regulate life itself?"
From its arresting opening -- "On a somber fall weekend in mid-November 2001, Europe was forming in the oddest of places" -- the book makes a persuasive case for the role that science and technology now play in projects of nation-building. This is perhaps most visible in Germany, where debates over biotechnology, haunted by memories of Nazi eugenics, have been caught up in the unfinished task of reconstititing national identity. in Britain, in a very different context, science and innovation have become emblematic of New Labour's modernising zeal. And in the US, global leadership in technology forms part of a wider ideology of deregulation and market triumphalism.
Through a subtle analysis of the interplay between science and democracy in these three countries, Jasanoff rejects simple generalisations about Europe and the US, such as those made by Robert Kagan in his essay "Of Paradise and Power". Instead of pretending, that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus", or that Americans are gung-ho about GM foods while Europeans are squeamish, we should recognise that "clashes are endemic both within and between these cultures, particularly in relation to scientific and technological change".
Distinctions between agricultural and medical biotechnology need to be viewed through a similarly fine lens. In both cases, innovation promised new forms of economic and social progress. But whereas the pace of commercialisation in agricultural biotechnology ran ahead of politics and regulation -- contributing to the arguments in Europe over GM crops and foods -- in the medical realm, biotechnologies "were burdened by almost a surfeit of public soul-searching".
The most recent trigger for such reflection has been stem cell research, which is thought to have enormous potential in treating diseases that require cell regeneration, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and kidney failure.
The pros and cons of using stem cells from human embryos became a flashpoint in the 2004 US presidential elections, promoted in part by the death of the actor Christopher Reeve -- a passionate advocate of such research -- just a month -before polling day. Jasanoff describes how these debates have played out in the US and Europe, and uses them to illustrate the limitations of bioethics as a framework for policymaking, arguing that this squeezes out more meaningful forms of public deliberation.
Jasanoff interrogates the distinction between "basic" and "applied" research, which she argues no longer holds in a world where "the production and uses of science are tied to each other, as well as to surrounding social and political institutions". She explores how closer links between academia and industry threaten to undermine efforts to make science more accountable. In the US, the Bayh-Dole Act, passed by Congress in 1980, changed the long-standing presumption that publicly funded research could not be privately owned. This promoted the commercialisation of research: between 1979 and 1997, university-held patents rose tenfold.
But, Jasanoff explains, it also "transformed the intellectual landscape of the American academy, converting high-powered university labs into de facto incubators for industry".
The technology-transfer offices of many universities developed an aggressive, profit-seeking culture, and the secrecy of many of the research agreements with corporate sponsors "dealt a body blow to the core academic virtue of openness".
In the closing section of the book, Jasanoff weaves these strands into a powerful argument for democratising science. She dismisses suggestions that the dilemmas posed by biotechnology can be easily resolved through scientific education or better public understanding. Reducing these debates to binary differences between experts and lay-people "erases history, neglects culture, and privileges people's knowledge of isolated facts ... over their mastery of more complex frames of meaning". People may not possess "expert" knowledge, as traditionally defined, but this does not mean they have nothing to contribute to decisions about science and technology.
Designs on Nature manages to communicate the results of sustained scholarship in a lively and engaging style, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the social dynamics of innovation. Jasanoff's achievement is to equip us with the critical tools necessary to imagine a new way of doing science. She reminds us of the need to talk, and sometimes to argue, about the scientific and technological choices that confront us. In science, as in politics, this process of inquiry, debate and learning is endless. Whether it is the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations, the convergence between nano and biotechnologies, or novel forms of human enhancement, our capacity for innovation will continue to present us with dilemmas as well as opportunities. We need to recognise that we rely on this constant questioning. Instead of shrinking from innovation, we should work to create the conditions for science and technology to thrive. But the simultaneous challenge is to generate new approaches to the governance of science that can learn from past mistakes, cope with social complexity, and harness technological change for the common good.
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