Eugene Thacker on 23 Sep 2000 07:16:34 -0000

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<nettime> Biotech Panel Discussions

What Did You Expect? Biotech Panel Discussions in New York

This past Wednesday (September 20th), the Gene Media Forum, a
non-profit, non-partisan organization dedication to public discussion of
biotech issues, hosted a panel of "renowned leaders in the genetic
revolution." Titled "What Can We Expect?" the panel intended to gather
researchers, CEOs, technologists, and bioethicists to answer a range of
questions dealing with the future of current genetics and biotech
research. The panel was given in conjunction with the Exit Art show
"Paradise Now," which featured artists' responses to genetics and biotech.

Participants included Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics (the first
private company to initiate its own human genome project), Harold Varmus
(a Nobel-prize recipient and long-time NIH researcher known for his work
in cancer research and oncogenes), and Eric Lander (director of the
government-sponsored Whitehead Institute for Genomics at MIT, one of the
leading U.S. branches of the Human Genome Project). Outside of the
sciences, panelists included Dorothy Nelkin (NYU professor of law and
sociology and bioethicist, co-author of The DNA Mystique) and Peter
Neufeld (professor of law at Cardozo School of Law and founder of The
Innocence Project, which investigates the relations between DNA testing
and the law).

The Gene Media Forum is to be applauded for initiating this type of
public discussion, since, as they state in their literature, often times
the only way the public knows about biotech research is through (often
exaggerated) mass media reports. However, a panel such as this is only
as complex as its participants. This in mind, several things need to be
said: First, it is not clear whether the Gene Media Forum in a space for
critically questioning biotech, or if it is a space for the promotion of
biotech. At the end of the panel, virtually none of the issues, nor the
researchers, were pushed or questioned on any point. They were, however,
given a chance to more fully explain - or legitimize - their research.
Second, the public discussion was not public. The audience was not given
the chance to directly interact with the panelists, and audience
questions were relegated to blank index cards that were to be passed in;
the questions were then asked by moderator Paul Billings. Finally, even
though the panel was given in conjunction with the Exit Art show, the
question of "art" never once came up.

All of which is to say that the panel discussion "What Can We Expect?"
was predictable, but also highly instructive. Several over-arching
themes presented themselves throughout the discussion:

- One recurrent motif was the language of complexity and probability. In
short, scientists often used the rhetoric of combinatorial complexity to
explain why biotech has produced very little in the way of concrete,
sustainable results in medicine or therapy. As genomics research tells
us, there are about 3 billion base pairs, or "letters" of DNA in every
human being, with somewhere around 100,000 genes that are active in the
body's biological processes. If we consider that many of the
genetics-based diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson's disease, are the
result of multiple genes, acting together along different pathways, then
finding the "cause" of such disease seems to be a highly complicated
issue. This, to my mind, is a complicated situation, but it's not
complexity, emergence, or what systems theory is about. Eric Lander
discussed the ways in which a mathematics and engineering based approach
is more adept at handling such complexity, but, as most of the
scientists pointed out, such results are over a long period of time. In
addition, supposing that scientists can isolate the genes and pathways
which contribute to a disease, they are still not directly, causally
responsible for the disease; instead they contribute to a probability or
a predisposition for the disease to become expressed in the body. So
other, extra-genetic elements such as environment, context, and
lifestyle also play an important role (but common sense already tells us
this...). This rhetoric of combinatorial complexity becomes a way for
those in the biotech industry to constantly defer the realization of
sustainable results in medicine and health care.

- Another broad assumption among the scientists and business people
involved in biotech is that all efforts lead, in a self-evident fashion,
towards two results: drug development and new diagnostic tools. In other
words, while there was much to say about how we might expect novel
pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tools in the next five years, no one
questioned why these were the only options. Given that our genomes are
such complex entities, are we not able to imagine other, more creative,
more innovative approaches to healing than "silver bullet" drugs and
medical technologies which only tell you what's wrong? The point here is
not to simply do away with the scientific possibilities of biotech,
genomics, or systems-based approaches to biology, but rather to question
this impoverishment of the scientific imagination. Among other things,
the panel discussion highlighted the ways in which biotech is an
industry, a business, and the ways in which the economic imperatives of
product development are a primary driving force in biotech research.
This is one of the main constraints on the scientific imagination, and
the possibilities of how biology and practices of healing might be
transformed for the better.

- Finally, the "What Can We Expect?" panel was a fascinating display of
the discourse of biotech in action. At times, the scientists tended to
oscillate between defensiveness ("hey, why are you complaining, we've
just trying to save lives here" etc.) and condescension ("you can't
possibly imagine the level of complexity of what we're doing" etc.).
There was much discussion over the troubled relationship between the
media and biotech research, journalists being accused of
misunderstanding the science and exaggerating the facts, and scientists
being accused of leading the public astray with unfulfilled promises. In
the midst of such tensions, that strange, amorphous blob called "the
public" remained both un-articulated and totally homogenized. While
there was a tacit agreement on the importance of educating the public,
nothing was said about the importance of sustaining a public debate or a
public critique of biotech - again, not to dismiss biotech altogether,
but in fact to help to contribute to something that may have
transformative effects on how we think about the body, health, and healing.

To repeat: these types of organized discussions which take place in
public spaces are definitely a positive step in bridging the yawning gap
between biotech as a science/industry, and biotech as a socio-cultural
phenomenon. Through such events, we can not only see the heterogeneity
within biotech (in other words, that biotech isn't simply a monolithic
block composed of disembodied trans-national corporations), but the very
utterances of those involved in biotech show us, in a performative
manner, the problematic points which need to be addressed, if any
ongoing debate over the status and role of biotech in society is to continue.

Eugene Thacker

More info:

The Gene Media Forum <>

The Exit Art Show "Paradise Now" <>


Eugene Thacker
Pgrm. in Comparative Literature, Rutgers Univ.

"The Gene Trust: Participating in the Biotech
Century" @ Nettime (posted August 2000) 

"The Post-Genomic Era Has Already Happened"
@ Biopolicy Journal <>

"Point-and-Click Biology: Why Programming is
the Future of Biotech" @ MUTE (Issue 17 - archives

"Performing the Technoscientific Body: RealVideo 
Surgery & the Anatomy Theater" @ Body Modification,
ed. Mike Featherstone (London: Sage, 2000;

"Fakeshop: Science Fiction, Future Memory & the 
Technoscientific Imaginary" @ CTHEORY


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