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Society for Social Studies of Science

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Report from the BioStep network meeting at IAS-STS in Graz, 2-4 May 2010


The network

Between 2002 and 2005 fifteen young scholars from various countries and disciplines – all involved in STS research - have participated in the New Genetic /New Society? Integrating Science, Society and Policy Marie Curie Fellowship programme at the Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU) of the University of York, UK. Having a common interest and a shared experience in York, the Marie Curie fellows decided after the end of the fellowship scheme to gather together in the company of the SATSU staff, to share experiences and current research themes. This first meeting took place in York in April 2007 and it was decided to establish a network to explore common research and prepare publications together. In April 2008, the second meeting was held, funded by the Brocher foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. There, we clustered our research around three themes: the changing boundaries of human, animal and society; the new forms of governance engaged in the social regulation of these boundary shifts; and the new social and cultural relations that are made possible by these changes. Next to the Marie-Curie fellows and SATSU staff, we invited local and international scholars to contribute to discussions around these themes. In trying to find common ground between the various specific areas of research, the idea of bio-objects emerged as a theme that the network would like to explore further. We had our first meeting to explore bio-objects in their different dimensions during our 2009 meeting which took place from June 4-6 in Uppsala. Our 2010 meeting was hosted by the IAS-STS research institute in Graz, Austria, as an autonomous workshop stream within their annual IAS-STS–conference from May 2-4. The meeting has been made possible by funding from 4S. We would like to thank both IAS-STS and 4S for making this meeting possible. Such funding has been vital to maintain this network and to ensure that this network would also deliver outputs.

The 2010 meeting

The meeting has especially been geared towards discussion on our edited volume entitled `Bio-objects: Life in the 21st Century´ which will be published by Ashgate in 2011.

During the meeting we discussed the theoretical and operational definition of the bio-object concept, outlined and discussed specific requirements of draft book chapters as well as the delivery schedule for the book.

The Bio-objects book

Bio-objects, a term that refers to the categories, materialities and processes that are central to the configuring of “life”, play a crucial role in the 21st century in which increasing knowledge of the biological is fundamentally transforming what life itself means and where its boundaries lie. New developments in the biosciences - especially through the molecularisation of life – are shaping healthcare and other aspects of our society, and the new bio-objects that enable this need to be given an integrated and sustained examination.

In this book, therefore, we want to trace a variety of bio-objects as they emerge stabilize and circulate through society. An international range of authors working in the field of science and technology studies (STS) draw on diverse cases from across Europe to provide new ways of thinking about how novel bio-objects enter contemporary life. The cases range across different configurations of life and living such as, cloned animals, embryos, cybrids, stem cells, genetic resources, biobanks and even water – that without which ‘life’ is said to be impossible. While this may at first site appear an eclectic mix of objects we show how they can be understood to share a similar (re)generative universe. We are also interested in exploring the forms of governance that surround them.

These bio-objects are brought together for the first time within one text and discussed in terms of the new material and spatio-temporal forms to which their ‘life’ is attributed. We explore how the boundaries between human and animal, organic and nonorganic, and being ‘alive’ and the suspension of living, are questioned, destabilised and yet in some cases re-established. Each of the chapters explores these processes to show how life is in constant interplay with novel techniques aiming at re-routing, diversifying, collecting and commodifying the vital processes that constitute ‘life”.

After the introduction, the first Part of the book examines the changing boundaries of the human, nonhuman and society as a result of the emergence of new bio-objects. The second Part concentrates on the governance of new bio-objects and the social regulations involved in the boundary shifts that they bring about. The third Part discusses the new social, economic and political relations that constitute and are constituted by these changes.

Guest talks

In addition, we had three guest talks from international scholars who work on topics of interest closely related to ours:

  • Ulrike Felt from the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Vienna gave a paper on work from the project
  • Living changes in the Life Sciences´ which concentrated on research-objects, with special attention to the relation between life scientists and mice as research-object.
  • Pei Koay, who is a former IAS-STS fellow and currently a programme manager for History and Policy of Biotechnology at the Center for Contemporary History & Policy of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. She talked about: ‘Whither race as an issue in genomics?’Her presentation considered the concept of ‘race’ through the lens of human genomics and globalization.
  • Lyndal Halliday is in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on modern seed technologies, particularly the collection, research, and distribution of plant genetic resources as part of a broader inquiry into what these practices reveal about our relationship with the environment. Lyndal presented a paper on seeds as bio-objects: a recent case study on genetic technologies of dissemination and control.

The Future of the BioStep network

In the past year we have been searching for funding to further sustain and elaborate our network activities and we applied for European COST funding. During the meeting we were still awaiting decisions, but we are happy to inform you that at the end of May we heard that the proposed COST Action will be funded. This will mean that our network has funding for the upcoming four years, so our continued activity is guaranteed and our network is likely to grow. The Action is expected to start towards the end of this year, with a kick-off meeting in Brussels.

Abstract of the COST Action

Europe seeks to become the most dynamic knowledge-based economy of the globe, and the production and circulation of “bio-objects”, such as stem cells, chimera, tissue samples or genetically modified organisms, play a key part in this endeavor. This Action develops novel interdisciplinary tools based on a range of evidence that will improve our understanding of “bio-objects”, their production and governance. The core questions answered through this COST Action are: how are the boundaries between human and animal, organic and non-organic, living and the non-living opened up?; how do bio-objects change social relations?; how does the public-private interface shape the making of bio-objects?; and finally, how does the governance of bio-objects perform at different levels, from the level of the European Union and its Member States to the sub-political level, and finally in clinics and laboratories? The Action brings together a group of young scholars across a range of disciplines in collaboration with more experienced researchers, including those from the bioscience community. The members of the group will develop models of the bio-objectification process, the policy challenges and political and social resources needed to address this, and how both will play a key role in delivering the knowledge-based economy sought in the Lisbon Agenda.