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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 20 December 2010

A Townhall Meeting in the Global Townhall

After a successful ESRC Genomics Network conference in Pairs, Prof Steve Yearley, Genomics Forum blogs on the Closing debate – How to Deliver the promise: Where to next?

The closing session of the conference was advertised as a townhall-style meeting, based on the US tradition of public meetings in which politicians and other public figures have to answer to remarks from the floor with no prior warning and no scripted questions. In the US these meetings conjure up the idea of a politician with their jacket off, sleeves rolled up, engaging ferociously with the audience.

Instead of President Obama or the Tea Party, we had four of our own public figures: Dr Gerardo Jiménez-Sánchez, chair of the OECD’s Working Party on Biotechnology; Rick Johnson, CEO of Global Helix LLC from the USA and a key figure in the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to OECD; Prof Joyce Tait, Scientific Advisor to Innogen; and Prof John Dupre, Director of Egenis. The session was energetically chaired by the OECD’s Iain Gillespie and, in true townhall style, there was no shortage of comments from the audience and some real clashes between speakers’ views.

A persistent theme – as one would expect – was the exact role of social science in deliberations over the ‘promise’ of the new life sciences. Gerardo took the lead in thinking about the OECD’s role in bringing social science insights to bear on policy issues. Rick wondered whether social scientists had really offered many testable claims or hypotheses about life sciences in society and drew us back to Charles Lindblom’s work in the late 1970s on “usable knowledge”. In his view there should be more reflection on how social scientists can make their knowledge and investigations more policy relevant. Joyce thought we social scientists had gained policy sophistication (or at least shed naivety) over the last decade but was inclined to think that too little social science work had been done on product regulation and its connection to life-sciences innovation. John’s riposte invoked the spirit of the famously anarchical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, noting that “most scientists tend to understand little more about science than fish about hydrodynamics” (note to John – wasn’t it actually Imre Lakatos who wrote this, even if it sounds Feyerabendian??). Iain then outed himself as a (recovering?) fan of Feyerabend and the conversation turned to the way that social scientists and philosophers can – potentially – observe things about the workings of science, technology and innovation that are not visible to the actors (the fish) who are in the swim of things. Questions from the floor took up the theme of the position of the social sciences – maybe the aim should be a critical analysis of the kind of promise that some life scientists and life-science industries have in mind?

Through a series of exchanges this led us back to the question of whether we see the biotech glass as half-full or half-empty. On the subject of synthetic biology, for instance, John had already commented that advancing knowledge so far seemed only to have confirmed that biological engineering was much more complicated than we had previously supposed. We aren’t much further on than before, but at least we now know we aren’t! Rick and Joyce expressed themselves as much more optimistic about the promise from the life science, but all thankfully agreed that the social sciences had a strong role to play in understanding how the promise is interpreted and developed.

No fights broke out, agreement triumphed and as snow fell ever more insistently I made my way to the stage to record my thanks to the OECD and the EGN, to the Working Party Chairman and to the British Ambassador at the OECD for their kind and painstaking contributions to the organisation of an excellent and path-breaking meeting.

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