Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

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.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Paddling Upstream at the Genomics Forum

Traverse Bar...4pm ...Thursday 27th October!

Back in April when I started this blog, I seem to remember claiming I had a handle on the Genomics...on the science...but was a bit less clear on what the Forum itself was about. The first part of the sentence wasn't true, as it happens...I had a lot more very enjoyable reading and questioning to do...I think I'm making progress...but I want to take this morning to think aloud a bit about the Forum itself.

And I'm about to make another reckless claim or six.

The Forum is made up of social scientists...not biological scientists. Which means that society...ie you people...is the problem under consideration.

The political impetus behind the establishment of the Forum had a headline rationale, and a political imperative that were parallel but not identical. The headline impetus for its establishment was the enormous technical, commercial, philosophical and social potential of the sequencing of the "human genome". It would be interesting, it was felt, to study how "society" might engage with the new science as it unfolded in terms of information, products and possibilities, ideas and innovations.

The narrower political interest...the problem to be solved or at least addressed...derived from the public relations disaster of GM Crops in the UK and the EU in the last decade. It was felt that anti-GM activists of various ideological orientations had persuaded the "public" to be afraid...Frankenstien Foods...all that. And that this artificially engendered anxiety was capable of "getting in the way" of progress. This is where the idea of "Upstream Engagement" came from. The idea being that if you SLOWLY and CAREFULLY explain to people why they should be happy a bit earlier on, then they will be happy. If the little darlings feel involved...they may even give their positive consent. Or at least be less swayed by Luddite Propaganda.

"Upstream Engagement" would involve people in the issues in a "softer" way...more nuanced...through hiring the likes of me, for example...the Forum would create audiences...and better informed, more responsible citizens for future consultation.

In the Metaphor is the Meaning. The river's still gonna go where it's gonna go. But it's easier if the flotsam LIKES it...that's possibly a bit unkind. And it makes me and writing plays and doing public events and such a sort of tributary, I suppose.

It was all very New Labour...democracy as massage....but things are changing here as well as in the wider world, not least because public conflicts on the GM scale have been elided...but more because of the change of government, leave alone of the economy. So, the Forum won't exist in its current form quite soon. There are different political priorities. A refocusing and a reforming is well underway...resumes are flying around.

But the Genie of the Genome is out of the bottle. The impact of the new technology and new knowledge, as I can testify from my own research has indeed been, and is going to be, enormous and complex. But the mood music, even in genomics, is fatalistic more than messianic these days. We have a "public" who feel helpless to influence anything, being swatted around the head by the hidden hand of the market, and we have little belief that any other hand will be guiding research and development of anything at all, let alone of something with so much potential power. Protest against this and other powers, too, is visceral and anguished rather than articulate and focused. We occupy Wall Street and Dale Farm without any expectation of doing any more than spreading a bit of discomfort and embarrassment before we die...

And that is the greater and un-massageable reason why the Luddites won last time...on GM Foods in the UK and Europe...and why for all the talk of Upstream Engagement, the last thing that the commercial and scientific powers (or those who pay their wages) want now, or will tolerate in future, is "public engagement" in any more than a cosmetic sense. (As a distraction for us and a necessary cost for them.) This is not a chat about reason anymore, it's a fight about fear...and the gloves are coming off.

The current climate does not and will not admit of any of "engagement" for very much longer. The "debate" is not really a debate between "progress" and "dignity"...in the field of genetic medicine, for example. It's a tension between imperatives, and between instincts, and, consisting of any more than shouting and weeping, actual constructive democratic oversight of power is a luxury we can no longer afford.

(Democracy is becoming such a problem...don't these noisy, feckless people in Greece understand anything about banking?)

The Forum exists as a place for research and debate...for argument, for reasonable conversations. Reasonable conversations, I think, are history. As the climate changes and the oil runs out, we will look back with helpless nostalgia to a time when we thought that destiny was maybe democratic...and that the future was in our hands.

Which brings me to my wild claim, if those weren't wild enough. We are not afraid because we have been PERSUADED to be afraid. We ARE afraid. We are afraid of the motivation and competence of those in charge. We do not think they are honest. In turn, they think we're stupid and untrustworthy. They think we're "in the way."

They're right about that. Frightened people are not rational. But we're right too. Science is a social practice...progress IS a metaphor. There is still a role for epistemology as we man the barricades.

And metaphors are stories we tell about things to make us feel better. Even if we're scientists. And personally, "in the way" is where I feel comfortable. Metaphorically, anyway.

And THAT is what the play is going to be about! And what the second half of my residency is going to be rehearsing and refining. The conversation continues next Thursday at Four pm in the Traverse Bar.

For a more reasonable (but enjoyably sceptical) take on "Upstream Engagement" from Joyce Tait, one of the Forum's founding dignitaries, see below.


Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

1 comment:

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