Special Issue of Economy and Society: Materials and Devices of the Public

by Javier Lezaun

Economy & SocietyNoortje Marres and I have edited a special section of the journal Economy and Society dedicated to Materials and Devices of the Public. The papers (by Gay Hawkins, Sarah Whatmore & Catharina Landström, Javier Lezaun, and Noortje Marres) explore the role of things, devices and material settings in facilitating new forms of public engagement. In the introduction, we discuss the value of an approach that treats material engagement as a distinct and explicitly political mode of performing the public.

Claes-Fredrik Helgesson on studying valuation practices in medical research

This fall, Claes-Fredrik Helgesson, Professor at the Department of Thematic Studies at Linköping University in Sweden, visited InSIS for a couple of weeks. Dr Tanja Schneider asked what he is up to at the moment.

Claes-Fredrik HelgessonClaes-Fredrik, you are Professor of Technology and Social Change at the University of Linköping, Sweden, and are currently a Visiting Fellow at InSIS. What brings you to Oxford?

I’m here to do some research, meet people, write stuff, and thinking through stuff. And the secret thing is that I’m also escaping a few meetings.

Last week you gave a work-in-progress presentation about your current research, which focuses on valuation practices in medical research and I was curious to hear what got you interested in the topic initially?

I have for a very long time wanted to develop ways to examine how the economic is intertwined with scientific practice and the shaping of technology. Both because I think it is important, and because I think it is something that has not received sufficient attention within STS. I have grappled with how to do that and previously did work on the every day management and coordination of clinical large trials. When I did that work I also tried to investigate the economic aspects of large trials, for instance, how physicians are remunerated for recruiting patients but this was a bit difficult.

I have been thinking for quite a while that maybe the design of large clinical trials could be an interesting place because there appear to be many calculations involved; calculations that are both scientific calculations but also calculations about the costing of trials such as how much you can spend on it and maybe also about the commercial possibilities. That was more of an unpolished idea for quite some time but then Francis Lee was recruited into a position to work with me on questions about the design of research, and then we developed this research project together into a few different grant applications which we are still waiting to hear if they will be funded or not.* It’s been a long, abstract journey in terms of wanting to investigate the topic of science and economic practice but the development of this particular project is the result of perhaps one and a half years or so and we worked most hard on developing it this spring by writing grant applications.

So what will be your site of study? Where will you explore these issues?

Francis will look at experiments related to biomarkers and I will focus on the design of large randomized controlled trials (RCTs). We are currently investigating different possible sites and have some contacts already with people involved in clinical trials as well as experiments related to biomarkers. We both intend to do some of the fieldwork in the UK.

Can you say a bit more about how you will go about studying how the economic is intertwined with scientific practices.

We are planning to look at a few different experiments – or rather the design phase of these experiments – and we plan to do repeated interviews with those involved in the design efforts. One part of the exercise is thus to investigate who is involved in this work: maybe there is an investigator, a sponsor, representatives of patient organisations that can be involved but that has to be an empirical question. So, the methodology will be repeated interviews following the design process, which can take a few months or half a year, sometimes even longer. Hopefully, we will also be able to sit in on meetings where different kinds of designs are discussed.

It sounds like you are focusing on a laboratory site primarily. In how far do you plan to also consider/research how potentially other sites beyond the laboratory – I’m thinking, for instance, of Research Council’s and their annual research priorities and their grant evaluation practices – are intertwined with valuation practices in the laboratory?

I guess we have to start somewhere, where we think that the centre of this design work is going on but of course there is presumably a lot of stuff that is influencing and involved in that process. In our interviews done for preparing the grant applications, we have also begun asking about what kinds of tools are used, such as tools with the standard costing figures that contains a black-boxed kind of valuation. These come from somewhere and we have to make a reasonable attempt to investigate where this stuff comes from and what influence they have. And, of course, if it is a trial sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, how they evaluate different aspects of a trial. So probably there are several sites involved in a single design. And from what I understand there is a lot of emailing and teleconferencing going on as well. Hence there is no single point in time or space where the design is made. That are simultaneously interesting and challenging aspects of this topic.

While you are visiting InSIS you are also involved with organizing a workshop…

…yes, on the 21st of October a group came from the University of Linköping, Sweden, Tema T, the unit were I work – technology and social change – to visit InSIS. The visiting group of about ten to 15 people is part of a research programme called ValueS, which stands for Science, Technology and Valuation practices, and we are interested in STS and valuation as a practice. The purpose of the InSIS-ValueS meeting is to discuss each other’s research, explore ways to collaborate and establish regular exchange between the two groups. And we actually have a specific site for this meeting!

What else are you currently working on?

I’m finishing up an old paper, which I wrote about the study of the everyday coordination of large trials. What else? I’m working on a book proposal for an edited volume on value practices in life science, which is a volume that brings together different contributions from different aspects of life science, from different researchers. We have 13 contributions. So, I’m working on the book proposal with Francis Lee and Isabelle Dussauge, my co-editors from Sweden, who will also come to Oxford for the InSIS-ValueS meeting.

Did you find some time to explore Oxford so far? How are you finding it?

I’m finding it very nice and I’m enjoying it a lot. The weather has been good and the dining has been excellent. And I have a nice jog along the Thames in the mornings. It’s perfect.

It’s great to hear that you enjoy Oxford. Thank you very much for the interview!

* In the meantime, Claes-Fredrik Helgesson and Francis Lee have received research funding from Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for 3,5 MSEK [appr £ 325.000] for their research project “Trials of Value”. Congratulations!

Catherine Montgomery on BioProperty, OncoMice and Critical Social Research

With the start of a new project on BioProperty: Biomedical Research and the Future of Property Rights, InSIS welcomes a number of new colleagues. The latest addition to the team is Catherine Montgomery, who recently joined us from the University of York. Malte Ziewitz visited Catherine in her new office.

Catherine MontgomeryCongratulations on your new job, and welcome to Oxford. What were your first impressions when you arrived three weeks ago?

Thanks. Thinking about the constant stream of new people, places, ideas, discussions, connections and cultures I’ve encountered over the past few weeks makes it quite tricky to construct a coherent narrative about ‘first’ impressions! One impression is that Oxford is very much alive and charged with intellectual provocations. I’ve been struck, in particular, by the location of InSIS within the Said Business School and within Oxford. On the outside, you have a smooth, shiny building – on the inside, corridors bristling with barbed and unblunted ideas. Likewise, superficially, there’s the Oxford one might imagine – ancient, traditional, made of solid walls and foundations…but within it, you find the STS group, where people are chipping away both at the foundations of knowledge and its ceiling, studying everything from neuromarketing to transgenic mice. It feels like an exciting place to be. When I first fell into academia, I rationalized it on the basis that I didn’t want to contribute to profit-making and I didn’t want to work ‘in an office’. So finding myself in a beautiful steel and glass office at a business school makes for an intriguing relocation!

So what exactly are you going to work on?

I will be working with Javier Lezaun and Amy Hinterberger on a project exploring the contested nature and the future of intellectual property rights in biomedical research. The biosciences are increasingly giving rise to entities that resist a straightforward categorisation as property, including high-profile developments such as cloning, biobanks, transpecies transplantation, hybrids, chimeras, and stem cell reprogramming. The study of property in relation to these ‘innovations’ raises all sorts of questions about the social management of the boundaries between the animal and the human, life and death, the public and the private. By bringing these new forms of life into the world, the life sciences are challenging the limits of intellectual property and disrupting traditional jurisprudence on private appropriation. In this project, we’ll be exploring the contemporary dynamics of private and common property through a number of case studies, including stem cell patenting and the use of transgenic research mice. We’ll also be looking at changing organizational forms of scientific research in relation to ‘neglected diseases’, such as patent pools and the introduction of open-source components in public-private partnerships. By studying these developments ethnographically, we should be able to shed light on how they are reconfiguring flows of information, materials and knowledge in the biosciences, and generating new forms of governance and accountability.

Will this be an entirely theoretical study or are you also planning in doing some empirical work?

In order to develop a novel analytical framework for understanding reconfigurations of property, we need to observe actual property practices in biomedical research. Broad generalizations can only take you so far – and, as far as capturing current shifts in biomedical research rights goes – not far enough. So we will anchor our theoretical advances in close ethnographic observation of the fields of innovation just mentioned (transgenic mice, stem cells and R&D for neglected diseases). This will enable us to answer questions we simply could not fathom by sitting at our desks alone; for example, how does the use of a living patent, such as the OncoMouse, affect scientists’ knowledge-making practices? How are legal strategies embedded in the day-to-day practices and infrastructures of stem cell research? Through which material relations is intellectual property shared and accessed in an ‘open lab’ developing drugs for neglected diseases? Our empirical research will take us from patent offices to labs to ‘virtual’ research coordination sites, and provide detailed material for a comparative analysis informed by theoretical insights from STS, economic sociology and legal studies.

OK, so do you already have a specific field site in mind?

The short answer is: not yet. We’re still in the early stages of fieldwork discussions, and there are a number of avenues to explore. I am hoping to study property configurations in a global product development partnership (PDP) spanning Europe and Africa, which would build on my previous research looking at transnational clinical trials. PDPs for ‘neglected diseases’ are curious hybrids, often describing themselves as virtual institutions, and linking highly distributed and culturally diverse material sites, from pharmaceutical company offices to university labs to clinical trial sites and beyond. Studying property ethnographically in such an ‘unbounded field’ will be an interesting methodological challenge.

Looking at your biography, it strikes me that you have been very successful at linking research and “fieldwork” on the one hand with activism and “working in the field” on the other. Is this something you would like to continue here at InSIS?

I don’t know about activism, but I did initially get into the field of HIV research through a desire to shake up the status quo (and thereby, implicitly, improve it) through critical social research. If success is measured in terms simply of fieldwork opportunities, then working in a school of public health was a very successful place to pursue this. However, studying a field you are also working in has its problems – I think Emily Martin once referred to it as like trying to push a bus in which you are also travelling. It goes back to the well-rehearsed debate as to the compatibility of ‘commitment’ with radical epistemological relativism, a tension which seems particularly acute when you bring STS sensibilities to bear on issues like HIV and malaria in low-income countries. After grappling with this in the public health arena, I’m quite glad to step away for a while and pursue some (perhaps) more theoretical and philosophical questions from the other side of the fence. I think InSIS will provide an excellent intellectual location from which to do this.

So welcome again, and thank you for your thoughts.