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.

Thanks!

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