Monday, 6 December 2010

An anthropologist, and ethicist and a sociologist go into a bar…

Blog post by Claire Packman, Egenis (on Session 1A - How Does Life-Sciences Knowledge Circulate?)

No, they go into a panel at the EGN/OECD conference to explore, as chair Professor Steve Hughes put it, “three distinct framings of the question of knowledge production and circulation.” It’s an experiment,” he admitted happily. “We don’t know where this session will take us.”

It took us first to China, then Africa, with our tour guide Professor Paul Richards, who was looking at “Hidden Hands”, the hands being those of peasant farmers. Prof  Richards explained why the world’s rural poor “contribute more than we think to stable food securities”. The farmers maintain genetic diversity of crops even, or especially, in adverse conditions, because they “preserve everything”, planting mixed seed which encourages adaptive selection. “The value chain, the innovation, doesn’t start in labs but in farmers’ fields,” maintained Prof Richards.

The ethicist, Professor Michiel Korthals, may be the only person at the conference to illustrate his talk with slides of Andy Warhol’s soup cans and a sumo wrestler. He was keen to remind us that “there is no innovation without participation”. ‘Food as fuel’ is one ‘script’ adopted by the life sciences but, Prof Korthals said, there are others, such as food for health and food as culture – enjoy some architecture with  your Italian cheese.

Dr Jane Calvert had some fine illustrations too. Lego, mainly. She had, Prof Hughes told us, just come back from working with a group of artists in Australia, “but I’m not going to talk about that” said Dr Calvert, dashing any hopes of Sidney Nolan-style drawings of synthetic Ned Kelly lookalike organisms. She also apologised to anyone attending the session to avoid the discussion of synthetic biology next door. “I’m going to talk about synthetic biology.” Her talk looked at the ‘biobricks’ approach, which aims to construct living things using standardised biological parts. Her gallop through issues of ownership and open source left us breathless, and awed by her energy.

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