Monday, 6 December 2010

Conference off to a cracking start..

Blog post by Dr. Steve Sturdy, Genomics Forum (on Plenary 1 - Knowledge Networks and Markets and Plenary 2 - Biodigital Futures: Informatisation and Convergence in the Life Sciences)

The conference got off to a cracking start this morning, with two plenary sessions opening up the key themes that will run through our discussions: first on Knowledge Networks and Markets (abbreviated by the speakers to KNMs), then on Informatisation and Convergence in the Life Sciences.

On KNMs, Tony Taubman from the World Trade Organisation delivered a tour-de-force review of the different ways that genomic intellectual property issues figure in various international legal instruments, and the need to reconcile different interpretations of access to and responsibility for genomic resources in often overlapping jurisdiction.  Taubman detailed the profound challenges raised by the movement of genomic resources across and between jurisdictions– nicely epitomised, for me, by the example of the haphazard movements of avian flu: both biologically, between birds and humans, and geographically, as migrating geese carry the virus from one country to another.  Taubman’s call for research into how legal instruments are interpreted and implemented “on the ground” was neatly echoed by the second speaker, sociologist Koray Caliscan, who introduced the latest thinking in the sociology of markets, and who stressed the need for empirical, ethnographic research into how markets – and with them, the value of the goods being traded – are constituted through the knowledge and actions of diverse stakeholders.  Hopefully this connection between legal behaviour and market behaviour in the organisation of knowledge markets, and the potential for social science to illuminate how such markets might best be ordered and regulated, will be discussed in greater depth at other points in the conference.

On Informatisation and Convergence, Pfizer’s Dennis Van Liew outlined how pharmaceutical companies are rethinking their approach to innovation around the use of new information and communication technologies – not just for collecting and analysing genomic and health data but also for redesigning clinical research methods and for mediating and facilitating new collaboration networks.  In the course of his visionary projection of the radical changes that new information technologies are bringing to medicine, he referred several times to the growing regulatory burden that innovators must cope with – an issue that was elaborated further by Jennifer Leib, from HealthFutures, who introduced some of the inconsistencies that have arisen as regulatory mechanisms struggle to keep up with rapid innovations in human genetic testing.  Leib’s background as a genetic counsellor who has since moved into the world of policy made for a particularly sensitive understanding of the potential mismatch between regulatory anxieties and the needs and concerns of those who seek or undergo genetic testing.

Reflecting on the two sessions together, I am struck by the extent to which issues raised in one session were relevant to those discussed in the other: informatisation and convergence in the life sciences plainly has profound consequences for the organisation of knowledge networks and markets, and vice versa.  Hopefully, this convergence within the conference themes reflects convergence in the wider world of genomic policy.  It remains to see how these issues will play out in the rest of the conference.

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