Comment on the CPERI Workshop 2015

I was happy to escape the Boston snow for a couple of days. The CPERI workshop at the sunny University of California San Diego (UCSD) was attended by researchers coming from a mixture of disciplines spanning history, geography, anthropology, sociology to political economy and management. What united the group was what seemed to be a self-identification as STS folks with an interest in political economy. Indeed the intention of this yearly workshop is to build a community and international program of research, to meet an intellectual as well as practical need for a new and revitalized study of the political economy of research and innovation. Much of the overarching sentiment of the two days, explicitly covered in the key-note and sum up, concerned the current standing of STS and inclusion of politics (and also economics, management, finance to some extent). The argument being that science has changed – as result of neoliberal, entrepreneurial or commercial pressures but STS has not caught up – so we have to study commercialization, and other aspects of its political economy. This also raised the question at the end as to whether there is an expertise problem in STS in having to now master economics and finance, post-science wars. One of the keynotes by historian/philosopher Philip Mirowski was about whether science studies faced another crisis, in defending science rather than critiquing it and how politics should not be superficially used in STS. This concern also came out in the other talks to varying degrees in both the subjects of enquiry and their treatment, which I’ve outlined below.

  • Challenging standard accounts of innovation: such as policy embodiments in Responsible Research and Innovation (RR&I) where there are conceptually unresolved questions and also what low carbon transition in China might mean from the perspective of the rising middle classes.
  • Building upon existing science policy ideas, but with a concentration on political dimensions: for ideal-type ‘narratives of science’ and ‘science policy framing’ and through a discourse analysis on the 2015 National Academy of Sciences reports on geoengineering to consider the discursive tools deployed.
  • Rethinking the relations between innovation, the state and universities: This involved looking back at historical understandings of science and the state (g. as a central force in the Zionist movement). Today the ‘entrepreneurial state’ is promoted but what levels of intervention are we considering? Then there is the changing role of the university in regards to innovation and entrepreneurship, where ‘Translational Research’ is one example of commercialisation, externalisation and outsourcing.
  • Exploring the economisation of life and the bioeconomy: included in this was my own topic Neglected Tropical Diseases, for which I covered scales of policy interaction. Another topic was on Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) the ‘GDP of health’ rendering life to economic value, and extending the rationality of market. There was also a conceptual enquiry as Dean Birch mentioned, where he explored the idea of assets in the bioeconomy rather than commodities.

Finally we were presented, through the second Keynote, to a history of San Diego from sociologist Mary Walshok on how civic culture has been important to the city. She spoke about how after the industrial revolution, people moved from midwest to west carrying anti-industrial sentiments and a quest for clean air rather than ‘dirty factories’ and ‘illiterate workers’. This had led to a civic culture that has encouraged innovation as an economic development strategy, through the construction of an enormous R&D infrastructure and use of prime land to build a renowned research centre. It was a nice touch to have a talk on where we were visiting. As social scientists there is often a curiosity about new places, the people and its history. We finished the day with a few hours left to stroll outside, view the La Jolla shoreline and a final debrief as the sun set with a burger on the beach. IMG_8848 Samantha Vanderslott, March 2015

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