March 15, 2012

Are technologies political? Facebook and more

Are technologies political? While baking vegan chocolate chip cookies for a class last week, I wondered if my hand mixer—one of those amazingly durable 1970s machines passed down from my mother—might be imposing some sort of value judgment on me. OK, let’s not anthropomorphize my kitchen gadgets. But Ruth Schwartz Cowan, a feminist historian of technology, would argue that even household technologies have politics behind them, as well as profound social impacts. Consider this recent article in Wired: the design of the keyboard I’m typing on might have a minor impact on the words I unconsciously gravitate towards. Or consider the impact of Facebook on how teenage girls present themselves to the world. Today’s hyper-connected teenagers grow up in a world that is always “on,” and there are social consequences. Maybe I was just a teenage freak, but I when I was in junior high it was cool to wear pajamas to school...

In The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner argues that we should more closely examine the politics behind technologies. He writes, "Over many decades technological optimists have been sustained by the belief that whatever happened to be created in the sphere of material/instrumental culture would certainly be compatible with freedom, democracy, and social justice" (Winner, p. 50). The kicker is, of course, that many of our technologies are not compatible with these ideals. The classic example in agriculture is how the University of California extension system introduced mechanical tomato harvesters. This not only changed the physical properties of tomatoes in the supermarket (bred to be durable, rather than tasty), but created an economic barrier that made smaller farmers go out of business. Other agricultural technologies, such as the fertilizer/seed/pesticide packages of the Green Revolution, and genetically modified foods, also favor larger farmers. This seems to not just be because larger farmers have more capital, stronger networks, and are thus earlier adopters of innovation, but there also something inherently autocratic in the technologies and throughout their development.

These themes are central tenants of Science and Technology Studies’ co-production idiom. Politics shape science and technology, and these in turn shape society. But society pushes back, too. From housewives who started using telephones for social calls rather than ‘business’ to farmers who use cell phones to monitor their crops and commodity prices, we have both formal and informal social means to regulate technologies. These would be considered the “social construction of technology” point of view, as opposed to the co-production or even technological determinism I hinted at earlier.

A really great thought experiment on the social construction of technology is the history of privacy. Despite the ever-shifting impacts of technology on electronic privacy and security, there may be a time in the future where no password is safe and every Cory Doctorow explores this in his short story, “Knights of the Rainbow Table” in the Tomorrow Project. When hackers can crack every password code, perhaps new social norms will catch up with technological advancement, in the same way that we don’t constantly rifle through our roommates, officemates, and neighbors’ belongings (unless you are living with a sociopath, in which case, I recommend you leave now!). 

Back to Facebook, I believe that many of these new norms are starting to form. While it may sound silly, teenagers swap online passwords with each other as a sign of trust and intimacy. Before the days of smartphones, I’ve shared passwords with my roommates in cases when I needed to call to check an email, submit an assignment, or banish myself from Facebook (i.e. letting your roommate change your password). I also trust that my Facebook friends won’t share my embarrassing photos beyond the network, but I’m also coming to terms that nothing I do on the internet will ever be completely private.

Although I have a certain faith in how social norms mediate our interactions with technologies, legal regulation is still important. I might trust my friends with silly photos from last Friday night, but I definitely don’t trust a stranger with my bank account.

March 7, 2012

Science in Democracy review

Mark Brown’s Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation is a political philosopher’s take on science policy. Brown begins with two assertions: 1) that involving lay people in science policy debates doesn't make it any less politicized, and 2) when science is used as a proxy battle for politics, this brings up the question of representation. Exploring the history of how scientific and political thinkers, such as Machievelli, Locke, Boyle, Newton, and Latour, Brown draws connections between the arguments of political philosophers and their applications to modern science. Mainly, the question of representation in science.

By now a familiar argument to me, Brown starts off writing about the politicization of science and the scientization of politics; how science is a proxy battle for politics, or values. He writes, “Both modern science and modern liberalism connect elite reason with popular consent, while ensuring that the former retains power over the latter. The tension between the rationalism and voluntarism of liberal representative government thus parallels the tension between the exclusivity and publicity between democracy and political representation” (Brown, p. 91). Thus, Brown argues that science policy debates cannot be opened up to the entire population, for the same reasons that we do not have a direct democracy.

Brown’s arguments sharply counter Steve Hilgartner’s Science on Stage, which I discussed a few weeks ago. Let’s take two examples: birth control and food politics. Brown begins and closes his book with a discussion of the scientization of the debate over Plan B birth control around 2005-2006, and whether Plan B should be allowed without a prescription. Again, not a new argument to me, conservatives argued that more evidence was needed to prove the safety of Plan B. Just recently, the Obama administration was challenged by feminist groups because they denied approval to sell Plan B over-the-counter to minors. Obama made a similar argument, that there is not enough information on Plan B’s effect on minors to authorize it.

Another example of Brown’s case against science policy free-for-alls is in setting nutritional standards. For example, how do children’s cereals get away with advertising their products as healthy? The answer is a convergence of a scientized definition of nutrition combined with the strong influence of food lobby groups. To Brown, this is an example of the failure of representation (companies are represented, consumers are not), but also a closer examination of the values that go into science policy processes. He writes, “public deliberation and representation is required, not only in cases of obvious technical failure or public controversy, but also at the front end of technical development… political representation not only requires technical expertise but also occurs within technical expertise” (Brown, p. 89).

An interesting aspect of Brown’s argument is that “scientific representations that ‘stand for’ nature–especially when institutionalized as expert advice–play a key role in political representation” (Brown, p. 4). He compares this with Hobbes’s analysis that “the authority to represent nature’s interests, from this [Hobbes’s] perspective, does not directly rest on knowledge about nature, but rather on the formal authorization by those with legal control over it” (Brown, p. 130). Obviously we might find this problematic when dealing with environmental issues like climate change and ecosystem services.

March 4, 2012

What is Golden Rice?

This semester I'm taking a class where I'm learning to write encyclopedia-style entries for ASU's Embryo Project. The Embryo Project focuses on anything related to embryos and embryo research, including the history of evolution, birth control, and stem cells. But since I don't really work on that stuff, they're letting me write about plants! My first article is on the history of Golden Rice, which I'll share a bit about here. My next three articles are on the history of seed banks and the movement for conservation of plant genetic resources. I'm including things like the history of plant patents and the biodiversity movement, which is part of why it's taking 3 articles.

So what is Golden Rice? Golden Rice is a technology that comes at the intersection of scientific and ethical debates that extend beyond a grain of rice. Golden Rice was the first crop variety engineered for micronutrient fortification with the intention of improving human health. Golden Rice has an engineered multi-gene biochemical pathway in its genome. This pathway produces beta-carotene, a molecule that becomes vitamin A when metabolized by humans. The inventors of Golden Rice were Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg, Germany. The Rockefeller Foundation supported their collaboration. Scientists first succeeded in expressing beta-carotene in rice in 1999, and the results were published in 2000. Since then, Golden Rice has improved through laboratory and field trials, but as of 2012 is not commercially grown.

Golden Rice is named for its color, which is caused by beta-carotene. Normal rice, Oryza sativa, does not express beta-carotene in its endosperm—the starchy, biggest part of the rice seed, which is usually an off-white color. Beta-carotene is part of a class of molecules called carotenoids, one of hundreds that are naturally produced in plants, and it has a yellow-orange hue. Carotenoids are an essential human nutrient because they are precursors to molecules needed in metabolism. Beta-carotene (also known as pro-vitamin A) is transformed in the human body into vitamin A, necessary for production of retinal and retinoic acid. When populations lack access to foods containing beta-carotene­­—by eating mostly cereal crops such as rice, wheat, or sorghum—they are at risk of blindness and disease.

Rather than planning to commercialize their invention, the inventors, especially Potrykus, worked to legally secure Golden Rice as a humanitarian project. They licensed Golden Rice to Syngenta (formerly Zeneca), a Swiss biopharmaceutical company. Potrykus and Beyer soon established a “Golden Rice Humanitarian Board” to oversee the development of the technology and grant noncommercial licenses to public research institutes. These national and international research organizations would adapt Golden Rice to local environmental and climate conditions. The International Rice Research Institute gained a license for use from the Golden Rice project in 2001, aiming to spread Golden Rice throughout Asia.

Both inventors credit Syngenta’s Adrian Dubock with helping them navigate the complex intellectual property legal system around agricultural biotechnology. Neither Potrykus nor Beyer anticipated the Intellectual and Technology Property Rights and material transfer agreements required for production of Golden Rice. These licenses protect inventors’ rights to genetic material, scientific techniques, and exchange of seeds for research. A legal assessment of Golden Rice in 2000 showed that it contained over seventy patents, but patents vary country to country. Many of the patents do not apply to the developing countries at which Golden Rice was targeted. For the licenses that were required, these were obtained over a few months at minimal cost.

Critics of Golden Rice include the environmental group Greenpeace. Greenpeace has staged public protests against Golden Rice, and is systematically opposed to all genetically modified organisms. Greenpeace claimed that the amount of beta-carotene in Golden Rice is so small, that one would need to consume massive quantities of rice to reach an effective dose. While it can be difficult to measure the ingestion of vitamins, a team of scientists from Syngenta introduced “Golden Rice 2” in 2005, which produced increased levels of beta-carotene by substituting the original daffodil genes with similar genes from corn.

As of early 2012, Golden Rice was still in field trials. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), partnered with Hellen Keller International, plans to introduce Golden Rice in Bangladesh and the Philippines by crossing it with local, high-yielding rice varieties. While IRRI has been involved in the Golden Rice project since nearly its invention, Hellen Keller International joined the project to support the public health benefits of vitamin A. The Golden Rice project at IRRI is supported by Rockefeller Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became a supporter of the Golden Rice project in 2011. Bangladesh approved field trials of Golden Rice, and as of 2012 estimates that varieties will be available for consumption by 2015.

More to come... but this is for some background, and I hope you found it interesting! My sources are available upon request.

March 1, 2012

Links I liked

It's actually been a productive week for me, which means less blogging. But here's my favorite science links of the week:

A spotlight on Innovation and Bell Labs over at NYTimes, and a solid exposition on basic research by Michael Burnam-Fink.

Roger Pielke Jr. wants your input on a possible second edition of The Honest Broker.

Via NPR, Judge Dismisses Organic Farmers' Case Against Monsanto. Can organics and GMOs operate in separate paradigms of food production? According to Monsanto, "This decision is a win for all farmers as it underscores that agricultural practices such as ag biotechnology, organic and conventional systems do and will continue to effectively coexist in the agricultural marketplace."

In their continuing Feed 9 Billion series, Marketplace brings us The future of food in a warming world, and a story of low-tech agricultural adaptations in Bangladesh.

What does "natural" mean on food labels? Not much, actually.

Jack Stilgoe's reaction to anti-anti-science (or pro-science, anti-denialist) rhetoric at the recent AAAS conference.

Nick Offerman et al. brilliantly parody the all-male birth control panel.
And finally, the cutest photo of the week.