Placing the Golden Spike: When Did the Anthropocene Begin? (And Why the Question Matters)

Les Beldo | 24 February 2017
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Bahudhara - CC-BY-SA-3.0 The 'golden spike' marking the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) at the base of the Ediacaran Period.

The Golden Spike marking the Ediacaran period. Where would we place the spike to mark the human epoch? (Image Credit – Wikimedia User: Bahudhara CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In August 2016, the International Geological Congress voted to accept the suggestion first made by two acclaimed Earth scientists that we live in a new geological era defined by human-induced environmental and atmospheric change. “The Anthropocene,” as the scientists proposed to call it, “could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane” (1). Even before the proposal was accepted by an international body of stratigraphers, the suggestion of a human-dominated geological epoch provoked spirited responses across the social sciences and humanities. In a flurry of conferences and essays over the last several years, anthropologists, geographers, historians, and others have debated the merits of placing humans alongside asteroids and glaciers as agents of planetary geological change (2).

In 2015, Milwaukee’s Institute of Visual Arts invited its visitors to contemplate the Anthropocene with an exhibit called “Placing the Golden Spike” (the International Union of Geological Sciences marks exemplary sites for each geological epoch by driving a golden spike between layers of rock). I visited the exhibit along with other attendees of an interdisciplinary conference at the nearby University of Wisconsin. The exhibit sparked sustained discussion in the conference plenary sessions that followed, although none of the distinguished scholars at the conference could agree on when the Anthropocene began or what it should be called. Their answers tended to vary in line with what they had been studying throughout their careers. An anthropologist of the nuclear age placed the figurative spike in 1945 at the Trinity nuclear test site. Marxians pointed to the rise of capital in Europe as the obvious starting point and suggested changing the handle to the “Capitalocene” (3). A militant art historian of the Napoleonic era felt that European colonialism marked the dawn of the new age and earnestly suggested we rename it the “white supremacy-cene.”

The debate was emblematic of the scholarly disagreement that has accompanied the Anthropocene concept since its first appearance. Notwithstanding the dramatic impacts of industry and agriculture on the global environment, scholars have tended to disagree on almost every significant aspect of the concept, including what to call it. Donna Haraway, not in attendance at the conference, prefers the label “Chthulucene,” named after H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional, octopus-headed monster (4). Others have passionately argued that it would make more sense to call it the “Plantation-ocene” (5). The proposed starting points for these renamed eras are equally diverse, ranging from the discovery of fire to the agricultural revolution to the invention of the microprocessor.

STS scholars may have their own answers to the question of when the Anthropocene began or how to characterize it, but the STS approach can also help us understand what different answers to these questions tell us about the political and epistemological commitments of those who offer them. Any answer, as Jasanoff has observed in general of scientific knowledge, is bound to be produced in concert with the socio-political order it represents, a process STS scholars refer to as co-production (6). Academic disciplines are no exception, enabling the creation of knowledge through a shared understanding of who we are, as humans, and what we care about.

The concept of the Anthropocene is a useful provocation in the humanities and critical social sciences for the same reason that those fields might never have come up with the concept themselves: the idea of a global human epoch challenges some of the most cherished normative and intellectual commitments of the respective fields. Does it make sense to talk about a single anthropos when the industrial age has been marked by sustained systemic inequality? (7) How does all of humanity act as a monolithic agent? Does climate change matter more or less than nuclear fallout or mass extinction? Is there such thing as nature untouched by humans? The disciplines and their various sub-fields give different answers to these questions, all diverging from the original assumptions made by Crutzen and Stoermer (8).

Those two Earth scientists were able to coin a term because they agreed—even if not all of their fellows have joined them (9)—on at least three crucial and deeply value-laden points: first, what constitutes a shared humanity (their implied answer: all of homo sapiens); second, which human impacts matter most for naming an era (their answer: climate change); and finally, how should those impacts be measured (their answer: concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in polar ice core samples). Adjust any one of those terms and you will get a different answer to the question of when the Anthropocene began. Adjust two or all three of the dials, and you may end up calling this current age something else entirely.

Keywords: Anthropocene, climate change, capitalocene, environment


  1. Crutzen, Paul J. (2002) “Geology of mankind.” Nature 415 (6867): 23-23.
  2. See, for example: Latour, Bruno. (2014). “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene.” New Literary History, 45, 1-18 // Haraway, Donna (2015). “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, 6, 159-165. // Haraway, Donna et al (2015). “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocoene.” Ethnos DOI: 1080.00141844.2015.1105838
  3. Moore, Jason W. (2014). “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.”
  4. Haraway, Donna et al. “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocoene,” 22.
  5. Haraway, Donna “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.”
  6. Jasanoff, Sheila. (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge. (p.3)
  7. Bonneuil, C., & Fressoz, J. B. (2016). The shock of the Anthropocene: The earth, history and us. London: Verso Books.
  8. Jasanoff, Sheila. “A History of Scales and the Scales of History”, Development and Change 48(3), May 2017.
  9. Autin, Whitney J. and Holbrook, John M. (2012). “Is the Anthropocene an issue of stratigraphy or pop culture?” Geological Society of America (GSA) Today, 22 (7): 60-61.

Further Reading:

Jasanoff, Sheila (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

Jasanoff, Sheila. (2004). “Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images.” Earthly Politics. MIT Press.


Where We’re Going, We Still Need Roads: Between the Law Lag and the Tech Lag Narratives

Gili Vidan | 9 December 2015
Image Credit: Car by Becca O'Shea from the Noun Project. Rather than looking at the law lag and tech lag narratives as mutually opposed, STS invites us to explore what vision of society and emerging technology they represent, and what is at stake when they get mobilized.

Image Credit: Car by Becca O’Shea from the Noun Project. Rather than looking at the law lag and tech lag narratives as mutually opposed, STS invites us to explore what vision of society and emerging technology they represent, and what is at stake when they get mobilized.

On October 21st, 2015 the future disappointed us. Fans of the Back to the Future trilogy were counting down to that day when Marty Mcfly and Doc Brown would take their time travel-enabled Delorean all the way from their 1985 present into the science fictional future. Just as the two protagonists were about to head to the future, Marty suggested they back up their time-travelling car, to have a bit more road to land on at their destination. Doc, having just come back from the future, responds with the classic line, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Looking out the window in 2015, there are no banana peel-operated flying cars, hoverboards, or auto-drying jackets anywhere in sight. Our most innovative cars are still struggling with road-bound fixed-gear bikes (1). Comparing our near future to its cinematic counterpart, some commentators can’t help feeling underwhelmed by the technology that surrounds us. This sense of a lost trajectory of technological innovation can be called the “tech lag narrative.”

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist, expressed this sentiment in his Science and Democracy Lecture at Harvard in March 2015. Referencing the cinematic trilogy, Thiel’s talk was titled “Back to the Future: Will we create enough new technology to sustain our society?” Thiel argued that our technological visions are no longer ambitious enough. He sought to distinguish “true technological innovation,” which is transformative, from what the tech industry is currently doing, namely, “more of the same.” Elsewhere, he has said, “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters” (2). Through a book, lectures across university campuses, and his venture capital company’s manifesto, Thiel’s tech lag narrative seems to be winning over hearts and minds and wallets. Over the past few years, new product launches and high-priced startups have met with criticism of their overvaluation, the specter of another impending Silicon Valley bubble, and the beginning of a backlash (3). In late 2012, influential tech journalist Michael Arrington published a piece titled, “I’m Bored. What’s Next?” (4). Together, these tech lag voices are converging around one message—the future isn’t what it used to be.

These views of the state of technological innovation both echo and contrast with another common characterization of the relationship between technology and society—the law lag. This is the notion that technoscientifc inventiveness is an “agenda-setting force to which the law responds only by reaction” (5). Über offers a recent example of this narrative’s popularity. Commentators say that attempts to regulate Über’s operations illustrate the law lagging behind new fast-paced technologies (6). So which is right? Are we not producing enough transformative technology? Or is the rate of technological innovation too rapid for our outdated social institutions?

Rather than looking at the law lag and tech lag narratives as mutually opposed, STS invites us to explore what vision of society and emerging technology they represent, and what is at stake when they get mobilized. Reexamining the narratives in this light, we see how the tech lag and the law lag are in fact complementary.

Examining the debates surrounding the governance of emerging biotechnology, Benjamin Hurlbut observes that the law lag narrative casts the law’s role as reactive while science and technology follow their own proactive trajectory (7). Echoing Jasanoff (8), Hurlbut notes that through the law lag narrative, science and technology become the only sites from which innovation emerges, whether material or normative. Scientists and technologists thereby assume the authority (and responsibility) to characterize how society should progress (9). Law then is reduced to the task of preventing harm to society, harm as defined by the expert community. The law lag, Hurlbut concludes, is a “mechanism for delegating power” to scientists and technologists (10).

The tech lag narrative also assumes that novelty derives from technology. For example, in his recent book, Zero to One, Thiel defines the word technology as a form of “vertical or intensive progress” which results from doing new things (11). When mobilizing the tech lag narrative, its advocates still insist that innovation is primarily technological and made by scientists and technologists, while bemoaning the fact that it is not as visionary as it should be. As in the law lag narrative, experts in the form of technology entrepreneurs play the role of discerning real innovation. The startup is the privileged site where futures are constructed. Thiel’s definition of an ideal startup is “the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future” (12).

Comparing the law lag and the tech lag narratives in this way makes their repeated and concurrent invocation less puzzling. Both narratives suggest a strikingly similar trajectory to the future. Both are mechanisms for delegating power and responsibility for the construction of such futures to experts. The lag narratives obfuscate the fact that claims about how science and technology generate innovation are simultaneously also claims about who should prescribe how society ought to progress. Much like a Marty McFly stuck in 1955, Thiel seems to want to get back to a specific future: back when we were “on track” towards his vision of a future of novelty defined by tech entrepreneurs. Perhaps it is not our limited imagination that frustrates flying-car enthusiasts, but rather our insistence not to cede to Thiel’s entrepreneurs the tarmacked ground on which collective formulation of such visions should occur.

Keywords: law lag, tech lag, innovation, entrepreneurship


  1. Matt McFarland, “How Fixed-Gear Bikes Can Confuse Google’s Self-Driving Cars,” The Washington Post, August 26, 2015.
  2. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “Facebook Investor Wants Flying Cars, Not 140 Characters,” Business Insider, July 30, 2011.
  3. See: Farhad Manjoo, “Is Slack Really Worth $2.8 Billion? A Conversation With Stewart Butterfield,” Bits Blog, April 16, 2015; Francisco Dao, “Why Silicon Valley Innovation Has Stalled,” Pando, January 3, 2013. Ross Andersen, “Tim Cook Sounds Desperate Talking About the Apple Watch,” The Atlantic, September 9, 2015; Leo Mirani, “Are We Starting to Fall out of Love with Silicon Valley?Quartz, April 18, 2015.
  4. Michael Arrington, “I’m Bored. What’s Next?TechCrunch, December 30, 2012, Accessed October 18, 2015.
  5. Sheila Jasanoff, “Making Order: Law and Science in Action,” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, 3rd ed., 761–86. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press ; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science, 2008.
  6. Noah Lang, “Employee or Contractor? Online Businesses Like Uber Need a New Category,Newsweek, June 21, 2015.
  7. J. Benjamin Hurlbut, “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar,” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  8. Sheila Jasanoff, Science at the Bar : Law, Science, and Technology in America (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  9. Hurlbut, “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar,” 128.
  10. Ibid., 147.
  11. Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 5.
  12. Ibid., 8.

Further Reading:

Bijker, Wiebe E. “Why and How Technology Matters,” in Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly, 2006, 681–706.

Hurlbut, J. Benjamin. “Remembering the Future: Science, Law, and the Legacy of Asilomar.” In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Jasanoff, Sheila. “Making Order: Law and Science in Action.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Edward J. Hackett, 3rd ed., 761–86. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press ; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science, 2008.

Thinking COP21: Contradiction and Controversy in the Climate Crisis

Hilton Simmet | 30 November 2015
Protestors calling for Harvard to divest from fossil-fuels during Heat Week, April 2015. Looking at moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded.

Protestors calling for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels during Heat Week, April 2015. Looking at moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded.

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies … Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.

–Harvard President Drew Faust, in response to calls for fossil-fuel divestment (1).

The climate controversy is rife with charges of contradiction. Student activists in the Divest Movement, aiming to get university money out of fossil-fuel extraction, are found by Harvard’s President Drew Faust to be “inconsistent” –boycotting the very companies on which the University and its students depend. Environmental economists are told by Pope Francis and the UK’s Schumacher Institute that it is a contradiction to rely on the very growth-based economic models that created the problem (2). And while developing countries hope for a new era of “sustainable development,” many note the contradiction between the energy-hungry symbols of development–industrial agriculture, superhighways, airports, and air-conditioners—and the imperatives of sustainability.

For the 195 nations meeting in Paris at COP21, if such contradictions get noticed at all, it will be only insofar as they get in the way of the conference’s more concrete and straightforward goals: to limit warming to less than 2◦C, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 40-70% of current levels by 2100, create strategies of adaptation, and establish a global carbon market to further a new “zero carbon” and “resilient” development model (3). Yet in looking for change, conferees may lose sight of how these persistent contradictions suggest the “climate crisis” needs more than environmental regulations and a new price on fuel. Indeed, for STS scholars what appear as contradictions are sites of analysis that reveal how individual moments of climate controversy are embedded in a far larger matrix of contestation over the very political, economic, and social worlds that produced climate change.

To begin, President Faust’s claim that her students are being “inconsistent” in refusing to “countenance any relationship” with the fossil-fuel companies that support them overlooks her own moments of contradiction. She ignores, for example, the more basic dependence her students are trying to point out between Earth, its stable climate, and themselves (4). An STS scholar might observe that the entire point of Divest is to acknowledge the problematic ways the interests of fossil-fuel companies, politics, and universities are wound up in one another. Divestment, for the activists, is precisely about severing the problematic political ties that are preventing law-makers from crafting effective climate policy.

In Faust’s world, too, Harvard ought not to make its investments a “political tool.” She problematically raises thick walls between Harvard as an “academic institution,” a place of “pure” learning and research, and the dirty business of earthly politics going on around it. In effect, through this discourse of purity, Harvard divests from its ethical responsibility to the Earth. Yet as decades of STS work point out, scientific research is already directed by the interests of the world around it, just as research is not always agnostic in directing the world—as when climate scientists rightfully stress the urgency to act on climate change. Thus, what seems at first to be a debate about the coherence of the Divest movement finally emerges as a contestation over the nature of Harvard and its political relationships with the world.

While Faust’s contradictions call us to think about COP21’s broader political contexts, the Pope’s point about the contradiction of looking for a “market solution” draws attention to the interdependence of fossil fuels and economics. In “Carbon Democracy” (2009), Timothy Mitchell argues that petroleum-based industrialization created societies “with a peculiar orientation toward the future … [as] a limitless horizon of growth” and that “the economy” that was helpful in governing the age of fossil fuels “may be unable to create the processes that ended it” (5). This recalls Max Weber’s observation over a century ago, that “the mighty cosmos of the modern economic order” rests on a desire to consume and drive growth forward “until the day that the last ton of fossil fuels has been consumed” (6). Both Mitchell and Weber argue that the very pillars of contemporary economics—growth, international trade, and increased consumption—arose with the burning of carbon, oil, and gas. While it is simplistic to dismiss markets tout court, the relationship between the conceptual development of economics and our reliance on these fuels is challenging. It cautions climate negotiators about relying on economic assumptions built for a fossil-fuel era when advocating the passing of that era itself.

Finally, there is the contradiction of “sustainable development,” a notion that uneasily marries the symbolic social order of “development” (electric power, highways, etc.) with that of “sustainability” (e.g., stable climate, untouched forests). In the pre-COP21 conference “Our Common Future Under Climate Change,” hope was expressed that there can be a “new development model (low to zero, carbon resilient)” that will also “limit risks that changes in the climate will derail human progress” (7). In this view, seemingly the only modification that needs to be made to “development” is to make it zero-carbon, an unsatisfying resolution in that it takes for granted what is meant by the term “human progress.” Calling for a “new development model” (singular) implies there do not exist multiple, overlapping, even conflicting, understandings of human progress. STS scholarship suggests to the contrary that what is meant by “sustainability” and “development” needs to be examined against the multiple social meanings of “progress,” and it questions whether a single, internationally certified definition of such terms could ever be achieved (8).

Looking at these moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded. Analyzing a message from Harvard’s President brings out the contested (and deeply political) nature of one local climate controversy. Pope Francis offers a compass point toward thinking about the layers of assumption on which contemporary industrial economies are built. And “sustainable development” suggests not so much a “new development model” as a new window on the very meaning of social progress. Looking to COP21, similar moments are sure to arise, challenging the ways we think and engage, and allowing us to see and reimagine the worlds in which such contradictions arise. Ultimately the promise of COP21 thus may not lie in a climate treaty but in the very possibility for meaning and change in this contested moment.

Keywords: COP21; climate change; contestation; development


  1. Drew Faust, “Fossil Fuel Divestment Statement,” Office of the President, October 3, 2013,
  2. Coral Davenport, “Pope Targets Carbon Credits, Economists Favored Path to Change,” New York Times, June 18, 2015,
  3. Andrew C. Revkin, “In Paris Scientists Chart Varied Paths to a Sustainable Human Relationship with Earth’s Climate,” New York Times Dot Earth, July 11, 2015,
  4. This interdependence has been observed by a number of scholars. See, for example, Latour, Bruno (2015) Face à Gaïa: Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique. La Découverte (2015) and Stone, Christopher D. (2012) “Should trees have standing? Toward legal rights for natural objects.” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, 3(0), 4–55.
  5. Mitchell, Timothy. (2009). “Carbon democracy.” Economy and Society, 38(3), 399–432. p. 422.
  6. Weber, Max. (2002[1905]). The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism and other writings. New York: Penguin Books. p. 120-121.
  7. Revkin, Andrew C. “In Paris Scientists Chart Varied Paths to a Sustainable Human Relationship with Earth’s Climate,” New York Times Dot Earth, July 11, 2015,
  8. Jasanoff, Sheila. (2002). New modernities: Reimagining science, technology and development. Environmental Values, 11(3), 253–276.

Further Reading:

  • Jasanoff, Sheila. (2010). A New Climate for Society. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), 233-253.
  • Mitchell, Timothy. (2013). Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

Breaking the Law? Assisted Reproduction and Tacit Normativity

Daniela Schuh | 17 June 2015
Nation-specific imaginaries of what it means to be a citizen are attached to practices of technologically assisted reproduction.

The US and France invoked different normative standards to admit biologically novel newborns to American and French citizenship, respectively.

The problem is that the law hasn’t kept up with the advances in reproductive technology,” explained Mrs. Brisman, a New Jersey lawyer, when commenting on Ellie Lavi’s protracted attempts to register her daughters as U.S. citizens (1). When the American-Israeli mother gave birth in Tel Aviv, the U.S. State Department refused to recognize the parent-child relationship because the twins were conceived with egg and sperm from anonymous donors and thus were not biologically related to Mrs. Lavi. Born in Israel and lacking a genetic tie to a U.S. national, the twins were initially rejected for U.S. citizenship. This situation changed only with the reinterpretation of a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which now recognizes both genetic and gestational motherhood as a basis for claiming citizenship for a child.

Meanwhile, France’s Supreme Court dealt with the question whether twin boys borne by a surrogate mother in India for a French couple should be granted citizenship. Although there was a genetic tie between the intended father and the children, French judges decided to reject the couple as legal parents and denied citizenship. Uncertainties regarding the boys’ civil status were ironed out only when the European Court of Human Rights decided that France must recognize the parent-child relationship when citizens conduct gestational surrogacy abroad.

The U.S. lawyer’s statement above captures the prevailing sentiment about the law’s sluggishness in the American context but it also holds true for French public debates on surrogacy. At its heart is a picture of the law as a viscous body of rules that eternally trails behind the inexorable agenda-setting forces of science and technology. This perception of the relationship between law, science and technology is commonplace in public controversies about novel technologies and has been examined critically by STS scholars (2). Yet, the mere coexistence of the American and French stories on foreign surrogate mothering underlines the limitations of this narrative.

While giving birth was not at first sufficient to establish legal parenthood and citizenship under U.S. law, the situation in France was exactly the reverse. French authorities refused to recognize the lineage between the twins and the genetic father, and to accept the boys as citizens, precisely because the legal definition of parentage was keyed to the act of giving birth. These contrasting rules represent an unexpected nexus of two larger complexes of law that came into play in these situations.

On the one hand, there are nation-specific ways of controlling the degree to which the process of human reproduction can be mechanized and externalized with the help of novel technologies (e.g. in-vitro fertilization, gamete donation, surrogacy). On the other, there are regulations that tie bodies to political spaces, including nation-specific ways of obtaining citizenship and the rights and obligations that attach to citizens. The influence these bodies of law can have on people’s decisions to conduct fertility treatments abroad became evident in the case of the French couple that engaged a surrogate mother abroad to bypass France’s domestic legal restrictions. Here, we see that regulations already in place preconditioned new social practices that gave rise in turn to novel legal questions.

Comparison between the U.S. and France further illuminates the different choices of law made by the two countries’ legal authorities.  By extending the legal parenthood and citizenship from proof of a genetic relation to include the acts of gestation and giving birth, U.S. authorities reconfirmed that citizenship should be defined in biological terms. They admitted, however, that the regulations previously in place had defined the biology of motherhood too narrowly and therefore law needed to be brought in line with what technology had enabled. In effect, the U.S. decision affirmed the law lag narrative by conforming the law to a new understanding of reproductive biology.

This tacit delegation of normative authority to biological facts, however, is not universal, as the story of the French couple and their twin boys shows. In fact, French officials did not let their understanding of biology define the children’s civil status but rather evoked a set of norms that applied to their citizens whether they were conceiving children at home or abroad. According to French standards, surrogacy impermissibly exploits women and commodifies children. Merely banning the practice at home was not thought sufficient to meet French ethical demands, since citizens could always escape by engaging a surrogate mother in a country with liberal or no regulations on this matter. Hence, refusing to grant citizenship to children born through surrogacy abroad should be understood as France’s attempt to hold its citizens to French norms regardless where they happened to be in the world. Put differently, the country’s moral stance was thought to travel with its citizens, who were not allowed to break out of French normativity on so basic a matter as reproductive rights just because they were territorially no longer in France. Law in this sense took precedence over technology.

To sum up, each country invoked a different normative standard to admit biologically novel newborns to American and French citizenship, respectively (3). These contrasting solutions point to nation-specific imaginaries attached to different practices of technologically assisted reproduction, contrasting ideas about citizenship, and conflicting visions of how the future can and should be rendered governable in the face of late modernity’s rapid and destabilizing sociotechnical changes. STS critical tools that analyze not only technological outcomes but also the discourses that normalize (or fail to normalize) these outcomes help us to investigate further and to achieve a more profound and differentiated critique of biology and law. In this case it takes us beyond the simplistic assertion that the law always lags behind science and technology.

Keywords: law lag; assisted reproduction; parenthood; citizenship


  1. Chabin, Michele, “In vitro babies denied US citizenship,” USA Today, March 19, 2012.
  2. For example, see Jasanoff, Sheila (2007) ‘Making Order: Law and Science in Action,’ in E. Hackett et al., eds., Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pp. 761-786. Hurlbut, J. Benjamin (2015) ‘Remembering the Future: Science, Law and the Legacy of Asilomar,’ to appear in Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyung Kim (eds), Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
  3. Jasanoff, Sheila (2005) Designs on Nature. Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. (N.J.: Princeton University Press).

Further Reading:

  • Jasanoff, Sheila (2011) ‘Introduction: Rewriting Life, Reframing Rights,’ in Jasanoff, Sheila (ed), Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age (Cambridge MA: MIT Press), pp. 1-27.
  • Jasanoff, Sheila (2005) Designs on Nature. Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States. (N.J.: Princeton University Press).
  • Jasanoff, Sheila (1995) Science at the Bar: Law, Science, and Technology in America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
  • Hurlbut, J. Benjamin (2015) ‘Remembering the Future: Science, Law and the Legacy of Asilomar,’ to appear in Jasanoff, Sheila, and Sang-Hyung Kim (eds), Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Framing British Drug Policy

Ian McGonigle | 30 October 2014
Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

The effectiveness and legitimacy of British drug control policy are both in serious question. This March the latest assessments of the harmfulness of so-called “legal highs” came under attack by Prof David Nutt and Dr Les King. They used the term “sloppy science” to partially account for the misuse of figures on the number of deaths resulting from legal highs, but it is now clear that drug control in Britain suffers from deeper problems. Expert medical opinion is routinely ignored while conservative opinion and vested political values sometimes prevail. Politics seems to have displaced science in the realm of drug policy, with the result that some drugs that should be controlled are not while others that pose little or no danger are. It is therefore high time to dig into the mechanics of drug policy, asking what drives decisions and how a faulty framing of the issues can lead to perverse outcomes. The herbal high “khat” provides a good example.

In July 2013 the UK government banned khat, an herbal stimulant plant that contains an amphetamine-like compound called cathinone. The pleasurable effects of chewing khat leaves are not unlike alcohol. They include increased libido, talkativeness and gregariousness, along with the inhibition of hunger, anxiety, and fatigue. Khat has been chewed recreationally in the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa – where it is autochthonous – for centuries. In Yemen and Somalia, khat is particularly associated with sessions where men gather to chew in group settings. Such chewing sessions resemble in some respects the public sphere of the coffeehouses of the European Enlightenment. These sessions foster a form of civic participation predicated on friendly discussion and debate on issues of shared communal interest (1).

Khat is a controlled substance in most of Northern Europe, the US, and Canada, although it is legal in Israel, most of Africa, and South America. And khat recently became an object of concern in the UK, after so-called ‘khat pubs’ (mafrishes), popular with Somali, Yemeni, and Ethiopian immigrants, spread across the country. In the mafrish, people gather to chew khat, spend time together, and socialize among peers. Since many of these chewers are Muslims, the mafrish phenomenon’s spread in Britain has sparked fears that these spaces may be incubating ground for Islamic terror networks (2).

In July of 2013 the UK government decided to ban khat, flying in the face of medical expert opinion and ignoring the advice of its own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). An ACMD report found that “the harms of khat does [sic] not [sic] reach the level required for classification,” and concluded that compared with other popular recreational substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis, khat indeed presents a very low risk of harm (Fig. 1; 3, 4).

Instead of making its decision based on the low risk to health, the Home Secretary cited “broader concerns,” such as clamping down on the UK’s possible role as a channel for khat export to other countries where khat is already banned, and so to further alignment with other G8 and EU countries’ drug policies (5). Though the logic underpinning the ban is no longer medical, the UK still treats khat as a class C drug, a classification normally based on health concerns, making it illegal to supply or possess, and criminalizing the communities that use khat recreationally.

Anthropologist Axel Klein (6) claims that the ban will in fact promote crime, not reduce it. By pushing organized khat trade underground, the UK action will spur illegal smuggling; and by eliminating a sanctioned social space for chewing, the ban will drive Muslims into the mosques, increasing the religious authorities’ grip on communal activities, thereby seeding fundamentalism. The message to East Africans and Yemenis is that one of their most valued social traditions is not welcome in the UK, echoing the government’s anti-immigration policy.

More importantly, the ban demonstrates the British state’s ability to weigh the personal sovereignty of its citizens against its own sovereign power to dictate what sorts of subjects there should be. When it comes to recreational drug consumption, sovereignty weighs in favor of the legal homogeneity of the global North over the cultural heritage of immigrant groups. The khat ban thus provides a window into the logic of global governance and the captive role of science in state rhetorics of justification. In this case a formal apparatus of public health protection – drug classification – is deployed, even though the scientific evidence it delivers is set aside for the sake of a regime of political control. Khat functions not simply as the drug molecule cathinone that entails health effects of negligible concern, but rather as a nexus where fears of immigration, illicit international trade, Islamic terrorism, and ethnic segregation collide with purely medical consideration.

As a hybrid of relationships between facts and politics, khat should not be seen either as a potentially risky pharmacological entity or as disputed focus of international law. In the khat ban, a state legitimately committed to protecting its citizens’ health and well-being took advantage of the apparatus of public health decision making to enact a policy that rests on an altogether different logic: the Class C classification was deployed to protect the British community against imagined terrorism and threatened cultural fragmentation. Even while the traditional British pub falls victim to deregulation and loss of community, the khat pub was banned as a locus of undesirable socialization and civic activity.

As a site of contradiction, the khat ban highlights how drug policy aimed at reducing harm to individuals can rub up against deeper political currents such that the facts determined by experts may get supplanted by the political sensibilities of international Realpolitik. Science and technology studies (STS) scholars are trained to read such contradictions carefully and to map the “boundary work” carried out when a substance is framed as either a pernicious drug, a promoter of anti-social behavior, or a global policy issue, especially when boundaries are drawn at the cost of a broader debate on citizens’ cultural and political rights in a diverse society.

The field of STS works to knock down the walls between science, politics, and policy, elucidating connections that have escaped notice and opening up a forum for a wider range of critical voices. Indeed STS is centrally concerned with reconnecting science, technology, and society with core democratic values. For British drug control policy, the STS concept of “framing” well illuminates the miscarriage of justice and the decay of democracy at stake in the khat ban. Viewing a harmless social activity as a potential breeding ground for terror, the British state rendered medical expertise a pawn in the hands of power, a rhetorical piece to be used or discarded for political ends. This is a step toward scientific bankruptcy, signaling that science has value for drug policy decisions only if it fits the predetermined political frame. Politicians, policymakers, and regulators must therefore urgently restore the integrity of drug policy, listening to experts when science is at stake and consulting widely when the issues are political. That would help bring drug policy decisions into line with democratic values and indeed with common sense.

Keywords: framing; drug control; khat


  1. Wedeen, L. (2008) Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. McGonigle, I. (2013) Khat: Chewing on a Bitter Controversy. Anthropology Today 29(4): 4-7.
  3. Nutt, D., King, L.A., Saulsbury, W., and C. Blakemore (2007) Development of a Rational Scale to Assess the Harm of Drugs of Potential Misuse. Lancet369(9566): 1047-1053.
  4. ACMD, (2013) Khat: A review of its potential harms to the individual and communities in the UK. London: Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
  5. UK Home Office Announcement (2013)
  6. Klein, A. (2013) The Khat Ban in the UK: What about the ‘Scientific’ Evidence? Anthropology Today 29(5): 6-8.

Further Reading:

  • Anderson, D. et al. (2007) The Khat Controversy: Stimulating the Debate on Drugs. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Jasanoff, S. (Ed.) (2004) States of Knowledge: The Co-production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

When Parisian benches have politics: Street furniture and strategies of spatial exclusion

Aurelien Bouayad | 26 March 2014
Spikes in front of doors are among a number of architectural street strategies used to deter homeless people. (copyright by Survival Group)

Spikes in doorways are among a number of architectural street strategies used to deter homeless people.         (copyright by Survival Group)

Haussmannian façades and art nouveau Metro entrances are what usually come to mind when one thinks of Parisian architecture, but the French capital has recently embarked on a new anti-homeless architectural trend, following the examples of other American and European cities (1). Of course, homeless people have long been the target of spatial segregation: from fencing to restrict access to delimited spaces to the locking of park gates and the installation of secure door entry system to bar entrance to apartment block staircases and communal areas. But beyond these traditional methods, usual elements of urban architecture are being increasingly redesigned to “subtly” deter long-term occupancy. From barrel-shaped benches, to cactuses, pebbles and spikes on ledges and doorways, these material strategies inspired by anti-skateboarder architecture (2) embody the same not-so-avowable objective: excluding homeless people from the use of public space.

In his now canonical—yet still controversial—article “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” Langdon Winner put forward the provocative argument that technical things in themselves have political qualities. Departing from the idea that technologies are neutral and only gain political dimension through the social circumstances of their development, deployment and use, Winner argues that technical devices “embody specific forms of power and authority.” His account of Long Island’s low bridges, designed to limit the access of public transit users—i.e., racial minorities and low-income groups—to the area’s resorts and beaches, reveals how the physical arrangement of urban space can embody political purpose. The notion of “disciplinary architecture” is sometimes used to refer to such methods aimed at shaping behavior through the built environment (3).

The development of anti-homeless street furniture tells a similar story; this time, it is a set of innovations in the design of devices that embody a strategy of spatial segregation against a particularly discriminated social group. This furniture was intentionally designed and installed in order to banish a social category from public spaces—and, consequently, from the sight of their fellow citizens (4). STS stresses the idea that technological developments do not take place outside society, independently of social, economic, and political forces. Here, the installation of these devices tells us something about how France deals with a major political taboo (5): by making it disappear. By materially deterring “long-term occupancy” of park benches and bank frontages, anti-homeless street furniture has a direct impact on the (in)visibility of homelessness. Being physically banned from the Polis, the homeless are out of the sight of politics—more than ever.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of these new benches, spikes and cactuses, is the way in which they very often go unnoticed by the average citizen—thanks to the “subtlety” of their design. In many cases, these installations are overlooked until they are made visible by activist groups.

In 2006, a group of researchers from the European Observatory on Homelessness detailed the deployment of these “deterrence by design” devices across major cities in Europe: “One of the strategies purposefully implemented at Warsaw Central has been the removal of old wooden benches—used by homeless people for resting and sleeping—and their replacement with plastic seats designed to deter such activity. […] Railway station managers are satisfied with the results as the seats are durable, easy to clean and deter long term occupancy by homeless people looking for somewhere to rest” (6). In France, the whistleblowers were members of a collective of photographers, Survival, who started to collect visual proof of these “anti-sites.” After their artistic production was relayed by national media (7), the phenomenon eventually reached collective consciousness and entered public discussion. The photographers’ work resonates with the spectacular actions of the “Sons of Don Quixote” activists who, in 2006, created a protest tent city at Canal St-Martin in north-eastern Paris to bring the issue of homelessness—however briefly—out of obscurity and into public view during the 2007 Presidential campaign.

Hence, the latest deployment of disciplinary architecture in Paris demonstrates once again that we need to pay careful attention to what—and who—is made invisible, for such moves very often hide the exercise of power and authority. Writing about such phenomena, aimed at bringing the dark to light, remains a critically important project for STS.

Keywords: visibility; spatial exclusion; disciplinary architecture; technology studies


  1. The phenomenon, indeed, is not so new. In City of Quartz, his classical study of the city of Los Angeles published in 1990, Mike Davis already noticed how street furniture was increasingly integrated in social segregation schemes.
  2. Skateboarders have indeed been increasingly excluded from the streets by the invention and the quick spread of “skate deterrents“—typically metal brackets that attach to benches or low walls.
  3. The method echoes with the recent controversies over the infamous Mosquito technology, a device used to deter young people loitering by emitting a high frequency sound (see this coverage broadcasted by CNN in 2010).
  4. For a broader illustration of these questions, see T. Gieryn, “What Buildings Do,” Theory and Society, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2002), pp. 35-74.
  5. In July 2013, the French National Institute of Statistics (INSEE) released a report showing that the number of homeless people in France has risen by 50% between 2001 and 2012, despite repeated political commitment of eradicating homelessness.
  6. European Observatory on Homelessness,“Homelessness and Exclusion: Regulating the Public Space,” 2006, p. 9.
  7. Le Monde, “Paris se hérisse contre les SDF,” 31 December 2009.

Further Reading:

  • M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979.
  • L. Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the ReactorA Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 19-39; but see B. Joerges, “Do Politics Have Artefacts?” Social Studies of Science, Vol.29, No. 3 (1999), pp. 411–431.
  • S. Woolgar, “The Turn to Technology in Social Studies of Science,” Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1991), pp. 20-50.

‘Nature’s’ (un)surprising lessons about Italy

Ingrid Metzler | 23 October 2013
Parents of children suffering from rare diseases, for whom stem cell therapy provides a glimmer of hope, appealed to the Italian government to keep stem cell clinics open by participating in diverse public forums, including the popular TV show 'Il Iene.'  They acted neither as patients nor as consumers; instead, they acted as outraged citizens.Appearing on Italian TV show, 'Le Iene' and in other public media

Parents of children suffering from rare diseases, who appeared in various public fora, including the popular Italian TV show ‘Le Iene,’ to protest the government’s closure of clinics offering stem cell therapies, acted neither as patients nor as consumers; instead, they acted as outraged citizens.

When Italian science makes it to Nature, the prestigious British science journal, it is hardly ever good news for Italy or Italian science (1-3). Often, such news does not describe scientific breakthroughs, but interactions between Italian science and the Italian state. Written in concerned if not outright dismissive language, such reports tend to say more about how Nature thinks political authorities should deal with science than they do about why Italian authorities choose to act as they do. And, yet, it would be rash to dismiss these articles as quickly as they dismiss Italy. For one thing, they remind us about the importance of actors such as states.

Let us turn for instance to Alison Abbott’s March 26, 2013 report about “Stamina,” an Italian foundation that offered dubious stem cell therapies to patients, mostly children suffering from serious illnesses (3). The availability of such treatments, offered to patients in the absence of compelling evidence of their safety and efficacy and outside of standardized research protocols, was not new. Over the past couple of years, clinics offering dubious therapies have mushroomed around the globe, creating concerns for stem cell scientists, bioethicists, and regulators, who see the lives of patients as well as the future of the entire stem cell field placed in jeopardy.

What set the Stamina case apart from the others, effectively transforming it into a case about Italy rather than about science, was that Stamina had apparently received some sort of official political blessing from the Italian authorities. In Abbott’s words:

Clinics that offer unproven stem-cell treatments often end up playing cat and mouse with health regulators, (…). In Italy, however, one such treatment now has official sanction. The country’s health minister, Renato Balduzzi, has decreed that a controversial stem-cell treatment can continue in 32 terminally ill patients, mostly children — even though the stem cells involved are not manufactured according to Italy’s legal safety standards. (3)

Abbott’s otherwise very informative article did not make an effort to understand why Balduzzi decided to allow the compassionate use of these therapies. She did not give any voice to the health ministry, but focused instead on the comments of concerned Italian scientists. For the rest, the article depicted an assemblage of patients who failed to understand science, irresponsible journalists who misinformed publics, and state authorities that listened to popular demands rather than to scientists and their expert advice. The article, in short, presented the “deficit model” of lay actors that most STS scholars are familiar with—the model that sees publics (and policy makers) always in deficit because they fail to understand science properly and, as a result, act irrationally.

While it is tempting to look at this article through the same “deficit” lens that the article itself applies to Italy, merely reversing the accusation does not seem a promising strategy. It may be more helpful to take Nature’s framing seriously, but to add a little bit of complexity.

Perhaps, indeed, the Stamina case was all about inappropriate state action – but inappropriate in political rather than scientific terms. After all, as Abbott describes, the case gained notoriety when Italian health authorities made an effort to close Stamina’s doors back in 2012. Then, parents of children suffering from rare diseases contested this apparently unmotivated act of law enforcement. Some appealed to the courts. Others appealed to the President of the Republic via Facebook, or assembled in the streets.

Parents of children suffering from rare diseases also made it to Le Iene, a famous weekly TV show, that dedicates a lot of time to the failures of the Italian state, often with a big dash of irony. The prominence of this very stage suggests that Italian citizens were caught up in an episode of what Sheila Jasanoff describes as “civic dislocation,” that is a radical “mismatch between what governmental institutions were supposed to do for the public and what they did in reality” (4). In such moments, citizens often turn to non-state institutions for the trust and reassurance that they ordinarily expect from the state. Italian citizens had not necessarily failed to understand the science, in which they were perhaps not even particularly interested. More clearly, they did not understand the arbitrary actions of the public authorities and contested them in consequence. They acted neither as patients nor as consumers; instead, they acted as outraged citizens.

The concerns of Italian scientists, so well represented in Nature, should not be ignored. No doubt, they should have a say in what therapies are offered to people with illnesses. Putting the Stamina case in the context of Italian politics, however, suggests that stem cells are not only the property of science and scientists. They are also common property, since state authorities – and citizens and publics along with them – participate in envisioning how scientific advances should be harnessed in caring for the bodies and lives of citizens. The Nature article seems aware of this dimension of what Jasanoff and others have termed “bioconstitutionalism” (5). Yet, the article is based on a tacit assumption about how science ought to be enrolled in health care, taking it for granted that investing in scientific research and translating scientific advice into policy are the only ways in which a state should cater to citizens’ needs. And, yet, the Stamina story suggests that this assumption should not be naturalized too quickly. Other visions and settlements exist, for example, states may seek public input on how to balance the risks of experimental remedies against the demands of desperate citizens. Dismissing such balancing acts as mere irrationality might backfire in a future in which science depends on finding common interests with citizens.

Keywords: stem cells; public understanding of science; civic dislocation; bioconstitutionalism


  1. Abbott, Alison. “Italians sue over stem cells,” Nature, 460 (19), doi:10.1038/460019a, 2009.
  2. Shock and law.” Nature, 490: 446, doi:10.1038/490446b, October 23, 2012.
  3. Abbott, Alison. “Stem-cell ruling riles researchers,” Nature News, 26 March 2013.
  4. Jasanoff, Sheila. “Civilization and madness: the great BSE scare of 1996.” Public Understanding of Science, 6 (3): 221-232, 1997
  5. Jasanoff, Sheila, ed. Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. MIT Press, 2011.

Further reading:

  • Jasanoff, Sheila, ed. Reframing Rights: Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age. MIT Press, 2011.
  • Ruha, Benjamin. People’s Science. Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Stanford University Press, 2013.

DNA: It’s not just for life anymore

Elizabeth Barron | 29 July 2013
An animated DNA molecule from 'Jurassic Park'.  Recent developments in nanobiotechnology can bring to mind science fiction, but STS teaches us to go beyond thinking of the dangers of these technologies in terms of “loss of control.”

An animated DNA molecule from ‘Jurassic Park’.
Recent developments in nanobiotechnology can bring to mind science fiction, but STS teaches us to go beyond thinking of the dangers of these technologies in terms of “escape” and “loss of control.”

At the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, researchers have developed robotic devices made from DNA which they hope will eventually be used to treat various diseases (1). Modeled after the white blood cells of the human immune system, these nanobots are designed like little trucks, conveying “molecular messages” to diseased cells to tell them to commit suicide. In other words, the nanobots search and destroy targeted human cells of the designer’s choice. In an interview with Twig Mowatt for the Harvard Gazette (February 12, 2012), principal investigator George Church pointed out that these nanobots are a major breakthrough in DNA nanobiotechnology research. When I read this article all I could think was, “Didn’t anyone at the Wyss Institute see The TerminatorJurassic Park?? The Matrix???”

Science fiction is replete with stories in which the melding of biology and technology has had catastrophic consequences. The idea that nanobots, or similar cybernetic technologies, might depart from their human-designed conduct and develop some form of intentionality, akin to viruses, has inspired some of the most frightening stories. Viruses target cells and take over their metabolic processes for a time, and then destroy them. In fact, the primary difference between nanobots and viruses is that the nanobots are designed to destroy targeted cells immediately. If we are to take advances like those discussed in the Mowatt article seriously, as only an additional step on a path of ever-improving nanobiotechnologies, it is quite possible that rogue nanobots could potentially be even more dangerous than highly infectious viruses.

The discovery of DNA in the mid-20th century radically altered scientists’ conception of nature, and since that time biology has been increasingly reduced to DNA. With the development of nanobots, DNA has become the fundamental building block for life and for machines. The amino acids that were used to create the nanobots are the same ones that form DNA fragments, which bind to form the genetic code for all living things on this planet, and arguably many of their traits and behaviors as well. Researchers and reporters emphasize that nanobots have great therapeutic potential because they are “biocompatible” and “biodegradable.” Yet, functionally, they straddle the line between biology and information, which is what makes them economically as well as therapeutically valuable.

Donna Haraway has written, “engineering is the guiding logic of life sciences in the twentieth century” (2). Arguably, the revolutionary moment in the life sciences of the 20th century was not the discovery of the structure of DNA per se, but rather the re-envisioning of nature as systems driven by DNA. Much like Foucault in his classic text, The Order of Things, Haraway sees the development of the life sciences and technologies in the 20th century through lenses that reveal scientific breakthroughs to be the products of cultural history and political economy in ever-shifting relations. In the early 21st century, Haraway argues, these relations are increasingly cybernetic interventions that are as profitable for the health industry as they are promising for the people with diseases.

STS scholars might re-read the Harvard Gazette article with these analyses in mind. Situating new discoveries in the health industry in relation to political economy and cultural history, one might read Mowatt’s version of the DNA nanobot story as one in which the belief that humans can control nature trumps the belief that we do not. Thinking about the DNA robot story in Haraway’s terms encourages us to shift our attention from the language of “major breakthroughs” and “implementation obstacles” to a series of questions the article does not ask about the use and misuse of DNA based technologies for human ends. What does it mean morally and ethically to transition from DNA as the building block of biotic life to DNA as the building block of biotic and abiotic life? Who decides what the best uses for DNA-related technologies are, and what might the biological sciences look like if they were not driven by corporate interests? If DNA is a key driver of natural systems and also the point of human intervention, are novel discoveries and financial gains (like those in nanobiotechnology) worth possible risks to humanity (like those envisioned in science fiction)?

In the Harvard Gazette article about DNA nanobots, just as in the beginning of Jurassic Park, there is no mention of unforeseen consequences and possibly problematic outcomes. Instead, the “right” combination of biology and technology begets a perfectly functioning, closed system in which human-made and human-controlled robots kill only cancer cells. Cancer patients live, companies profit. This clean vision should arouse suspicion: the dinosaurs do escape from Jurassic Park, and in The Terminator and The Matrix human-created sentient technology develops its own ideas about what its existence should be about. But Foucault and Haraway, and STS more generally, teach us to go beyond thinking about the dangers of these technologies simply in terms of “escape” and “loss of control.” They inspire us to ask additional questions informed by the knowledge that science is always already a part of a constantly changing social world: What if the next step at the Wyss Institute was to enable these nanobots to read all genetic code inside the body, and to self-determine what should be destroyed so that they can fix not only cancer but any other “problems” they find? What then?

Keywords: biotechnology; genetic engineering; machine life


  1. Mowatt, Twig. “Sending DNA robot to do the job.” Harvard Gazette, February 12, 2012.
  2. Haraway, Donna J. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 47.

Further Reading:

  • Benjamin, Ruha.  People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  • Eribon, D. Michel Foucault. Betsy Wing (translator). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991 [1989].

Subsidiarity for Integration: Crafting European Chemicals

Henri Boullier | 19 June 2013
What can the regulation of a chemical tell us about relations among nations states?

What can the regulation of a chemical tell us about relations among nations states?

On June 1, 2011, all baby bottles containing Bisphenol A (BPA) were removed from stores everywhere in the European Union (EU) following the very first international ban on the substance. This ban was a response to many differences in regulation of BPA among Member States. The European Commission press release for the occasion drew attention to these discrepancies: “In 2010, France and Denmark had taken national measures to restrict the use of Bisphenol A. France focussed on baby bottles only, while Denmark targeted also other food contact materials intended for children.”

If the European BPA decision intended to correct for differences in Member State policies about chemicals, this harmonization was short-lived. Five months later, in October, the French National Assembly banned the use of BPA for any type of food packaging, surpassing both the European ban on the use of BPA for baby bottles, and the Danish ban on food materials intended for children. That decision was justified by a report prepared in the context of the REACH Regulation (1), by the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety (ANSES), whose recommendations challenged the conclusion of the European Food Safety Authority that the substance was safe for food contact applications. The ANSES report showed that the ingestion of BPA produces “‘recognized’ [harmful] effects in animals and other ‘suspected’ effects in humans (on reproduction, metabolism and cardiovascular diseases)” and recommended reducing population exposure to BPA (2). By following ANSES recommendations, French authorities appear to go against European-wide policies like REACH that are designed to harmonize chemical regulation among Member States so as to offer equal protection to all European citizens. Instead of supporting harmonization, the French apparently opted for subsidiarity, insisting on the independence of French expertise (3). A closer look shows, on the contrary, that ANSES’ recommendations on BPA, as that of other national agencies on different chemicals, feed the expertise necessary for European decisions to be made. The lens of chemical regulation enables STS researchers to analyze relations among nations, taking into account the complex linkages among the local, regional, and global levels where chemicals -and their risk assessments- circulate.

Because REACH work routines are not in place yet, ANSES benefits from a good deal of discretionary power in the European procedures: the decision to study BPA further in spite of the European decision on baby bottles, the literature review, the selection of strategic data, the pitch and the rationale of the case are largely choices made by ANSES. On their website, ANSES confirms “the health effects of BPA for pregnant women in terms of potential risks to the unborn child” (4). The ANSES study, they add, “was carried out as part of a multidisciplinary, adversarial collective expert appraisal,” with a “working group specifically focusing on endocrine disrupters.” The specificity of the French agency’s expertise on BPA partly lies in its ability to put forward their strategic research orientation on endocrine disruptors: BPA had been for several years part of an ambitious program that included “mandates on risk assessment, scientific monitoring and reference activities for endocrine disruptors” (5). This program is a major orientation of the agency, as endocrine disruptors are seen as political issue in France. Working on BPA, using the knowledge produced with this program and having the national restriction in baby bottles adopted at the European level suggest that an agency’s discretion can encourage European-wide restrictions. The novelty of REACH provides a valuable window of opportunity to the French agency to implement practices of subsidiarity, of what the procedures should be, based on the national agenda and ANSES’ ongoing research programs.

The BPA case is an example of producing European regulatory science by maintaining local control of expert judgment. EU institutions are often accused of lacking democratic accountability and legitimacy compared to Member States. With BPA, the practices of subsidiarity previously described show that the alleged democratic deficit is not systemic: national decisions can be used at the European level. It was this logic that led to the European ban of BPA in baby bottles to begin with. In a way, the discrepancies of expertise between Member States eventually lead to harmonization: European regulatory science, for instance in the REACH case, is in fact produced at the level of national health safety agencies that manage to create their own vision of doing expertise in the EU.

Keywords: regulatory science; Europeanization; chemical regulation


  1. The Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) is a European-wide regulation that was adopted in 2006 and that addresses the production and importation of chemical substances in the European Union.
  2. ANSES. “Effets sanitaires du bisphénol A, Rapport d’expertise collective,” September 2011.
  3. The subsidiarity principle is based on the idea that decisions must be taken as closely as possible to the citizen: the European Union should not undertake action, except on matters for which it alone is responsible, unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.
  4. ANSES. “Opinion of the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety on the assessment of the risks associated with bisphenol A for human health, and on toxicological data and data on the use of bisphenols S, F, M, B, AP, AF and BADGE,” 2013.
  5. ANSES. Presentation of the work of ANSES on endocrine disruptors, 2013.

Suggested further reading:

  • Brickman, R., S. Jasanoff, and T. Ilgen. Controlling Chemicals: The Politics of Regulation in Europe and the U.S. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
  • Demortain D. Scientists and the Regulation of Risk. Standardising Control. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2011.

Just a name, just a number? A commentary on CERI’s recent merger at the OECD

Sebastian Pfotenhauer | 23 April 2013
STS can help us to make sense of the causes and consequences of an increasingly numbers-based educational policy.

STS enables us to understand the consequences of an increasingly numbers-based educational policy.

In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) – an international organization and policy think-tank comprising 34 of the wealthiest and most developed nations of the world – decided to form a new sub-unit in its Directorate for Education. This new Division for Innovation and Measuring Progress was created by a merger of two long-lived predecessor units, the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) and the Division for Indicators of Educational Systems. By many inside and outside the organization, this merger was interpreted as disadvantageous for CERI, renowned for long-term, conceptual, and qualitative policy research, as it arguably subordinates CERI to the stronger quantitative arm of the OECD. In this commentary, I offer a defense of CERI’s important role within an organization such as the OECD, and caution against some risks of this merger. I hope to speak to both the policy-makers in government as well as academic scholars in the qualitative social sciences who frequently lament how rarely they find certain voices represented in transnational policy contexts and organizations.

Over 50 years, the OECD has become a heavyweight of economic analysis and forecasting and emerged as one of the obligatory passage points for collecting cross-country statistical data. Far beyond its economic mission, the OECD has built a strong reputation for quantitative policy analysis in domains including science, technology, and education. For example, in education it has been administering large-scale international surveys such as PISA (the Programme on International Student Assessment), the results of which have had tremendous impact on national education policies.

Though its quantitative policy analysis has primacy, the OECD has also gained a reputation as a forum for conceptual, critical, and forward-looking thought on emerging “big issues.” CERI has been a stronghold of this lesser known side of the organization. In the words of its long-term director Jarl Bengtsson, “CERI was created [in 1968] in part to provide a complement to such [quantitative and manpower] approaches to education through a more qualitative focus on educational research and innovation,” as well as a response to the “challenges to the ways that society had evolved up to then, symbolized by the revolts of Spring 1968.” CERI’s work has, for example, contributed significantly to the notions of “interdisciplinarity” and “transdisciplinarity,” coined prominently by Erich Jantsch at a 1970 CERI symposium. CERI has also broken ground on how to re-design education and teacher training in light of the dawning information age and computerized manufacturing.

Against this background, how can we evaluate CERI’s absorption into a quantitative unit? From an STS perspective, at least four cautionary points are worth making. First, indicators are performative. They tend to create the very worlds they seek to measure by enacting a discourse space in which unmeasured effects do not exist. They focus attention on performance according to some pre-defined axis of achievement, thus sidelining questions of whether an indicator measures the right thing. An overly strong emphasis on quantitative analysis in particular risks foregoing valuable thinking outside the box, sometimes prompting unintended consequences (e.g. the “studying-for-the-test” phenomenon in education).

Second, the crowding-out of qualitative by quantitative analysis follows a certain ideal of rationality that has dominated the international policy landscape for decades. In this ideal numbers are understood to be objective and, like scientific truth, apolitical. Quantitative analysis promises rational solutions, diminishing the need for messy political processes. Yet, this view overlooks the fact that numbers themselves are immensely political. The political process merely gets shifted upstream to decisions about what to measure and how. While this shift does not take the politics out of policy-making, it arguably makes politics more clandestine and less accessible to contestation. By turning into even more of a data production factory, the OECD may reduce its risk of getting tangled in fierce political debates, but it also loses some of its democratic appeal.

Third, it is a common criticism that numbers, while enabling comparison, come with a certain crude oversimplification that doesn’t do justice to the sometimes vastly, sometimes subtly different contexts of individual countries. Rather than numbers, other factors like political culture, national visions, or historically rooted anxieties of a society might be more indicative of whether or not a certain policy will be successful. These are the stuff of “thick” qualitative analysis. Consequently, a sole focus on numbers might well miss some of the unique opportunities and benefits provided by international organizations capable of such cross-country analysis.

Fourth, a possible erosion of CERI will be disproportionally more burdensome for less wealthy OECD member states. Many small countries cannot afford the speculative, long-term, big picture-type of policy research that CERI has been conducting. In contrast, big countries like the US may easily resort to their own agencies and policy think tanks. Qualitative policy research units at international organizations, then, represent unique intellectual resources for small countries, allowing them to voice concerns about important but still intangible issues and to shape policy agendas about global problems. National problems and solutions that might otherwise go by unnoticed by the international community may have a greater chance of being heard as broader problems and “best practices” by a global audience when picked up by international organizations.

To be fair: None of these potential negative consequences necessarily follow from CERI’s merger. Yet, the consequences of the merger should be assessed early, and in qualitative and non-formalistic terms that echo the CERI mission. STS scholars and like-minded policy analysts should care about the fate of CERI (and similar organizational units in mainstream policy organizations), since it directly affects how emerging policy issues are being framed and whose voices are being heard, particularly in an international context. Quantitative policy analysis is today the bread and butter of informed policy-making. Yet, numbers and their resulting policy agendas are incomplete without the context-rich, exploratory and more conceptual type of policy work that CERI provides, which is why a word of caution about the importance of organizational balance seems appropriate.

Keywords: quantification; cross-national comparison; education and innovation policy

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Jantsch, Erich (1970). “Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary University—systems approach to educations and innovation.” Policy Sciences 1(4), 403–428.
  • Sheila Jasanoff (2004). States of knowledge: The co-production of science and social order. London: Routledge.
  • OECD (1986). New Information Technologies: A challenge for education. Paris: OECD.
  • James Scott (1999). Seeing like a state: How certain conditions to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Deborah Stone (2001). Policy paradox: The art of political decision-making. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.