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Science in the storm 3 – The campus is a battlefield

18 August 2021

Science in the storm 3 – The campus is a battlefield
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JCVI-syn3.0 is a record-setting artificial cell with the fewest number of genes, 473. Image Credit: Mark Ellisman/NCIMR and Wired

Private interests sometimes indulge in disrupting scientific knowledge. The study of these strategies with human sciences’ methods is called agnotology. This text and the following are edited transcriptions of an open conversation organized to discuss this matter from the perspective of scientists directly confronted with this kind of practice.

This third text discusses the gap between the different conceptions that scientists may have of their work and the political consequences of these different attitudes. The biotechnology perspective comes from a change in the management of sciences and its strategical role that emerged with the Manhattan Project.

First of all, I want to recognize the collegium that we form and the fact that there is a very substantial group of people who are questioning the way things have gone, especially in biology, which is my field. I also appreciate how this is all framed in terms of generational politics. I think this has become, in the last 20 years or so, the relevant frame to talk about these developments. From my experience with young students, younger people are experiencing a world that is not only physically but also intellectually very different. Victor said it, too. So I want to thank you for having me here, with this frame, and for listening to me.

Let me start with a disagreement, even if just for the value of disagreement, as Giuseppe has suggested: is evolution a theory? I noted Giuseppe stated that in our conversation, and I want, here publicly, to drop the gauntlet on the table and say, “let’s discuss it...” But that is not really what I had prepared.

Giuseppe talked about developing a common language, and I think we do seem to have been developing a common language over the years. You need to know that we did not organize carefully in advance, but it seems like Angelika was setting up the stage and Giuseppe the frame for what I wanted to say. It is nice to see that we really complement and understand each other, even when we disagree. I think that Angelika was talking about the essence of the problem: one of understanding, one of language, of semantics.

As a beginning, let me also disagree with the idea that there is such a thing as a gene; I think many people agree with me that this word is not only useless, but it actually gets in the way of understanding when we talk about genes. But the word “gene,” the concept of the gene, is one of many semantic engineering moves that have taken place in biology over a long period, even though the term survives out of semantic convenience rather than biological reality (1). “Genetic Engineering” is another one of these semantic engineering terms, too.

Instead of Genetic Engineering, I much rather use, in this case, the word transgenesis. The subject of transgenesis itself developed through my own professional life, and became mature as I was maturing as a scientist. For example, I was presented with the Central Dogma—fundamental to the idea of transgenesis—as a student soon after Francis Crick had produced it. It was brand new where I was studying in Mexico, and I remember asking The Question: why should we be taught a dogma as a central basis for everything else? And when you ask The Question, you’re told, even today, that you do not understand but that one of these days when you grow up, you will. The fact remains that the concept can be read as the foundation for practically all textbooks in biology. Nowadays, as a grownup, I still continue to ask the same question, and receiving the same senseless answer.

What we are talking about when we talk about transgenesis, is the movement, the transfer of reproducing materials from one context into another. Those materials can be, for example, DNA or RNA or protein; even cellulose has reproductive capacities! You see, the layout of cell-wall fibrils of cellulose is very specific, and it is responsible for the shape of the whole tree. And yet, the transference of that conformational information in microfibrils of cellulose on the cell wall of a plant cell does not have anything to do directly with DNA. Instead, the mother cell’s distribution of cellulose microfibrils shapes the configuration of the next generation of microfibrils of cellulose.

To repeat, transgenesis, in the broader context, is the movement of reproducing materials from one reproductive context into another. This framing becomes very useful for people like Angelika or myself, people who are trained initially in the ecological field because there we do have a conceptual frame (or is it a theory?) to think about it: what we call exotic introductions (2). When you remove, for example, a pregnant rabbit from one place (a reproductive context), let us say Europe, and reintroduce it into a reproductive context that is different from its own, let’s say in Australia, things can go very, very differently, depending on the contexts. So it was shown in the introduction into Australia and other islands, where the rabbits became a plague. The same process is happening when moving other reproducing biological things, like DNA or RNA across reproductive contexts—there is no hope of predictability or control. So right from the beginning, the idea that genetic engineering is precise and that all we need to do for it to work is remove the ecological or cellular "noise” is already a semantic transformation that precludes consideration of the reproductive context in which a manipulation takes place.

Once you have that set-up, the question becomes: who is “the scientist?” doing not only the physical manipulation, but also the semantic one? This is the question that Angelika posed when she asked, “what science, by whom, for whom?” I think the who’s of science are really important in this field. Myself as a scientist, as someone growing up in this dramatically changing field of biology in the second half of the 20th century, I went from a curiosity-driven life, in which as a young person, I simply was interested in figuring out and understanding and seeing what things will do, to someone who out of curiosity developed concern. Towards the end of the last century, if you were questioning, if you were truly curious, you would become an alarm raiser. So, scientists as alarmists or scientists as trouble makers became really the fashion for some; a fashion that was self-defeating and calling for trouble, this scientist as someone who raises the alarm. In several fields of science, but especially in biology, there is a solid argument for the unavoidability of this development, following from Giuseppe’s framing at the beginning.

If you think about it historically, the trick that was discovered during the Second World War, because of the Manhattan Project and all the many other technological developments of that war, was that as long as you could stay at the forefront of innovation, you would also be at the forefront of technological development, and therefore you would also be at the forefront of the international markets for the resulting goods and services from those technologies

Alarm-raiser might be the most important public role of the scientist in our generation, as the one who can give a little bit of forewarning about things that might be going wrong. That role was acceptable, as Angelika pointed out, back in the ’70s. At that point, even the people who were doing the first transgenic manipulations were alarmed: they were concerned to the degree that they decided to stop and self-monitor. First of all, they decided to stop the research that they were doing, the research that allowed them to move reproductive material from one context, a bacterium, for example, into another, a plant, let’s say. They realized that they could do this, but they asked: “should we do this? There are reasons to be alarmed.”

So, they organized the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA of 1975, and they did not look at all like your traditional street-level alarmist demonstrator with which Angelika finished her presentation. I don’t need to name them, but they were very prominent, distinguished, and concerned. They met together with other thinkers, with media people, political players. What came out of that, cynically seen, was a realization that it was a bad idea to ask too many questions because doing so would really get in the way of moving forward with what they wanted to do. Out of Asilomar, these people decided to stop for a little bit until they could write a paper that brings together the conclusions from their meeting (3). But then they continued because—they said— they were all very careful, very responsible scientists who would never do anything to affect the outside world; they would keep everything in the lab. That was really the conclusion of Asilomar. Of course, almost immediately, a couple of years later, it was my own colleague at Berkeley, Steven Lindow, who was pushing the first open-field release of a genetically modified, or transgenic, bacterium in the field, without ever asking any further questions (4). To this date, the temporary care and self-reflection of Asilomar have never again repeated.

Of that attempt, back in the ’70s, to practice potentially responsible and concerned transgenesis, there is a reason why they could not vouch for the release of transgenic organisms into the open field. I believe that is part of why they could not possibly justify moving forward with research in the outdoors—and at that time that meant agriculture and medicine, really, although today there are many other applications—is because they realized it is impossible to produce something predictable, controllable and engineerable using transgenic methods. Nevertheless precisely that, the figment of control, is exactly what has been sold to peoples and governments and in the media ever since, since about 1980. So, the question is: how was the concerned scientist of the 70s transformed into the entrepreneurial scientist of the latter part of the 20th century?

It is easy to discover that behind the word “scientist,” there are at least two very different ways of thinking and very different ways of being in the world. One of them is the scientist as truth-finder. I think most people out there, at least here in the United States, would bring the word “truth” somewhere into their description of what they think a scientist is. Most alarmingly, I know that some scientists bring the word “truth” along with the definition of who they are. According to this view, scientists are people who are increasingly getting closer and closer to Truth. Behind the word scientist, however, there’s also a very different kind of person, and that is the person who understands science as enquiry, as simply questioning and thinking about the world. The problem with this confusion is that two ideas of what it is to be a scientist exist behind exactly the same words, science and scientist. Nowadays, it is impossible to distinguish who it is that we are talking about when we refer to science or the scientist. And each one of these understandings of what science is and what the scientist is and does lead to completely different edifices of knowledge, edifices of questions.

Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If science is the practice of approaching Truth, the incremental and progressive approaching of Truth by “building on the shoulders of giants” and all the other beautiful metaphors that people use, then the result is a pyramidal, hierarchical structure that has people who are at the top, because they are closer to Truth. Below them, there is the populace of people who do not understand because they are further away from Truth. I know other systems that have that kind of pyramidal, hierarchical structure, and I don’t like them.

On the other hand, if we define science and understand science differently, simply as enquiry, what you get is a very different kind of structure in science-making. And by that I do not mean only institutionally; I’ll get into that next, but I mean even emotionally, ethically like Giuseppe said, in terms of an intellectual approach to the world. Here I am using the definition of Iain Boal, who defined science with four words: sustained, collective, critical enquiry. That’s it; you can mix them, match them as you want, but keep the four words, please. What we’re doing is enquiry; the way I understand myself as a scientist is as someone committed to enquiry in whatever possible way I have with whatever possible tools, both physical as well as intellectual. I do this in a critical way, which is what Giuseppe was talking about: I question what I believe, and the more strongly I believe it, the more strongly I question it, the more worried I become about the fact that my own convictions could delude me. I do this in a collective, the way we’re doing now, as far and wide as possible, with people who are alive and also those who are not alive with whom I can still be in a collective, just like Giuseppe did in his opening. And we do not give up; we sustain our collective enquiry, no matter what. So, there is a question that might be uncomfortable today? Well, that question is not going to go away for those of us who understand ourselves as scientists in this conception of the word.

I believe that the two different conceptions of that same troubling word, science, lead to very different ways of being. One of them, defined by Boal, I still want to call science, and I really want to fight for it. Whenever I see well-intentioned people out in the streets who might come from environmentalism, for example, and say: “down with science, science is terrible,” I feel like begging that we please talk about this because I don’t want to give up the word. But, instead, I want to recognize that the other way of understanding science is much more like a religion, something that I would call scientism.

This contradiction of the two ways of understanding what we do, put into practice, leads to what Giuseppe already called a battle. It is a battlefield, and the battlefield where I work is the campus, the university campus. I think it is very interesting to understand this battlefield because it is there where young minds and bodies are being shaped and put into boxes, in either science or scientism. Berkeley has a beautiful campus; it’s very comfortable to be there, it’s in a beautiful location, and so on. What people do not see when they walk the hallways and the pathways of our campus is the underlying confrontational struggle of the two ways of understanding science that happens continuously. Students are being driven, most of them without knowing, into one or the other way of being “a scientist.” But, of course, scientism is currently dominant, while science, as I understand the word, remains in the minority, always in a corner but never giving up.

In Berkeley, the contradicting conceptions of science are physically expressed, too. There is a hill in Berkeley where a whole campus lies, nicely concealed from view of the public campus by trees on a steep rampart, a large facility that is larger than the campus where students and the public can walk freely. That is the campus of the National Laboratory, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project is the project-driven research program par excellence, where “project-driven” science was invented, and I think the first has been the ultimate one. Of course, we all know this project led to the intentional killing of hundreds of thousands of people, not least in the two bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all the consequences of the nuclear age. Those bombs came out of here. At the same time, Berkeley actively fosters the idea of itself as a hippie-revolutionary-lefty-I-don’t-know-what; the battles within the battlefield of science are many, but there is one bottom-line, the fundamental and deadly contradiction in the two different understandings of science.

This contradiction of the two ways of understanding what we do, put into practice, leads to what Giuseppe already called a battle. It is a battlefield, and the battlefield where I work is the campus, the university campus. I think it is very interesting to understand this battlefield because it is there where young minds and bodies are being shaped and put into boxes, in either science or scientism.

The question of a science that can or cannot be appropriated or enclosed is the question of for whom is public science. My university prides itself in being a public university, and by this it means that it is open and committed to do public research. But defining the public, in this case, as a single Nation State is exactly how the Manhattan Project was produced. The Manhattan Project was an effort of national scale for a goal that was considered to be in the public interest, a National public good. Even a science that takes the public at heart and a scientist who thinks and is completely convinced and honestly devoted to doing public service, all this might be placed in a very questionable position depending on who you decide you are working for and if you are using the wrong frame for what you are doing. Public service in all endeavors, including war-making when necessary, might lead to the kind of project science that we seem to be questioning here.

One important example: taking public risks and laundering them through the operation of science. This is a really important phenomenon that we rarely talk about, the fact that we use the institution of the university and academy, in general, to launder the risk for the public, in such a way that nobody can be held accountable. This became especially true in the latter part of the 20th Century and into our days in the 21st, when enormous risks are taken in the name of science to foster private profit—again, something that Angelika highlighted.

There is a historical moment, one specific moment in 1980 that marked the start of a new age in this process. It was the moment when an act was passed in the US congress, called the Bayh-Dole Act. This piece of legislation was passed precisely following the Asilomar conference, the time when we really needed to have (and by “we,” I mean the United States of America) an economic driver that would replace computer technology and space travel. If you think about it historically, the trick that was discovered during the Second World War, because of the Manhattan Project and all the many other technological developments of that war, was that as long as you could stay at the forefront of innovation, you would also be at the forefront of technological development, and therefore you would also be at the forefront of the international markets for the resulting goods and services from those technologies (5). The problem with this model of progress is that technological development will eventually follow the path of least resistance towards the lowest labor cost and lowest environmental standards. So, the benefits from all these things will always leave you; you cannot retain it: you need to find a new frontier. At the time of the Bayh-Dole Act, it was computers and the production of chips, a field that was already leaving the US for Southeast Asia. There was a need then to come up with a new wave of innovation, technological development, and commercial application. The Bush-Quayle administration of the time became convinced by the very same people who had met in Asilomar and the old advisers from the Manhattan Project that the new frontier had to be in biology. This is a dream that can be traced back to the 1930s, of course, but by this time, as Angelika presented, all the chips had been put in place into one box, a box in which even the Central Dogma resides, a box that is called The Modern Synthesis of Biology. And within that umbrella emerged the promise that we could have, from biology, a technological development that could be commercially utilized and with it a new wave of economic growth for the US and the World.

So the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 authorizes federally-funded institutions to run patent departments and benefit financially from their technological discoveries (6). Federally funded research maps well, in the US, with what people consider public research, such as what happens in my campus and for anybody who receives governmental money. That was the moment when the privatization of profit with the maintenance of risk in the public domain became institutionalized and made legally acceptable. It was a legal institutionalization of the role of the scientist as an entrepreneur. I believe that the religious version of the word “science” (scientism), becomes much more successful when applied to the production of these commercial applications. Conversely, such commercial applications give a logic to the suppression of science as the sustained collective critical enquiry: once legalized, scientism is not exercised by bad people who are breaking any rules or are pushing in a “wrong” direction; it is actually something that has developed within a democratic context and a legal context that has molded itself to a collective desire to be led by a group of people who are not questioners but actually people who will sell you the idea that they have grown to become closer to Truth and therefore should have more power than you.



1. Portin, P. and Wilkins, A. 2017. The Evolving Definition of the Term “Gene.” Genetics 205(4): 1353–1364. doi: 10.1534/genetics.116.196956

2. Heersink, D.K., Caley, P., Paini, D. et al. When exotic introductions fail: updating invasion beliefs. Biol Invasions 22, 1097–1107 (2020). doi: 10.1007/s10530-019-02163-x

3. Berg, P., Baltimore, D., Brenner, S., Roblin, R.O. III, and Singer, M.F. 1975. Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 72 (6) 1981-1984.

4. Pollack, A. 1986. Pact Delays Release of Gene-Altered Bacteria. New York Times, Aug 20, 1986. Page A20.

5. Bush, V. 1945. Science, the Endless Frontier. United States Printing Office.

6. Thursby, J.G. & Thursby. M.C. 2003. University Licencing and the Bayh-Dole Act. Science. 301(5636):1052. doi: 10.1126/science.1087473

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