The escalating politics of ‘Big Biology’
Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of
Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 6PN, UK.
BioSocieties (2013) 8, 480–485. doi:10.1057/biosoc.2013.30; published online 21 October 2013
As the history of twentieth-century science suggests, controversies about ‘Big Science’are
vehicles for rethinking the relationship between science and society. Behind arguments
about size, scale or enhanced coordination, with all their managerial undertones, lie deep-
seated commitments to alternative visions of the political organization of knowledge
The experiments in large-scale biology discussed in this collection are thus best seen as
‘constitutional moments’(Jasanoff, 2011), occasions when the challenge of creating new and
extended research collectives forces an explication of the links between technical practices,
organizational architectures and ethical imaginaries.
As these articles make clear, however, constitutional moments in the contemporary life
sciences come in many shapes and forms. A healthy degree of scepticism towards claims of scale,
speed or novelty runs through this special section, and helps qualify many of the most
hyperbolic arguments about the nature and consequences of large biological research projects.
The very category of ‘big biology’, the editors point out, “is in question from the start”.
And yet, all the contributors describe processes of escalation (if not always the ‘scaling up’
of things). They are concerned, that is, with an amplification of the political reflexivity of
the scientific enterprise, brought about by the expansion, intensification or acceleration of
research efforts. What can we glean from these case studies, then, about the evolving constitution
of the life sciences in an era of large data infrastructures and a seemingly relentless push towards
greater and faster circulation of informational and biological materials? The following are some
open-ended reflections prompted by the many insights that crisscross this collection.
The Imperative to Share
A striking leitmotif of the large-scale biological research projects discussed in these articles is
the apparently generalized imperative to share. Whether it is data, mutant mice or DNA
sequences, these enterprises proclaim an economy of free and unfettered exchange, founded
on the willingness of researchers and institutions to put in circulation, often without direct or
explicit remuneration, the product of their work.
© 2013 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 8, 4, 480–485
This moralization of exchange is remarkable, and it is so central to the public self-image of
the contemporary life sciences, that it is often taken for granted or accepted as an evidently
good thing. Our own inclination as social scientists to describe systems of exchange in the
sciences as ‘moral economies’suggests a certain inability to fully unpack this category. What
do we mean by ‘moral’? What is the underside of ‘sharing’? The articles lay bare some of the
qualifications and complexities that attend to these acts of apparent self-dispossession. One of
the most remarkable insights is that for something to become the object of such an economy of
free exchange, it has first to lose value; that the generalized obligation to share is supported by
very specific acts of devaluation.
For instance, in her analysis of contemporary initiatives for the production of mutant mice,
Gail Davies notes a diversity of sociological and spatial imaginaries, but a shared desire to
reduce the cost of research animals. In some cases, this is achieved by producing new
‘economies of scale’through centralization and planning, as in the KOMP project. In others, it
is a matter of implementing new forms of ‘distributed management’that include the
outsourcing or subcontracting of key components of the production process (mouse breeding,
embryo cryopreservation) to lower-cost countries. This is perhaps an obvious point, but it
bears emphasizing: the free dissemination of biological materials is here only possible once the
relevant object of circulation has been cheapened in significant ways. It is the capacity to add
(or restore) value to this now de-valued resource that creates the relevant asymmetries of
knowledge and power.
‘Open source’models, like those of the BioBrick initiative in synthetic biology discussed by
Emma Frow, partake of this double act of value creation and suppression. “As individual
biological parts typically have low value”, Frow writes describing the logic underpinning these
arrangements, “there is little point in restricting access to them –promises of commodification
and value generation in synthetic biology lie further downstream, in the combination of
parts into biological devices and systems with useful properties”(Frow, this issue). Yet,
as she notes, the creation of low-value, freely exchangeable ‘universal’tools requires stripping
biological parts of valuable traits, traits that mark the insertion of these objects
in local economies of research. The success of the ‘open source’dream in synthetic biology
hinges on subordinating these local cultures of valuation to an overarching principle of
A similar dynamic is at work in the data-intensive infrastructures described in several of
the articles. In fact, one can advance here a counter-intuitive definition of data. Rather than
being the critical commodity whose mere circulation adds value to, and constitutes the raison
d’être of, the network, data ought to be seen as the most radically de-valued entity –as the
very manifestation of worthlessness. It is only when these data are reinstated into specific
forms of labour and care –when data are collated, curated, interpreted and otherwise acted
upon –that such a thing acquires again the status of meaningful and valuable asset.
I raise this point partly to call attention to an asymmetry in how the social sciences confront
‘the problem of value’: we tend to pay a great deal attention to the creation of value, much less
to its destruction. The articles in this collection invite us to embark on a study of the practices
of de-valuation in the contemporary life sciences (Leonelli, this issue; see also Muniesa, 2012).
What (and who) loses value in and through ‘big biology’? How are certain things and
capacities devaluated (or prevented from acquiring new value) in the service of an economy of
‘free access’and unrestricted circulation?
481© 2013 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 8, 4, 480–485
The Diminishing Outside
The editors conclude their introduction to the special section with an intriguing warning about
the “diminishing outside”of large-scale biological research. As more and more actors and
resources are linked up in collaborative infrastructures, “there is less and less scope to be left
outside its logics and reach, for scientists and perhaps for social scientists too”(Davies, Frow
and Leonelli, this issue).
In other words, how does large-scale research configure that which is not part of itself but is
nevertheless affected by the gravitational force exerted by these extraordinary concentrations
of resources? This question is crucial, as the editors suggest, for it is in that ‘outside’–in the
‘other’of ‘big biology’, so to speak –that the capacity for radical critique will be founded.
Here it is useful again to read across the articles and between the concrete examples featured
in this collection. A theme that emerges from that reading is that large-scale biology often
understands its other (and the publics it purports to serve more generally) as an aggregate of
users; ‘big biology’must be, first and foremost, ‘user friendly’.
As Stephen Hilgartner recounts in his article, this was a critical rhetorical move in shoring
up the legitimacy of the Human Genome Project (HGP) against its early critics. The HGP
demarcated its scientific jurisdiction (and aligned it with the interests of ‘ordinary biology’)by
presenting itself as essentially a utility or service provider, an infrastructure able to produce
and disseminate ‘raw data’for the benefit of the scientific community without imposing a
centralized hierarchy for the allocation of resources or the definition of relevant research
questions (see also Kevles, 1997).
The language of ‘user-friendliness’has since become a hallmark of large-scale projects in the
life sciences. We know, however, that being a user is hardly an innocent epistemic or political
position, that it comes with its own constraints and commitments. The user is always
formatted in particular ways; ‘usability’depends as much on the configuration of the user as
on the design of the product (cf. Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003; Cupers, 2013).
The question could thus be put as follows: how does the ‘user-friendliness’of large-scale
biology format its outside? The example of the HGP offers some historical perspective.
Contemporary post-genomic research practices have been deeply influenced by the HGP. The
HGP has achieved this influence not by imposing a particular model for the organization of
research across biology (the fear of its critics), or by answering or dissolving the long-standing
questions of ‘ordinary biology’(the hope of its proponents). Rather, the HGP has configured
the post-genomic era by creating data sets and analytical instruments that have effectively
opened and foreclosed specific research horizons (Hilgartner, this issue). It has shaped our
collective imagination of what directions of enquiry are worth pursuing and which objects of
research are pragmatically tractable.
This tension between ‘user-friendliness’and epistemic pluralism is explored in virtually all
the articles in this collection. There is clearly no a priori answer to the question of how a
particular ‘big biology’project might impact the existing ecology of research problems and
practices. What we can do, as Sabina Leonelli argues in her contribution, is to turn this
question into a key criterion for the assessment of large-scale infrastructures in the life
sciences. That is, we can define scale not in terms of size or the amount of resources gathered
in one particular project, but, as she puts it, on the basis of “the range and scope of the
biological and biomedical questions which it helps to address”. Such an analysis would open
482 © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 8, 4, 480–485
the door to a consideration of the implications of new research infrastructures that goes
beyond deceptively uncontroversial references to the usability of their outputs.
The ‘Stand-Ins’of Big Biology
There is another way of approaching the question of the ‘outside’of large-scale research –an
‘outside’that is not properly external to it, but that does nevertheless constitute a very
particular kind of ‘other’.
In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism,LucBoltanskiandÈveChiapellodescribe
contemporary capitalist production as an economy organized around projects, rather
than firms or organizations, where value is created by an expansive logic of networking and
ever-greater connectivity. Their description resonates with many of the trends identified in
this collection –the ‘project’as the relevant unit of organization and value creation, the
seeming obsolescence of traditional proprietary mechanisms, the devaluation or redefini-
tion of work in network environments, the premium on circulation and collaboration, and
In trying to describe the forms of exploitation characteristic of such an economy, Boltanski
and Chiapello identify the figure of the ‘stand-in’(doublure). In a world where profit depends
on unfettered mobility across projects, they argue, exploitation takes the form of immobility.
The ‘stand-ins’are those actors who must remain in situ while others circulate, and are thus
unable to capitalize on individual projects in order to enhance their own versatility and
mobility. They care for all that is rooted and situated in the nodes that make up the network,
and in so doing create the conditions for others to move and increase their own value. “[S]ome
people’s immobility”, Boltanski and Chiapello (2007) argue, “is necessary for other people’s
Who are the ‘stand-ins’of large-scale biological research? Certainly not the individuals
and collectives involved in these ‘little science’, if such a thing still exists. It is rather those
who, despite being deeply involved in large-scale collaborative enterprises, fail to extract
the expected benefit from the intensification of circulations and the expansion of exchange.
“They are exploited”, Boltanski and Chiapello (2007) write, “in the sense that the role they
play as a factor in production does not receive the acknowledgment it merits; and that their
contribution to the creation of value added is not remunerated at the requisite level for its
distribution to be deemed fair”(p. 363). Far from being excluded from these expanding
networks of collaboration and sharing, these ‘stand ins’are essential to their workings –
their emplacement enables the user-friendliness and inter-operability of the network. Yet
they remain tied to specific locales, objects or practices, and as a result are unable to extract
the sort of mobility that constitutes the true surplus value of participation in these research
To identify the ‘stand-ins’of big biology we need to appreciate the forms of immobility that
attend to the human and (extending Boltanski and Chiapello’s formulation) non-human
components of these networks. In other words, we need a vocabulary to re-specify what it
means to be or remain in situ in a world where mobility and circulation seem to be the measure
of all things.
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For one, it is clear that immobility does not designate here a lack of spatial displacement.
Large-scale biological research draws on the work of many peripatetic actors –sample
collectors, instrument calibrators, IT support technicians, auditors –whose labours, however,
remain invisible in descriptions of the enterprise focused on laboratory production or data
Other figures of immobility can be glimpsed in other examples of ‘big biology’discussed in
these articles, whether it is data curators, subcontracted lab technicians, or the research
subjects recruited to provide biological samples or donate their bodies for clinical research
(cf. Kelly, 2011). They are immobile in the sense that they are structurally prevented from
turning their involvement in any particular project into a dynamic of accumulation.
New Sociological Imaginaries
Finally, this collection is unique, I think, in its attention to the sociological imaginaries and
critical capacities that are embedded in (or excluded from) large-scale enterprises in the
contemporary life sciences. Because of their explicit attention to the creation of new collectives
–the process of political escalation to which I referred earlier –these endeavours often open up
spaces for the involvement of social scientists (“the main problems we have to deal with are
sociological”, observes one of Gail Davies’s informants). Several of the contributors note in
passing their own involvement in the governance or assessment of the projects they describe.
What to make of these opportunities to engage critically with ‘big biology’?
The background of any invitation to add critical value to large-scale biological research
is the experience gained through the HGP. To put it in simple terms: HGP gave us ELSI. This
was a form of appraisal that operated by a sort of critical outsourcing: the societal evaluation
of genomics and its ‘implications’was carried out by academics in their capacity as paid expert
advisers, often along strict disciplinary lines (the ethical, the legal and the social, typically in
The HGP and its ELSI model of subcontracted critique belong to an era dominated by
claims and counter-claims of genetic determinism. It has been exported to other areas of
‘emerging technoscience’(most notably in our context, and not surprisingly, to synthetic
biology). Yet post-HGP ‘big biology’is giving rise to new forms and parameters of critical
engagement. Jane Calvert, for instance, notes the absence of ELSI-like forums in systems
biology. Questions about the societal value of this new science are couched instead in the
language of ‘grand challenges’, a discourse that tends to follow top-down, policy-centric
paths, but often enlarges the range of issues under consideration.
This is just to suggest that, as Kaushik Sunder Rajan eloquently argues in his commentary,
social scientists will need to invent a different set of tactics of engagement in this post-genomic
world. For one, our own sociological imaginaries are bound to change as we confront
scientific enterprises driven by seemingly congenial understandings of complexity, relation-
ality or interdisciplinarity. This will hopefully be a world open to a proliferation of
constitutional experiments in the governance of scientific collaborations, in which the
boundary between academic inquiry and activist critique will be increasingly porous, and
where the definition of scientific and social matters of concern will be subject to the sort of
robust debate that should come with the creation of new research collectives.
484 © 2013 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 8, 4, 480–485
About the Author
Javier Lezaun is James Martin Lecturer in Science and Technology Governance at the Institute
for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford. He is currently directing
BioProperty, a research programme that explores the practices of exchange and appropriation
of the contemporary life sciences (www.bioproperty.ox.ac.uk).
Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, E. (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso.
Cupers, K. (2013) Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture. London: Routledge.
Jasanoff, S. (2011) Constitutional moments in governing science and technology. Science and Engineering
Ethics 17(4): 621–638.
Kelly, A.H. (2011) Will he be there? Mediating malaria, immobilizing science. Journal of Cultural Economy
Kevles, D. (1997) Big science and big politics in the United States: Reflections on the death of the SSC and the
life of the Human Genome Project. Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 27(2): 269–297.
Muniesa, F. (2012) A flank movement in the understanding of valuation. The Sociological Review 59(s2):
Oudshoorn, N. and Pinch, T. (2003) How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technologies.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
485© 2013 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 1745-8552 BioSocieties Vol. 8, 4, 480–485