Conversations on technoscientific reimagining of biology and its implications: A workshop report

Gaurav Kapse, Shashank Deora
12/04/2023 | Report-backs

In the last century, there have been large shifts in science and technology. It has been shifting from basic research to translational applications. Or, as Allison Fish put forth during this workshop, it has shifted from one of understanding and description to one of manipulating and modifying. Not only have the modes of knowledge production changed, but there has been a shift in knowledge infrastructure as well. What does it mean for biological sciences? How do the technoscientific changes in biology themselves shape the policy environment? As Naveen Thayyil asked in the workshop, what do we do when the rule becomes molecular? Or how do we recalibrate our way of approaching power when we know that knowledge is also about power? These were some of the questions leading up to the two-day workshop Regulating Biotech: Reimagining Biology at the Interface of Science, Technology and the Market.
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From the inaugural session of the workshop [Image credit: Mahendra Shahare]

This workshop was organised jointly by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, IIT Delhi, and The University of Queensland and happened at IIT Bombay in Mumbai on 27 and 28 September 2023. The workshop participants were scholars from India and Australia engaging in one way or another with the questions and provocations highlighted earlier. The discussions in the workshop spanned from historical transitions to future imaginaries and concerns about the diverse sub-fields of bioscience and biotechnology. At the heart of these discussions was an attempt to generate a dialogue around the contemporary technoscientific reimagining of biology and its regulatory and social implications. This blog is a summary of these varieties of discussions.
Some key transformations in biosciences
In the workshop, Giselle Newton spoke about the embodied sociotechnical imaginaries of donor-conceived people. Giselle argued that such a framing around the experiences of donor-conceived people can help understand these experiences in ways that are more relevant in today’s digital age. Another workshop participant, Kencho Peldon, focused on the policy mechanisms in British India that rendered its cotton supply chain inherently political. These policy mechanisms aimed to control India’s cotton reproduction and promote a single variety of long-staple cotton to support Britain’s cotton industry.

While some participants shared specific research processes and outcomes, others generated more abstract discussions. For instance, in describing the molecular turn, John Matthew raised significant ethical concerns in biotechnology. Referring to Kazuo Ishiguro’s evocative novel Never Let Me Go and Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest, John asked rhetorically, “Are we merely now the repository of our molecules, read simply in computational, rather than biological, terms?” Abhinav Tyagi, on the other hand, shared the narratives of two specific biotechnology projects from 21st-century India to highlight the significance of the context of discovery and agency of material objects. These two narratives on biotechnological advancements reinforced the role of socio-natural relationships in the local contexts for these advancements. Another participant, Sruthi Balaji, highlighted some critical issues about the digital sequence information of plants. How this information is acknowledged and accessed – as a non-monetary resource or as a private/public property – is critical in deciding the direction of future research and innovations and in benefit sharing from them, according to Sruthi.
Musings on emerging technologies in healthcare
The use of data and technologies in healthcare was a major theme of discussions at the workshop. In this discussion, Nishtha Bharti spoke about the epistemic and regulatory conundrums pertaining to the ideas of Precision Medicine (PM) and precision healthcare. Nishtha pointed out the critical role of situated health care practices even as the technology-driven health care system reforms push them towards generalisable solutions. Nishtha also called for greater attention to policies governing genomic knowledge and its eternal use.
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Participants at the workshop [Image credit: Mahendra Shahare]

Caitlin Curtis presented her research on the trust and perceptions around AI systems in healthcare. Discussing the risks and challenges of the use of AI in the healthcare sector, Caitlin highlighted invisibility, low public awareness, rapid development, insufficient regulations, and the gap between principles and practices as some of the significant issues. Adding to the discussion, Mahendra Shahare spoke about the Genome India Project (GIP), which is considered to be a transformative step towards precision medicine in India. This project aims to understand India’s genetic makeup by mapping the genetic variations of 10,000 people from India and thereby address the diseases affecting the Indian population. Mahendra urged caution with interventions like PM and GIP. He argued that such interventions are entangled with ethnicity and identity politics and that they could also become a tool for racial classification.
The private control and regulation of biotech
P. Omkar Nadh dwelled on the complexities of the intellectual property rights of biomedical innovations through the examples of two large publicly funded research institutions interested in promoting equitable access. Omkar argued that despite the policies for equitable access in place, the practices in biomedical innovations promote the interests of the powerful market actors over larger public interests.

Y. Madhavi, while speaking about the vaccine policy for the post-Covid era, highlighted some specific challenges, contradictions, and questions in the adoption of new COVID-19 vaccines across the globe. She termed the desperate adoption of DNA and mRNA vaccines as an unprecedented global measure that requires revisiting. To use Madhvi’s words, “regulation has never been more relevant than in today’s context and in times to come”. Discussing the field of 3D bioprinting innovations, Pratap Devarapalli spoke about the patenting of these innovations and the challenges therein. Pratap’s presentation provided an overview of various requirements and criteria of the patent law and patentability challenges pertaining to 3D bio-printed products focusing on the Indian and Australian contexts.
Alternative policy futures
In the discussion on alternative policy futures, Pankaj Sekhsaria highlighted the potential of citizen science, drawing on a study of multiple such projects in India. Similarly, drawing on the participatory future scenario modelling to reimagine food systems, Kiah Smith spoke about the possibility of a ‘technology for the people’.

Towards the end of the workshop, Sanil V. spoke about the cosmological turn: technics and politics of life. Sanil stressed the need for discourses on Anthropocene, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology to engage with the cosmological turn in anthropology that questions the divide between culture and nature. Sanil further argued for these discourses to engage with the turn towards cosmo-technics in the STS and cosmopolitics in the politics of nature.

The discussions in this workshop raised some crucial ontological and epistemological concerns. It raised questions at the interface of the science, technology and market. For instance, where, with whom, and at what structure should the focus of power lie to address the imbalances in regulating biotech? Answering such questions may require more interdisciplinary collaborations in research and practice.

More details about the workshop can be found here.
Gaurav Kapse is a PhD research scholar at the IIT Bombay Monash Research Academy.

Shashank Deora is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas at IIT Bombay. He is also an assistant editor for Backchannels.

Published: 12/04/2023