Monday, August 3, 2015

Social construction of technical knowledge

After there was the sociology of knowledge (link), before there was a new sociology of knowledge (link), and more or less simultaneous with science and technology studies (link), there was Paul Rabinow's excellent ethnography of the invention of the key tool in recombinant DNA research -- PCR (polymerase chain reaction). Rabinow's monograph Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology appeared in 1996, after the first fifteen years of the revolution in biotechnology, and it provides a profound narrative of the intertwinings of theoretical science, applied bench work, and material economic interests, leading to substantial but socially imprinted discoveries and the development of a powerful new technology. Here is how Rabinow frames the research:
Making PCR is an ethnographic account of the invention of PCR, the polymerase chain reaction (arguably the exemplary biotechnological invention to date), the milieu in which that invention took place (Cetus Corporation during the 1980s), and the key actors (scientists, technicians, and business people) who shaped the technology and the milieu and who were, in turn, shaped by them. (1)
This book focuses on the emergence of biotechnology, circa 1980, as a distinctive configuration of scientific, technical, cultural, social, economic, political, and legal elements, each of which had its own separate trajectory over the preceding decades. It examines the "style of life" or form of "life regulation" fashioned by the young scientists who chose to work in this new industry rather than pursue promising careers in the university world.... In sum, it shows how a contingently assembled practice emerged, composed of distinctive subjects, the site in which they worked, and the object they invented. (2)
There are several noteworthy features of these very exact descriptions of Rabinow's purposes. The work is ethnographic; it proceeds through careful observation, interaction, and documentation of the intentionality and practices of the participants in the process. It is focused on actors of different kinds -- scientists, lab technicians, lawyers, business executives, and others -- whose interests, practices, and goals are distinctly different from each others'. It is interested in accounting for how the "object" (PCR) came about, without any implication of technological or scientific inevitability. It highlights both contingency and heterogeneity in the process. The process of invention and development was a meandering one (contingency) and it involved a large group of heterogeneous influences (scientific, cultural, economic, ...).

Legal issues come into this account because the fundamental question -- what is PCR and who invented it? -- cannot be answered in narrowly technical or scientific terms. Instead, it was necessary to go through a process of practical bench-based development and patent law to finally be able to answer both questions.

A key part of Rabinow's ethnographic finding is that the social configuration and setting of the Cetus laboratory was itself a key part of the process leading to successful development of PCR. The fact of hierarchy in traditional scientific research spaces (universities) is common -- senior scientists at the top, junior technicians at the bottom. But Cetus had developed a local culture that was relatively un-hierarchical, and Rabinow believes this cultural feature was crucial to the success of the undertaking.
Cetus's organizational structure was less hierarchical and more interdisciplinary than that found in either corporate pharmaceutical or academic institutions. In a very short time younger scientists could take over major control of projects; there was neither the extended postdoc and tenure probationary period nor time-consuming academic activities such as committees, teaching, and advising to divert them from full-time research. (36)
And later:
Cetus had been run with a high degree of organizational flexibility during its first decade. The advantages of such flexibility were a generally good working environment and a large degree of autonomy for the scientists. The disadvantages were a continuing lack of overall direction that resulted in a dispersal of both financial and human resources and in continuing financial losses. (143)
A critical part of the successful development of PCR techniques in Rabinow's account was the highly skilled bench work of a group of lab technicians within the company (116 ff.). Ph.D. scientists and non-Ph.D. lab technicians collaborated well throughout the extended period during which the chemistry of PCR needed to be perfected; and Rabinow's suggestion is that neither group by itself could have succeeded.

So some key ingredients in this story are familiar from the current wisdom of tech companies like Google and FaceBook: let talented people follow their curiosity, use space (physical and social) to elicit strong positive collaboration; don't try to over-manage the process through a rigid authority structure.

But as Rabinow points out, Cetus was not an anarchic process of smart people discovering things. Priorities were established to govern research directions, and there were sustained efforts to align research productivity with revenue growth (almost always unsuccessful, it must be said). Here is Rabinow's concluding observation about the company and the knowledge environment:
Within a very short span of time some curious and wonderful reversals, orthogonal movements, began happening: the concept itself became an experimental system; the experimental system became a technique; the techniques became concepts. These rapidly developing variations and mutually referential changes of level were integrated into a research milieu, first at Cetus, then in other places, then, soon, in very many other places. These places began to resemble each other because people were building them to do so, but were often not identical. (169).
And, as other knowledge-intensive businesses from Visicalc to Xerox to H-P to Microsoft to Google have discovered, there is no magic formula for joining technical and scientific research to business success.

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