Performing Expertise

Backstage Decisions, Front-stage Experts: Part 1

In democratic societies like the U.S., we entrust relevant experts with the task of making hard choices that impact broader society. There is a tacit agreement between technical experts and everybody else that the experts will follow rational decision-making heuristics that align with previously established norms and values. Scientists often fill this decision-making role: for example, an ecologist could advise the state environmental committee on river water redistribution, [1] a geologist may consult for an architectural team building a skyscraper,[2] or an economist could be brought in by a city government to help develop a strategy for allocating grants to elementary schools. [3] 

The three examples above describe scientists moving outside the boundaries of their disciplines to present data to people outside of the scientific community. This form of boundary crossing can be thought of as a public performance, in which scientists go “on stage” to demonstrate their repertoire of expertise. The metaphor of the stage helps us understand how science and society interact, priming us to think about backstage work that helps set the stage, change the lighting, and draw the curtains.

In this series, we go backstage to examine contentious decisions made by scientists about new technologies that can shape the trajectory of medicine, industry, and agriculture. Who are the relevant scientific experts when it comes to making decisions under conditions of uncertainty about a new technology? What is happening behind the public performance of scientific expertise? This series offers a critique of the current ways in which scientists are given autonomy to make decisions that shape how these technologies will be used in the lab, how they’ll be regulated, and what effect they’ll have on communities of patients and consumers when taken up by industry.

The following six posts of this series will look into two cases of emerging biotechnologies. The first is from the 1970s, when genetic engineers used their technical expertise to make a call about how to regulate the uses of an exciting new technology: recombinant DNA (rDNA). This technology allowed scientists, for the first time, to combine DNA from different organisms to study the function of genes and to produce valuable commercial products. Some examples include the engineering of bacteria to produce insulin and the development of pesticide-resistant crops. 

In this case, experts decided on a technical fix for a technical issue. They felt that the dangers of rDNA didn’t stem from the possibility of commercializing biotechnology, the patenting of biological organisms, or the economic impacts of GMO seed monopolies, but instead raised issues of the safety of rDNA experiments in the workplace. Ethical, social and political issues were reduced to technical issues of containment. Researchers wanted to ensure that anything tinkered with genetically stayed inside specially marked and isolated rooms in the lab, eventually giving rise to the well-established institution of biosafety.

Today, scientists are similarly engaged in a process of expert decision-making around another exciting new technology, the CRISPR-Cas9 system. This technology allows scientists to make highly specific changes, or “edits”, to the DNA of virtually any organism. Following the original publication that showed that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to modify DNA in a “programmable” way, [4] scientists have developed, simplified, and streamlined experimental protocols to improve the workflow of genome editing. These protocols can be used by laboratories across the life sciences interested in tinkering with the genetic material of bacteria, butterflies, corn, frogs, fruit flies, human liver cells, nematodes, and many other organisms. This technology has garnered attention in popular news largely because of the potential of modifying human offspring by engineering eggs and sperm, known as germline editing.

These backstage conversations about emergent biotechnologies have substantial political and scientific influence. Because of the potential medical, industrial, and agricultural ramifications of genome-editing technologies, it is important to ask questions about what democracy looks like in these contexts. Part of engaging the questions below stems from a dire need to engage with the ethical trajectory of genome editing, to ensure the direct and indirect outcomes of this technology do not disempower or harm already marginalized communities. 

  •  How do we make sure new discoveries and technologies aren’t used for self-interest or to harm others?
  • How do we make sure new technologies help the communities that stand to gain or need them the most? 
  • How do we decide who the major stakeholders are when a new technology is developed?
  • What are the avenues for identifying and engaging stakeholders when figuring out how to regulate new technology? 
  • Are the current avenues for identifying and engaging stakeholders in the development of new technologies democratic?
  • How do experiments in other countries put pressure on how science is regulated in the U.S.?
  • Given that intentions of a new technology do not always align with their impact, how is impact accurately assessed?

In subsequent posts we’ll be sharing some of our findings from archival sources surrounding the 1975 Asilomar meeting and interviews we conducted with scientists who have participated in meetings around the ethics of CRISPR-Cas9. These interviews have highlighted the role of technical experiences for those making decisions, the strength of personal social connections and reputation in getting you a ‘seat at the table’ and the dynamic nature of expert decision making. Our archival research sheds light on a fraught process of past decision-making in biotechnology, how “expert consensus” is largely a historical myth, and how scientists manage the boundary between science and various publics.

Click here for the next part!

Click here for the entire series! 

[1] Scoville, C. (2017). “We Need Social Scientists!” The Allure and Assumptions of Economistic Optimization in Applied Environmental Science. Science as Culture, 26(4), 468-480.

[2] Wildermuth and Dineen (2017) “How ready will Bay Area be for next big Quake?SF Chronicle

[3] Hilgartner, S. (2000). Science on stage: Expert advice as public drama. Stanford University Press.

[4] Jinek M, Chylinski K, Fonfara I, Hauer M, Doudna JA, Charpentier E. A programmable dual-RNA-guided DNA endonuclease in adaptive bacterial immunity. Science. 2012;337(6096):816-821. doi:10.1126/science.1225829

Santiago Molina (he/they) is a sociologist and proud dog dad living in New Orleans. They research how social orders are (re)produced alongside the development of new genetic technologies. They also obsess constantly over their house plants and enjoy a good video game.

Gordon Pherribo (he/him) is a Black Queer microbiologist living in Oakland, CA. He was raised in New Jersey and has a deep fondness for nature and wildlife. His research interests explore both science culture in doctoral training programs and nutrient interactions in microbial communities.