The field and the farm in the production of biomedical knowledge
Location 122
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2


  • Miguel Garcia-Sancho (University of Edinburgh) email
  • Dmitriy Myelnikov (University of Edinburgh) email

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Short Abstract

Experimental breeding fields and farms are unexplored sties of biomedical research. In them, animals and plants interact with humans in the production of knowledge applied to health and agriculture. We welcome contributions on any aspect of animal and plant research, from genetics to biotechnology.

Long Abstract

The study of biomedical research has traditionally focused on the laboratory and the clinic. STS scholars have investigated how bench scientists produce knowledge and how this knowledge interacts, in complex ways, with medical practice. There are, yet, other sites of biomedical knowledge that remain unexplored, such as experimental fields or farms devoted to genetic breeding and agricultural research. Those sites have played a crucial role in the development of modern biomedicine, as well as the emergence of the biotechnology market, and non-human genomic projects. In them, animals and plants, botanists and vets interact with biomedical researchers in the delivery of knowledge that is relevant in a variety of ways. Knowledge transfer in the field and the farm involves not only application to human medicine, but also to animal and plant health, or the improvement of the commercial yield of agriculture.

These neglected knowledge actors, interactions and outputs will be the focus of our track. Apart from being under-explored, STS approaches to animals have tended to be disconnected from those to plants, and historical perspectives have developed independently from more sociological or economic ones.

Depending on the number of participants, we will organise one or two interdisciplinary panels and a round table in which different theoretical and methodological approaches will be brought together.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


The "Inheritance Coefficient:" Harry Laughlin and the Eugenics Record Office's Obsession with Thoroughbred Horses

Author: Brian Tyrrell (University of California, Santa Barbara)  email

Short Abstract

Harry Laughlin, the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, USA, developed a mathematical model of inheritance in the 1930s. Calling his model the "inheritance coefficient," Laughlin used thoroughbred horse pedigrees and race results as his data.

Long Abstract

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island opened in 1910 with a major gift from Mary Harriman, the widow of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman. The Harrimans, like many members of the US upper class, devoted considerable time to breeding and racing thoroughbred horses. Coinciding with an increase in immigration and the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, the idea that careful breeding of thoroughbreds would result in improved horses resonated with Americans worried about racial degeneration. But the interest in thoroughbred horses was not limited to the benefactors of the ERO. In the 1900s scientists moved their gaze from the laboratory to the breeding farm to understand the mechanics of heredity. Thoroughbred breeders maintained extensive pedigrees for their animals, and scientists committed to racial ideologies used this data to advance their cause. Harry H. Laughlin, the superintendent of research at the Eugenics Record Office developed a mathematical model of inheritance based on a thorough reading of thoroughbred breeding charts and race results. Laughlin labeled his finding the "inheritance coefficient," and he believed thoroughbreds provided a fruitful line of research to develop breeding rules to apply to humans. Laughlin's research legitimized knowledge gained on the breeding farm, and horse racing's popularity helped diffuse his ideas. This paper analyzes the role of thoroughbred breeding and racing in the formation and popularization of racial ideology by situating breeding farms as sites of knowledge production and racecourses as places that exhibited performances of racial science for large audiences.

What do these cattle do in a biomedical research center?

Author: François Thoreau (University of Liege)  email

Short Abstract

This paper suggests ways of problematizing human health genomics departing from the practice of bovine genomics. In the situated context of the University Hospital in Liege, it questions question the boundary between medical practice and the sector of bovine industry.

Long Abstract

This paper starts with a surprise: while carrying out an ethnography in a large biomedical research center in Liège (Belgium), one of the most important customers in genomics was the bovine livestock industry. Bovine genomics has tremendously evolved over the last few years, leading to a whole set of practices and economics articulated around the idea of an "optimal cow" (calculated not only in sole terms of performance but through a set of weighted criteria). While the implications for human health genomics are far from obvious, this constitutes an interesting problem to raise, since the expectations, practices and discourses regarding bovines are at the same time more straight and less cautious than the ones regarding human health. In this paper, I will try to offer some insights into how bovine genomics are being practiced, e.g. the way bovine populations are built up (through indexes, consortiums, and so on). I will not try to compare or to relate it directly to what happens in human health genomics, but instead I will try to render visible some of the generic (bio)political stakes tied with genomics, i.e. experimental constitution of reference genomes and reference populations. Doing so, I will question the boundary between, on one hand, the Liège hospital and its laboratories and, on the other, the sector of bovine industry. I will attempt at locating the sites of learning, if any, where human health genomics are informed by routinized practices in bovine genomics.

Emerging markets of 'genomic knowledge' within livestock breeding

Author: Annika Lonkila (University of Eastern Finland)  email

Short Abstract

Genomic knowledge production is increasingly taking place on farms and within livestock breeding networks, motivated by market-making and commodification and increased control over non-human life.

Long Abstract

Farms are increasingly emerging as important sites for the production of biotechnological knowledge - as well as the commodification and marketization of that knowledge. Livestock breeding has traditionally been a field where experiments with new (bio)technologies, especially in relation to reproduction, could proceed with relative ease compared to the regulatory and ethical challenges met with human subjects. Especially through the introduction of genomic technologies the contributions of livestock breeding to biomedical research continue be significant. Molecular genomics have been applied perhaps most widely within dairy cattle breeding, where practices and markets have been completely restructured. In my study I examine how the object (and commodity) of 'genomic knowledge' has emerged, accompanied by new markets - co-produced and co-modified by a wide array of actors including biomedical and livestock breeding scientists, breeding companies and regulatory agents - but as integrally technologies, calculative devices, and cattle themselves. Through extensive empirical work within Finnish breeding networks, I show that this work, motivated by economic interests, rests on establishing strict borders between categories such as nature and culture, genotype and phenotype, and human and non-human. My research contributes to deconstructing the ontological foundations of new 'bio-knowledge' based on false dichotomies. The knowledge practices from which biotechnological objects emerge are produced by complex networks of actors and situated in particular cultural, social, political, ethical, and environmental contexts. It is necessary to expose the crucial role of neglected 'knowledge actors' as well as the important moral repercussions of biotechnological knowledge production for the material conditions for non-human life within livestock production.

Wheat as a scientific object: experimental breeding in transit

Author: María J Santesmases (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC))  email

Short Abstract

I present a history of wheat as a seed from agriculture to the cytogenetic laboratory, that includes the work in plant heredity and cytogenetics as the origins of the co-production in the 1960s of a hybrid of wheat and rye at Aula Dei experimental station in Zaragoza, Spain.

Long Abstract

Experimental methods set up for plant research, for botany and to look at the small parts within, also made visible small parts of animal species. Plants often emerge in historical reconstructions as roots and transits from the cell to the human being, in regard to both concepts and methods, tools and images. I explore here wheat, wheat cells, and methods to reveal wheat chromosomes as a reflection on the history of wheat as a research subject and its influence on the epistemology of living things. In biomedicine, the animal and human body, concepts constructed in plant research, plant collection and characterisation show the exchange of meanings and tools between human culture and plant studies.

I suggest a focus on the at-times pioneer, at-times intermediate, space that botany, agriculture and agronomy became in the history of biology, and particularly on their epistemic practices. To this aim, I will present a history of wheat as a seed that transited from agronomy to the cytogenetic laboratory. I will show the work in plant heredity and cytogenetics from the early days of wheat chromosomes to the co-production in the 1960s of a hybrid of wheat and rye at Aula Dei experimental station in Zaragoza, Spain. Through this historical reconstruction I will reflect on the role played by cereal species in the history of heredity and genetics that shows the extent to which theories and proposals, methods and styles of working with plants are agents in the construction of contemporary genetic knowledge and practices.

Cuts and the cutting edge: the making of agricultural biotechnology in 1980s Edinburgh

Author: Dmitriy Myelnikov (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the introduction of genetic engineering at the Animal Breeding Research Organisation in Edinburgh in the 1980s under government pressure and financial uncertainty, and shows how ABRO adopted the laboratory and social worlds of molecular biology on an experimental farm.

Long Abstract

In 1980, genetic modification of mice was announced, paving way for speculations about extending biotechnology to animal agriculture. In Britain, the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) in Edinburgh - the precursor of the Roslin Institute where Dolly was cloned in 1996 - adopted the new methods to extend genetic engineering to sheep, with the hope of synthesising valuable proteins in their milk. While histories of modern biotechnology have tended to emphasise the importance of enterprise and commercial interests, ABRO's decision to pursue genetic engineering happened in the context of government cuts to agricultural research and strong pressure from the Agricultural Research Council to reorient the institute from long-term breeding research towards cutting-edge technologies. In this paper, I examine how the Institute responded to its new mandate in the light of financial uncertainty, and trace the new networks and infrastructure that it had to build to bring molecular research and farm animal work under one roof. ABRO researchers learned to work with isolated genes across mice and sheep, creating a hybrid world between the laboratory and experimental farm. Meanwhile, the administration navigated through Thatcher-era policies and the brave new world of biotech, forming a spin-off and filing patent applications, and turned the Organisation into a hybrid public-private venture typical of today's biomedicine.

Testing for Bovine Tuberculosis: Farm Realities or Convenient Untruth?

Author: Jess Phoenix (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is a disease faced by Britain’s cattle industry that UK Government attempts to trace through the use of skin tests. I expose Government’s convenient untruth that bTB is knowable, in contrast to on-farm realities of the indeterminate disease and the uncertain skin test.

Long Abstract

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is an unyielding animal health issue faced by Britain's cattle industry. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is using spatially located methods to try to eradicate the disease in England, including the regular skin testing of cattle and the consequent compulsory slaughter of infected beasts. This paper presents my findings from on-farm fieldwork with vets and farmers in the routine practice of skin testing.

DEFRA describe the skin test as an effective tool to provide early warning of the spread of bTB. The skin test evidences the disease by altering it from invisible to visible, from abstract bacillus to definitive number, and from touch of the hand to a quantitative display. However, fieldwork demonstrates that the skin test cannot define the facticity of infection or make the disease known. Despite this, DEFRA is perpetuating the convenient untruth that the skin test makes bTB knowable so that it can be controlled and eliminated.

I contrast DEFRA's convenient untruth with farmers' and vets' experiences of the uncertain and complex process of testing. I demonstrate how their experiences formulate different understandings of bTB to DEFRA. I show how DEFRA is making sense of a disease that does not make sense on-farm by constructing certainty from uncertain practices. I purposively focus on farmers' and vets' biomedical knowledge so as to explore an alternative method of living with the unknown, instead of constructing certainty from the unknown.

Biosecurity and aquaculture in Singapore

Author: Delfinn Tan (Nanyang Technological University)  email

Short Abstract

Biomedical knowledge was used to implement biosecurity practises in food farms to limit disease. These practises were applied in Singaporean ornamental koi fish farms. I ask how biosecurity has come to be used with koi and how it has impacted the industry & production of biomedical knowledge.

Long Abstract

Biosecurity is a very common word in our modern lexicon, especially on farms. Biosecurity is essentially a system of practices meant to limit the spread and transmission of diseases. However, this system of practices came mainly from the transmission of human diseases, and the application of biosecurity practices to animals meant for food was in order to limit human infection. Biosecurity practices soon became applicable to all animal models, and the term 'biosecurity' was applied to koi, an ornamental fish, though the stake was fish's economic value, not human life. Practices like cleansing and isolation were already common, but when the koi herpes virus became a threat these practices were subsumed within biosecurity. This paper will ask the question of how the term biosecurity has come to be used with koi in the context of Singapore's koi industry, and how this had been implemented and impacted the industry itself, as well as whether koi farms produced biomedical knowledge.

I shall use archival data from the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore and oral histories to answer these questions. Drawing on Andrew Donaldson's work in 2008, I will look at how the state and farmers in Singapore understand and negotiate what the biological is and how they draw boundaries around it, and how they conceptualise the ideas of risk and security. There are hints that biosecurity practices on koi farms might have increased profits, but had a larger, negative impact on the industry as a whole.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.