Vital Politics – the conferences

Vital Politics I: Health, Medicine and Bioeconomics into the twenty-first century

Shortly after I arrived at LSE, in 2002, we were able to put into action something that we’d been planning in the discussions on the BIOS email list together with the History of the Present network (see elsewhere on this website) which had already held some events of this type.  We planned a conference that would bring together some of the key figures working around the politics of developments in the life sciences and biomedicine, and also bring together the growing number of research students working on these themes who were scattered across departments in the UK, continental Europe and North America.  The original ‘flyer’ is below:

Vital Politics original flyer

The conference took place in the LSE’s Shaw Library, which was then in the heart of the LSE’s anthropology department, but it was a sign of LSE Anthropology’s disinterest in the anthropology of the present that no members of that Department attended or even dropped in to see or hear the stellar cast of speakers.   Another indication of the times was that, in 2003, the whole event cost £16,500 including receptions, lunch, tea, coffee and conference dinners, and we covered this half from fees from the 120 people who attended, and half from the institutional contributions – no external grants were forthcoming despite our efforts!  My own recollection, which may of course be very biased, is of a tremendously collegiate, friendly and non-hierarchical event, which played an important role in building a collaborative community of scholars, although, reflecting on it from today, it is striking how focussed it was on developments in, and speakers from, the Global North.

VITAL POLITICS II: Health, medicine and bioeconomics into the 21st century

The success of the event led to the decision to stage a second Vital Politics conference in 2006, this time supported by the growing research community in BIOS, in particular the organizing committee of Michael Barr, Linsey McGoey and Carlos Novas,  and with funds from the Wellcome Trust Biomedical Ethics Programme and the European Meeting of Minds initiative (via the UK’s DANA Centre)  as well as from the BIOS Centre itself.  The aim of the conference, which was held  as before in the Shaw Library of the LSE,  was to explore the character and genealogy of transformations in conceptions of health and illness, vitality and pathology, and the forms of practice organised around them. One key difference was that at this second event we were able to bring in Keynote speakers from the life sciences as well as from the social sciences, as indicated in the flyer below, and we were also able to organize our reception and final dinner in the splendid surroundings of Lincolns Inn, a short walk from the LSE.

Vital Politics II flyer

As I said in my opening remarks:  “There have been many conferences recently on social studies of the Bio, but we hope within that field that the Vital Politics conferences, and the BIOS centre at LSE, continues to play a specific role – perhaps firstly helping think though the invention of concepts for the analysis of this new field, secondly seeing how social scientists and life scientists might form productive alliances, even in tension, in analyzing these issues – (hence we paired social scientist and life scientist speakers in the plenary sessions), and thirdly, through our organization of  strands represent our own sense of key dimensions of the emergent form of life – neuroscience, regenerative medicine, biocapital.  I went on to say “If I can be allowed a personal view, when I started working in this area some eight years ago now, approaching it from the direction of the biologisation of psychiatry and the formation of new conceptions of human normality and pathology, this seemed the most inventive field in the social sciences, one where empirical thought and conceptual inventiveness were inextricably linked in trying to grasp the changes that we were experiencing.  I hope that, given that human life was, is and remains at stake, that this inventivity will not give way to ‘business as usual’, and that we will continue to be challenged and disturbed about the new politics of life itself.”

VITAL POLITICS III: The Life Sciences in an Age of Biological Control

 Three years later, in 2009, we held the third, and for now the final, Vital Politics conference on the theme of The Life Sciences in an Age of Biological Control, once more bringing in keynote speakers from both the social and the life sciences, together with Mark Walport, then the Director of the Wellcome Trust, and, as the poster shows, with funding from a variety of organizations and sources, including the British Academy, and three externally funded

Vital Politics III flyer

research programmes based within BIOS: SCOPE, The European Neuroscience and Society Network funded by the European Science Foundation, and the Brain, Self and Society programme funded by the ESRC.  The British Academy required a conference report as a condition of their funding, and as it gives a pretty good impression of the event, I reproduce it below.

Conference report for the British Academy:

120 Scholars from many different countries gathered at the London School of Economics and Political Science in September 2009 for the third Vital Politics conference on the theme of “the life sciences in an age of biological control” which was held under the auspices of the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society and co-sponsored by the British Academy, the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council and the European Neuroscience and Society Network.  Over 60 papers were presented by early career researchers on detailed aspects of the ways in which developments in the life sciences and biomedicine are reshaping our capacities to control our biology, with significant social, ethical, political and cultural consequences.

The conference addressed a number of key themes

1) Biological Citizenship in a Global Political Economy: This theme included presentations on biosocial identities and solidarities at the global scale, especially relating to global health inequalities or orphan diseases; the sustainable and democratic governance of the life sciences, and the challenges of public policy making in conditions of uncertainty; the impact of these policies on the formation (and transformation) of biological citizenships, in particular relating to identity, gender, or ethnicity; analyses of the pharmaceutical industry, its management and regulation in a globalized world.

2) Identities & Power in a Neuro-Age: This theme included explorations of the ways in which recent developments in neuroscience such as psychiatric genetics, psychopharmacology, neuroimaging and other brain technologies are changing power dynamics between state, industry, expertise and consumers, patients, children, parents, employees and offenders; analyses of the role of neuro-expertise, the problems of uncertainty and strategies of risk assessment in the context of regulation and control of the neuro-technologies and the rise of ‘neuro-markets’; examinations of the impact of neuroscience on categorization in psychiatric disorders, and on shifting patterns in ‘normalcy’ and ‘pathology’. 

3) Biopolitics in an Age of Regenerative & Synthetic Technologies: This theme included explorations of politics and ethics in relation to synthetic biology and regenerative medicine; research on the ways in which developments in these areas are changing conceptions of self, identity and embodiment; analyses of the political and ethical frameworks guiding biomedical research and interventions in the ‘age of regeneration’ and in the light of concerns about biosecurity; research on the socio-political and ethical aspects related to biosecurity, bioengineering and the markets for DNA, tissues, organs and other synthetic devices.

4) Constructing public engagement with science and technology: As part of the conference, there was a half-day stream on the theme of Constructing public engagement with science and technology.  The stream was associated with the launch of the ScoPE project (Scientists on public engagement: from communication to deliberation).  The objective of this stream was to examine the variety of ways in which the purposes of public engagement with science and technology, and the social conditions in which it takes place, are constructed by these actors.  A further objective was to examine the diversity of visions of society, the public, science and technology, democracy and politics that are produced through contemporary notions and processes of public engagement with science and technology.

Keynote presentations from leading international scholars, whose attendance at the event was supported by funds from the British Academy,  addressed the past and future of reproductive technologies, the implications of the new genomics for the ways in which those with histories of psychiatric disorders shape their lives, the implications of recent advances in the neurosciences for our understanding of normality and pathology, and questions of ‘biomedicalization’ and human rights, especially in an age of precaution and pre-emption where some dream of ‘personalised, predictive, and preventive medicine’. Keynote speakers on these issues included Richard Ashcroft, Professor of Bioethics, School of Law, Queen Mary – University of London;  Sarah Franklin, Professor of Sociology, Associate Director of BIOS, The London School of Economics and Political Science; Allan Horwitz, Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University; Emily Jackson, Professor of Law, BIOS, The London School of Economics and Political Science;  Martin Johnson, Professor of Reproductive Sciences, Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge; Carlos Novas, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University; Chloe Silverman, Assistant Professor, Department of History and Social Sciences, Penn State University; Adriana Petryna, Centre for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania; Jack Price, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology, Director of the Centre for the Cellular Basis of Behaviour, The Institute of Psychiatry; Martin Richards, Professor of Sociology, Director of Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge; Adele Clarke, Professor of Sociology and Adjunct Professor of History of Health Sciences, Dept. of Social & Behavioral Sciences, University of California, San Diego. 

In addition, Mark Walport, the Director of the Wellcome Trust sparked off a lively debate about the responsibilities of scientists to the public and the changing face of public engagement in the research agenda of the life sciences.

Overall this was an exceptionally successful event, not only for the quality of the keynote presentations and the contributions by those in the stream sessions, but also because of the opportunities that it provided to build networks and links between cognate research projects in different countries, and thus to act as a platform for the development of further research collaborations.