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Book Review: Bioscience, Governance and Politics

01 June 2015

By Ëlo Luik

Appeared in BioNews 804

Bioscience, Governance and Politics

By Dr John Gillott

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-10: 1137374985, ISBN-13: 978-1137374981

Buy this book from Amazon UK


In 'Bioscience, Governance and Politics', John Gillott explores continuity and change in UK science governance and the effect contemporary governance regimes are having on science research. For his analysis, Gillott uses two fascinating case studies - one on the governance of research using human tissue, and the other on research using embryos. Both of these were debated during the years of the New Labour governments (from 1997 to 2010), when the 'democratic model,' of science governance, with its aims to give the public a bigger role, first started raising its head in earnest. 

Gillott starts by describing how approaches developed by critical social science theorists have challenged the natural sciences for their perceived institutional arrogance and Promethean recklessness. He then looks back over the past 20 years to tease out if and how science governance has changed. The tipping point in this history was the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)/variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) crisis, when expert advice given to the public denied the threat of mad cow disease being transmitted to humans. As the rising death toll proved science experts wrong, it sparked an erosion of public trust in science and provoked a series of official reports and investigations into  the governance of science. 

The book concludes that while there has been much continuity in the past 20 years, there has also been change. Some but not all of these changes are the result of actors working within the framework of the democratic model.  Gillott argues that some of these changes have been harmful to bioscience as a research activity. As a result, the UK is now perhaps 'better suited to developing work in the mainstream rather than innovating at the edges of knowledge where speed and freedom from bureaucratic delays is important.' 

Yet, according to Gillott, critical social science has failed to recognise its own influence and the role its ideas have come to play claiming that any change has occurred only on the level of discourse rather than substance. Such insistence on marginalisation and the belief that critical ideas are merely being appropriated to legitimise existing governance regimes is problematic, says Gillott. It leaves such critics with a lack of empathy for the concerns and challenges that natural scientists face.  

The Labour governments, under whose aegis the changes happened, are not portrayed in this discussion as fundamentally anti-science. Gillott points out that New Labour was in fact very much in favour of science, but that they genuinely believed that they could promote science research and innovation while introducing an agenda of patient involvement and wide public consultation. 

The original research presented in the book is fascinating, its strength being the interviews with science governance's key players. Social scientists, civil servants and politicians and natural scientists themselves all get to contribute to a complex map of intertwined and conflicting agendas. Gillott draws heavily on these interviews, as well as on statements, speeches and other commentary, allowing the voices and positions of various actors to come through in long uncut quotations. So, while not always an easy read, Bioscience, Governance and Politics is a fascinating and important book for anyone interested in the governance of bioscience in the UK or the more general issues of the uses and abuses of 'the public' in policymaking. 

Moreover, the book will be of special interest to supporters (or opponents) of the work of Progress Educational Trust, PET. Here, many of the names, institutions and policy decisions that come up at PETs events or in BioNews articles get placed in historical, political and ideological context. Gillott also takes a critical and insightful look at the ideology and reality of 'public engagement' as it is often practiced in science governance. He interrogates the idea that the democratic model of science governance took the power from the medical professions and put it in the hands of the public and uncovers a different reality. Through both the intended and unintended consequences of the campaigns and actions of critical strands of social science, the politics of the New Labour governments and the science community's reaction, power in fact shifted to the managers and bureaucrats of science governance, rather than the public, argues Gillott. 

He shows how in these processes 'the public' is often spoken for when cherry-picked sections or distorted representations of it are put to use in support of competing agendas. It will surely be interesting for the reader to see if they recognise themselves in the many publics portrayed in attempts by various actors to justify their own shortcomings and to back up their agendas. 

While 'Bioscience, Governance and Politics' encompasses a great piece of research, I am not sure the book always does that research justice. For me, the presentation and development of the argument held the book back from reaching its full potential. I wish there had been a more forceful drive in the argument to tie these various ideas and weave theory, case study and background into each other more organically.


Buy Bioscience, Governance and Politics from Amazon UK.

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