Sunday, 30 March 2014

My word!

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

“Communication lies at the heart of public understanding of science,” we said in our last blog. But sometimes this communication manifests itself in the form of buzzwords that attempt to capture the public’s imagination on new and emerging technologies.

The politics of buzzwords, as indeed the economics of buzzwords, are the focus of a thought-provoking article by Bernadette Bensaude Vincent in the latest issue of Public Understanding ofScience. What purpose do “fashionable stereotyped phrases such as ‘public engagement in science’, ‘responsible innovation’, ‘green technology’, or ‘personalised medicine’” serve in discussions on science and technology, Vincent asks.

Buzzwords, according to Vincent, go beyond the merely scientific issues around a technology; they create a linguistic laboratory where an alchemic understanding is created that almost magically blends science with politics, business and economics.  In the process, they serve to smoothen out controversies, contradictions and challenges, acting as “pacifiers” that subvert the possibilities for change by overcoming dissent and avoiding “clashes of values.” Such words don’t have philological roots nor do they convey any depth of meaning. But they serve a pragmatic purpose in creating what Vincent calls a “‘trading zone’ that allows different stakeholders to communicate.”

Pragmatic is an operative word here. Words are not neutral units of language. They are political domains that are contested. Let’s take the example of the term ‘genetic engineering’ which has evoked polarised reactions from those who are for it and those that are against. Given the massive protests against genetic engineering of food in different parts of the world, this term has slowly gone behind the shadows although research and practice of this technology continues as ever before. Instead, we hear more of the term ‘synthetic biology’ which is not as politically loaded as ‘genetic engineering’ is.

But is ‘synthetic biology’ much different from ‘genetic engineering’? In linguistic terms, they are pretty close but the connotations are nowhere near as similar. People don’t know as much about synthetic biology and, as a result, research in the field is much less controversial.

Talking of synthetic biology, the BBCreported this week the “creation of the first synthetic chromosome for yeast in a landmark for biological engineering.” The BBC quoted the research team leader, Dr Jef Boeke of the Langone Medical Centre at New York University, as describing the achievement as "moving the needle in synthetic biology from theory to reality."
This, according to an article in the Independent, is a “milestone development in synthetic biology, which promises to revolutionise medical and industrial biotechnology in the coming century.” 

Note the bracketing of medical and industrial – science, medicine, business, and industry are no longer separate domains. Buzzwords work in making this nexus easier.