Who Owns Science?
Who Owns Science?
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  • 승인 2011.11.02 22:45
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Can anyone own science? If so, what form of ownership can it take? This short essay is a brief introduction to the ways in which we can think of science and the ownership of science with critical consciousness.

It all starts with a chain of following questions. How does knowledge travel from the origin of its place, say a laboratory, to other places and acquire its universality? Why and how is it that the laws of Newton can be found anywhere around the globe? One may attribute universality of knowledge, more specifically scientific knowledge, to its intrinsic values associated with objectivity and value-neutrality. Challenging the very notion that science is universally held across time and space, some scholars in science and technology studies and its allied fields have taken up the issue and brought the contexts (whether historical, cultural, political, or social) into the processes of knowledge-making. The purpose? Among many other agendas, the following intellectual thread is noted here: intervention in the business of science and technology to problematize the status quo by politicizing the processes of making scientific knowledge.

Things can be simple if we agree that science speaks to and for nature. Yet, some people like to complicate things and find it fun doing so. And it can be amusing to view the world in a different perspective. So, how did they think differently? First of all, they paid special attention to the place of knowledge production, a laboratory, revealing how the empirical character of science is constructed through the experimenter’s local and craft knowledge. They also took extra care to demonstrate that the resulting science extends beyond laboratory via adaptations of locally situated practices to new local contexts. This point of view should be contrasted with the intellectual position that the extension of knowledge takes place via generalization to universal laws. By placing local contexts or contingencies at the heart of making science, multifaceted science and technology can be revealed, hopefully.

As much as locality matters in constructing science, the trouble with locality comes with a degree of universality. As is the case with Newtonian physics and other ideas things are in circulation in the face of divergent local contexts. How can the context be mobilized to sustain reproduction and proliferation of scientific knowledge and technology at another site?  The circulation of science and technology assumes compatibility between the contexts through which they are transmitted. Bruno Latour, in his book, titled Science in Action, stresses the extension of the networks?heterogeneous associations of human and nonhuman entities?through which ‘black-boxed’ things and facts travel. Through these networks, technoscience is extended in time and space beyond its original site of production, by modifying the local context so that it becomes more ‘like’ the laboratory in which the knowledge was generated and by enrolling more allies in the process. What makes the transmission of knowledge smooth and sustainable throughout the networks is metrology? the activities of calibrating standard means of measurement. To share standard measurements is a precondition for the replication of scientific knowledge from one place to another.

Within this vision of the transmission of knowledge from the place of origin to various localities, Latour does not challenge the very notion of metropole (metaphorically and literally) knowledge, i.e. Western science, as the point of reference to speak for nature. By leaving out the struggles through which actors at the local level challenge assumptions about the universalism of Western science, Latour opens further possibilities to investigate a particular set of historical power struggles and their geopolitical consequences for technoscience.

For instance, the production and application of technoscientific knowledge, especially in the realms of Western science and biomedicine, wields ‘neo-imperial’power.  One characteristic of science-based imperialism is that it is nationless. That is, there exists no central nation state exerting imperial power over other nations. In the place of nation state, there emerge profit-oriented companies, such as biotechnology corporations. They exploit the power imbalance between western and traditional and indigenous knowledge by extracting and transforming potentially profitable parts of the latter into commercial products. In the process of commercializing traditional knowledge, practitioners who possessed the knowledge and have been practicing for decades tend to be left out of the market. If the traditional practitioners’ possession of knowledge had once been realized through their healing power, it is manifested through the legalization of ownership of intellectual property. Whether or not it is blamed biopiracy, chances are that the lack of technological and institutional capital can lead to the deprivation of the ownership of knowledge in the global market. What underlines this episode is that scientific principles are used to turn things into a legible commodity in the global market.

At the policy level, the belief in objective science seems to continue to play a major role in guiding regulatory standards and classification systems. In the recent decade, both the US (2002) and England (2000) made administrative and legislative recommendations on how to assess and evaluate the efficacy, toxicity, and safety of drugs or treatments of non-conventional treatments such as minerals, vitamins, and herbs. They came up with an arguably gold standard: an ‘evidence-based approach’ grounded in rigorous science. These sort of regulatory changes in the developed countries directly or indirectly influence regulatory practices in nations like Korea, and traditional healing practices have come under the purview of policy-makers. Lately, many nations around the globe are keen to prepare standard guidelines of regulating safe practices of nanoscience. Once standards are set in motion, they are ordinarily invisible, unless they break down or become objects of contention. Hence, it is crucial to think critically who creates standards and whose views of science are represented.

Eunjeong Ma
Visiting Professor of HSS