Hamilton, R. Alexander
Governing through risk: synthetic biology and the risk management process.
PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
In recent years, synthetic biology – an emerging science that promises to ‘democratize’ bioengineering – has emerged as a key site of regulatory interest and concern. In the United States, in particular, these concerns have largely been voiced in relation to synthetic biology’s perceived capacity to enable an act of bioterrorism. This thesis examines the regulatory response – a ‘risk management process’ – that has been mounted to address this contingency, and which seeks to ‘secure’ and ‘sustain’ a science characterized by sharply contrasting expectations.
In particular, this thesis engages with the discursive and non-discursive practices enacted by diverse scientific and technical experts determined to assess and manage ‘risks’ that threaten to exceed the very capacity of risk, as a ‘calculative rationality’, to tame chance and legitimize responsible action. Yet, in the face of uncertainty, and in stark contrast to the ‘risk society’ thesis, this thesis underlines that uncertainty is not an inhibition to risk management, but a call for more intensive and more creative ways of organizing uncertainty, enabling action in the present. Indeed, in the case of regulating synthetic biology, risk management is, above all, tailored to finding practical ‘solutions’ to seemingly intractable policy ‘problems’.
In addition to its contribution to recent scholarship that has drawn on Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ to examine how diverse social problems, ranging from climate change to terrorism, are ‘governed through risk’, this thesis critically examines how biotechnology’s pairing with the perceived threat of bioterrorism is influencing the manner in which modern biology is understood, represented, practiced and controlled. Thus, the case of synthetic biology examined in this thesis not only provides a lens through which to advance risk theory in sociology, but also serves as a vector through which to explore changing configurations of ‘risk’ and ‘risk responsibility’ in the contemporary life sciences.
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