CONFERENCE CLOSING: Sheila Jasanoff – the politics of ‘expert’ design, and closing discussions.

New Sciences of Protection Conference: Plenary 4 with Sheila Jasanoff ‘Taking Risks for Safety: The US Discourse on Precaution’ and conference closing.

Sheila Jasanoff led the final plenary session. Through a comparison of the regulation and governance of embryonic stem cell research in the UK, US and Germany she dissected how different cultures of risk and safety are produced. Jasanoff drew on her own experiences as a member of the Harvard Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight (ESCRO) Committee and compared these with the differing articulations of safety surrounding embryonic stem cell research in the UK and Germany. To think and work in terms of safety is a kind of world making which inevitably involves boundary drawing, safety for whom, safety from what. Yet this politics of safety, or in this case the politics of the safety of embryonic life forms, and of the lives which embryonic stem cell research can purportedly make safe, is often presented in depoliticized terms. Comparative study reveals safety as a contested, political, terrain. From within one cultural milieu questions of safety, arguably because of their fundamentally existential character, often appear as either technical or ethical (but not political) questions. Committees of ‘experts’, either ethical or technical (or both), thus take control of the decision making process. The comparison of these depoliticized ‘expert’ spaces certainly reveals the undecidable elements in the experts’ designs for safe living, giving pointers to where the spaces for political action might be. Despite this, however, the new sciences of protection charged with the design of safe living remain stubbornly closed to interruptions and interventions from outside these spaces of expert design.

The closing discussions revolved around the following themes: how to critique designs for safe living without generating fear, the motor of ever-more hysterical designs for safer and safer living; how to atone for the excesses of unsafety inevitably created by designs for safe living; the problem of generating alternative imaginaries of living safely in difference; the study and illumination of already existing alternative imaginaries of living safely in difference; the importance of studying the actual sites of designing safe living, or of studying the sites of power; the intimacy of utopian and dystopian imaginaries; the future of the interrelations being forged between design, political philosophy, and science and technology studies.

Thank you to our fabulous Joseph Rigby for this great summary

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