Attendance to the public’s engagement with, and acceptance of, biotechnologies is undoubtedly an important issue to breech for ‘scientists’, STS scholars, and anthropologists alike. However, this still remains only an emergent topic of discussion in China – an omission that the Newton Fund workshop “Promoting Social Embeddedness of New Biotechnologies”, held in October 2019 in Beijing – hoped to address.
Delegates from the UK and China convened for the fruitful and in-depth discussion around the concept of public engagement in biosciences, and indeed, whether or not transmitting research to the public is always the optimal route or not.
Reflecting on my own fieldwork in rural Peru, where the indigenous Quechua with whom I work are often suspicious and fearful of biomedicine, I might have originally answered ‘yes’ – people should be informed about new interventions, and particularly so when grants are publicly-funded. However, not everyone agreed on this point. Furthermore, as the workshop progressed it slowly came to light that the “scientists” among us (Chinese and British), may not agree on so many things. Indeed, the language of ‘science’ that many participants had presumed so global and impenetrable became slowly revealed to be just as contextually (dare I say, ‘culturally’) relative as a Geertzian wink.
It was herein that I found myself instinctively flowing between workshop participant and participant observer with my anthropological hat atop my head. Of course ‘science’ is not immune to context, but very much shaped by it; any STS scholar or anthropologist could tell you this. However, this does not mean that others outside of the discipline are necessarily wise to this important fact.
This is no small detail.
In a world of increasing academic pressure to collaborate internationally (and inter-disciplinarily), treating ‘science’ as a globally-identical language/ practice and skipping over context may only serve to complicate endeavours. Indeed, it would seem that anthropologists and other social scientists may be needed more than ever in such scenarios, and yet we are often left still waiting on the call. I would hope, therefore, that beyond rewarding development of public engagement activities (in which this workshop was successful), such events may also serve to create links between disciplines where mutual collaboration could be wildly beneficial in ways perhaps not yet appreciated by ‘scientists’.
As a workshop mentor concluded at the end of the event, “I thought we had come here to talk about public engagement of science, but maybe we should have started by first trying to define what science means in different cultures”.