Emerging scientific domains in the Brazilian territory: the example of bioinformatics - Edison Bicudo
**Please note, this seminar has replaced the talk by Kai Kendal, which was due to take place on this date. Kai was unable to make it to London for 10 November and we will reschedule his talk for another date, as part of the Spring Research Seminar Series.**
As a researcher, Edison Bicudo developed several studies in Brazilian institutions, exploring the fields of sociology, geography, politics and cultural studies. In his projects, he has been interested in health technologies and their implications for the organization of society and geographical space. His previous studies focused on the production of medicines (Master’s Degree at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil) and the biotechnological activities conducted in the European Union (Master’s Degree at the University Paris 1, France).
In his PhD (Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, UK), ethics committees and the international clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies were focused on. Drawing attention to the situation of South Africa and Brazil, Edison looked at ethics committees as institutions in which different ideological approaches coexist.
Edison’s main theoretical framework is the theory of communicative action proposed by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, as well as the geographical theory formulated by Brazilian geographer Milton Santos.
Currently, Edison is a post-doc researcher based in the Department of Sociology, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, conducting a project that analyses the emerging field of neuroinformatics in both Brazil and India.
When it comes to assessing science and technology, especially in emerging fields, analysts tend to adopt two different stances. On the one hand, some analysts focus on the national state, its regulations and initiatives pertaining to scientific development. This approach may lead them to neglect global processes that escape the steering power of the state. On the other hand, some analysts have a rather economic approach, highlighting the operations of companies capable of realizing large investments in science and innovation. This approach may overstate the power of companies and the market, disregarding the national and political tendencies. In this presentation, I am intent on realizing a combination between these two approaches, taking advantage of their specific capacities.
Therefore, the concept of “technical phenomenon,” proposed by Brazilian geographer Milton Santos, is the guiding theme of my presentation. According to this concept, it is impossible to fully comprehend technological and economic development without considering the decisions taken by the national state. By the same token, the comprehension of the actions taken by the state must occur in the light of technological and economic phenomena which often have a global scope. As a result, global and national factors must be carefully combined to build up an interpretation.
My presentation takes, as an example of emerging scientific domains, the field of bioinformatics, which can be defined as the usage of computational resources (computers, software, algorithms, data storage systems) in order to process biological information, especially the large amounts of data derived from genomics studies (data pertaining to cellular processes, protein structures and DNA sequences).
As a scientific discipline, bioinformatics started being constituted in the mid-1960s, but its arrival at Brazil is a relatively recent phenomenon. It can be said that the first Brazilian bioinformatics project was initiated only in 1997. Due to this recent constitution, bioinformatics proves a rich topic for those who wish to understand how cutting-edge scientific domains come to be constituted in countries like Brazil, with all their social and political implications.
My presentation draws on a study carried out as part of a research project called “Rising powers: state strategies of governance in global biomedical innovation,” conducted from 2012 to 2015 and coordinated by Brian Salter (King’s College London) and Alex Faulkner (University of Sussex). Fieldwork was carried out in Brazil from November 2014 to May 2015, in which 14 interviews were conducted with professionals involved with bioinformatics in four Brazilian cities: Sao Paulo, Campinas, Belo Horizonte and Recife.
In the history of Brazilian bioinformatics, two periods can be pointed to. In the first period (1997-2006), institutions and researchers tended to be concentrated in the Southern part of the Brazilian territory. In spite of the scientific momentum obtained, including some international projection acquired by some research groups, little dynamics could be verified outside the main bioinformatics hub. In the second period (2007-2014), there have been efforts, mainly from the national state, to diffuse the scientific dynamics and open up some regional bioinformatics hubs.
It will be claimed that the Brazilian territory is crossed over by two complimentary processes. On the one hand, previous economic concentrations, and mainly the economic weight of Sao Paulo, reinforce the scientific prominence of the southern part of the territory. Such phenomenon is further fostered by market trends, in a country where only two American companies control the whole market for DNA sequencing devices. On the other hand, new tendencies (which have to do with state decisions but also with the “flexibility” brought about by computing resources) make it possible to draft a new geographical configuration, with a more balanced distribution of scientific expertise across the vast Brazilian territory.
The recent changes, however, do not go without controversy. Some bioinformaticians, especially those based in old scientific hubs, claim for the concentration of bioinformatics infrastructures, whereas other researchers welcome the formation of a new scenario based on the emergence of regional hubs. In both of these groups of scientists, a particular discourse is constructed to justify viewpoints and underpin communicative actions. In this way, the Brazilian bioinformatics scenario reflects contemporary dilemmas and trends, drawing the picture of a country haunted by inequalities and marked by conflicting political options.
This talk, part of the King's Brazil Institute Research Seminar Series, will be followed by a Q&A and wine.