Langham Prize Session Abstracts

  • 4:00–4:30 Tatiana Andersen – Assetization in the Life Sciences: a Critical Political Economy of Military Biosciences in the United States
  • 4:30–5:00 Roberta Pala – Politics in vaccines
  • 5:00–5:30 Samara Greenwood – How context shapes science: A tale of two papers
  • 5:30–6:00 Rebecca Johnson – The ghost in the machine has an American accent: Challenging US-centric values in AI models with culturally and linguistically diverse texts

Tatiana Andersen 

University of Wollongong

Assetization in the Life Sciences: a Critical Political Economy of Military Biosciences in the United States

Drawing on transdisciplinary insights between Science and Technology studies and Critical Political Economy, this paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of the political economy of military biosciences in the United States. The central problem examined is that leading corporations in the biosciences own scientific knowledge as an income-generating asset in the pursuit of financial returns. Increasing financial assetization in the biosciences contributes to inequitable access to publicly funded therapeutic innovations, and impedes meaningful democratic control over health care. The paper argues that the political economy of military biosciences is characterized by financial assetization instead of commodification, and that these features can be more accurately explained through a power theory of capital. In light of this aim, the paper presents key findings from an analysis of ~400 contracts awarded to biopharmaceutical companies by the U.S. Department of Defense with the purpose of conducting scientific research and development. Findings from data analysis show how publicly-funded technoscientific research is transformed into income-generating assets for financial gain, even when intended research outcomes are not achieved.

Tatiana Andersen is a PhD candidate and academic teacher at the University of Wollongong, Australia. Her transdisciplinary research explores the political economy of the biosciences, focusing on complex entanglements between finance, knowledge ownership, capital accumulation, and technoscientific research. 

Roberta Pala 

University of New South Wales

Politics in vaccines

I started writing about vaccines in a pre-COVID time, a time that feels very distant and almost unfamiliar now. My main interest was to think about the relation between biological interventions and understandings of body, safety, and collectivity. I wanted to consider the materiality, that elusive, fragmentary, and unfinished way bodies affect and are affected in the context of what is assumed to be a purely ‘biological’, neutral, mundane bodily event like getting a vaccine. Vaccines, as many other biotechnologies, are often understood as inert objects on which meanings, values, concerns, fears are layered depending on the times. Rather than considering vaccines as distinct, neutral and stable technologies that provoke controversies and for this reason become politicised, in my work I present vaccines as a series of situated material encounters that are pervasively political. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, not a single day passes without discussions around vaccines. Inevitably, the audience of my work has changed. There is a general sense that we need to know more about vaccines and the more we find out, the more complex the topic seems to be. In my work, I consider how vaccines come to matter, how they relate to and at the same time make and enact specific ideas of bodies, immunity, health and collectivity. A focus on the different configurations, entanglements, what I more specifically call ‘encounters’ that vaccines enact allows me to anchor the politics in vaccines’ matter and work through materially-grounded case studies.

Roberta Pala is a Scientia PhD candidate in the Social Policy Research Centre, at the University of New South Wales. Her PhD projects investigates vaccines as political material encounters. She has a BA in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Siena and an MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Sydney, with a thesis on recent public debates about vaccines and immunisation policies in Australia. Her research interests include Social Studies of Science; Science, Technology & Society Studies (STS); and Philosophy of the Body. Originally from Sardinia, she has been calling Australia her second home for eight years now.

Samara Greenwood 

University of Melbourne

How context shapes science: A tale of two papers

In 2008, Peter Galison famously outlined ten key problems for history and philosophy of science, the first of which was the problem of context, “that elusive explanatory structure always invoked, never explained.” Naomi Oreskes has described this as the ‘Miasma Problem’. While it is easy to describe the contexts surrounding a given science, it is much harder to demonstrate the various ways that ‘miasma’ translates to changes in science. While historians of science such as John Schuster, M. Norton Wise and Theodore Arabatzis have advocated a dual role for context, summarised as ‘resources and constraints’, my research has identified at least two additional functions for context. 

In this presentation, I compare two formative papers in primatology to illustrate the multiple pathways by which context shapes science. Both papers were written in the early 1970s by female primatologists, the first by Jane Lancaster and the second by Jeanne Altmann, and address the topic of bias in observing animal behaviour. While the two papers raise the same concerns and propose similar solutions, they were written in very different styles, and had dramatically different impacts. By comparing the contexts affecting the production and reception of these two papers, I suggest we can discern multiple intricate connections between specific scientific work and broader societal contexts. 

Samara Greenwood is a PhD Candidate in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. Samara’s thesis explores the relationship between social context and scientific practice through a multiple case study analysis. As well as her PhD research, Samara writes articles for the University of Melbourne research blog, Forum and is a registered Architect. 

Rebecca Johnson 

The University of Sydney

The ghost in the machine has an American accent: Challenging US-centric values in AI models with culturally and linguistically diverse texts.

In 2020 OpenAI launched the world’s largest Artificial Intelligence (AI) language model, GPT-3. The training dataset included most of the Internet, two book depositories, and English language Wikipedia. Despite impressive outputs of GPT-3, multiple papers have shown the model to be capable of generating toxic content in areas of gender, race, and ideology. OpenAI restricted access to GPT-3 till potential areas of misuse could be better understood. The authors of this paper were granted access and challenged GPT-3 with a range of culturally and linguistically diverse texts designed to explore the model’s outputs in a value diverse context.

OpenAI has noted flaws in the training process in their release paper and in a more recent paper detailing a potential fix with “values-targeted datasets” named Process for Adapting Language Models to Society (PALMS). Developers of PALMS highlight the fact that there is “no universal standard for offensive or harmful content”, and that their work is done through a US centric lens. We present the results of challenging GPT-3 with texts in six languages, from nine countries representing four continental regions. We explore how GPT-3 is a reflection of the values it is trained on and discuss the results in the context of a globalised world. Using ideas of value pluralism, we identify and unpack potential concerns for large AI models trained primarily from one cultural lens. We propose that any machine designed for use on a global scale, should carry a plurality of values and speak with a wide range of the world’s accents.

Rebecca Johnson is PhD Candidate in Tech Ethics at The University of Sydney. She is Founder and chair of PhD Students in AI Ethics. Listed on the 2019 and the 2020 “100 Brilliant Women in AI Ethics” by Lighthouse3, San Francisco, she was co-host of the first Women in AI Ethics – APAC Summit 2020. She is also a member of OpenAI closed GPT-3 and APAC ambassador for MD4SG (Mechanism Design for Social Good).