In This Chapter


Authored by: Claire Marris

Handbook of Genomics, Health and Society

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138211957
eBook ISBN: 9781315451695
Adobe ISBN:


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This section of the Handbook brings together a set of chapters that provide an overview of social science scholarship about “the bioeconomy,” especially as it pertains to health and human genetics. As pointed out by Paul Martin in his chapter, “[t]he notion of the bioeconomy only emerged in the 2000s and was largely absent from public and policy discourse before then, but has since become one of the most important justifications for public investment in genomics” (Martin, p.79, this volume). In 2012 both the United States (US) and the European Commission (EC) published key documents setting out their strategy for promoting the bioeconomy (European Commission, 2012; The White House, 2012). The definition of the bioeconomy in the US National Bioeconomy Blueprint is representative of how it is portrayed in policy documents produced by governmental institutions:

the bioeconomy [is] economic activity powered by research and innovation in the biosciences […]. The bioeconomy emerged as an Administration priority because of its tremendous potential for growth and job creation as well as the many other societal benefits it offers. A more robust bioeconomy can enable Americans to live longer and healthier lives, develop new sources of bioenergy, address key environmental challenges, transform manufacturing processes, and increase the productivity and scope of the agricultural sector while generating new industries and occupational opportunities.

(The White House, 2012) Scientific institutions involved in biosciences, notably those involved in genetics, have also embraced the concept. As just one example, the Chairs of the UK’s three bioscience Leadership Councils produced this definition:

All economic activity derived from bio-based products and processes which contributes to sustainable and resource-efficient solutions to the challenges we face in food, chemicals, materials, energy production, health and environmental protection.

(BBSRC, n.d.)
Thus, governmental and bioscientific institutions have defined the bioeconomy in terms of its materiality as economic activity derived from biological research and innovation, and the products and processes that are expected to arise from that research/innovation. They have also expressed immense optimism about the prospects for the bioeconomy for solving a wide spectrum of environmental and health problems; although, ultimately, for governmental institutions, “it is about growth and jobs” (European Commission, 2012). Portrayals of the bioeconomy by its advocates are very positive, in several senses of the word. They are clearly “hopeful and confident, and think of the good aspects of a situation rather than the bad ones” (Anon, n.d.). In addition, the bioeconomy is portrayed as positive in the sense that it is “real” and this reality is built upon tangible “actual or specific qualities” (Anon., n.d.), namely the value that can be extracted from biological materials. In contrast, social science scholarship does not take the positive nature of the bioeconomy for granted. It is more critical about the potential outcomes, both about whether the optimistic hopes will be realized in the foreseeable future, and whether these hoped-for futures should be seen as positive and unreservedly welcomed, especially for/by the least powerful, such as patients and women. Social science scholars also stress the intangible attributes of the bioeconomy. They do not focus only on its biological basis. Instead, they show the ways in which the bioeconomy depends on, and generates, new or particular political, economic and social realities. In 2006, in one of the first policy documents about the bioeconomy, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) did seem to recognize that the bioeconomy was not just about particular kinds of economic activities, but also about the transformation of our world: “the bioeconomy can be thought of as a world where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output” (OECD, 2006, p. 22). The chapters in this section review how social scientists have described and analyzed these transformations. Although the authors express scepticism about both the reality and the universally positive impact of the bioeconomy, they all seek to move beyond sweeping celebrations or castigations of the hoped-for futures portrayed by the advocates of this new world in order to analyze the underlying transformations co-produced alongside the political economy of the bioeconomy.

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