An Intellectual Desire Hilary Robinson
I would like to begin by briefly recounting a personal history that has both motivated and inspired me in all of my academic pursuits thus far. In the early 1970s, my father lived and worked for a number of years in East Africa while conducting research on the effects of secondary and post-secondary education in urbanized tribal areas. Then a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Syracuse, his project was jointly sponsored by the University and the Peace Corps and culminated in a comprehensive paper on the subject. Returning to the States to become professor of urban studies and associate dean at the University of the District of Columbia, my father undertook the very first citywide count of all the homeless on the streets of our nation’s capital. His unprecedented analysis and statistical results revealed a population of “hidden homeless” so large as to stun the residents of the city and politicians alike. The methodology he developed for this study was in fact utilized in the most recent national census. In addition to teaching, my father directed an annual seat-belt utilization count in Washington, which promoted the use of these life-saving restraints and enabled the District of Columbia to share in the benefits of the federal transportation funds. I was only in early adolescence when my father died of cancer in 1994, and since beginning my own academic experience I have come to know him in the past years [through] hearing of these projects and reading his papers. His pursuits and accomplishments have grown to heroic and admirable proportions in my own eyes, but by all accounts he was held in high esteem for his work toward social justice. It is his steps I hoped to retrace during my college years and beyond, for it was my father and ever-strong mother who gave me my interest in learning, my commitment to society, and my biraciality–a perspective that I often realize is unique. I want to continue to strive for their values and for mine, given the tools of a good education and the perspective of coming into adulthood.
Early in my undergraduate years, I became convinced that there existed a pervasive lack of inter-disciplinary communication between the fields of natural science and the social sciences or humanities. Entering Harvard, I was consumed by one issue in particular that I felt demanded not only the bridging of academic disciplines, but also international boundaries and ethical schools of thought. This was, of course, the genetic “revolution.” As a young college student, my attention was fixed on the most publicized issues: cloning, genetically modified foods, and the compilation of DNA databases. I was especially intrigued by the issues that were most ethically complex: the selection of physical traits, the potential for genetic discrimination, and the patentability of life. I was also fascinated by the issues that continue to be the subject of international controversy: trade in genetically modified crops, biopharmaceuticals, and advances in the science of forensics. I was firmly (and remain) convinced that the age of genetics would be a time of upheaval that could only be moderated through an amalgamation of the efforts of academicians, diplomats, policy makers, ethicists, medical doctors, lawyers and countless others.
I believe that the difficulty in generating the needed cross-disciplinary discourse stems from a prevailing notion in science: that it is an objective branch of learning where empirical observations result in authoritative knowledge, and into which the equivocating humanities should not intrude. Recognising this, I petitioned a committee of the faculty of Harvard College to be allowed to pursue a “special concentrations” course of study charted through both the social and the natural science disciplines. Believing that there is indeed a subjective and socially constructed side to the study of science, one that can be pinpointed only by joining up with the discipline itself, I proposed to do just that and engage the questions posed when science is considered through a social science lens. Intermediates are necessary to bridge the disciplines and foster dialogue, and I greatly desired to become such a person: the individual with a social awareness, a technological and scientific capability, and a moral and ethical sensitivity. Because the scientific complexities of the new biotechnology are inseparable from an evaluation of their ethical or humanitarian merits, my undergraduate coursework necessarily involved the scientific study of the fundamentals of molecular biology and its medical applications. In tandem with my scientific studies, I continued coursework in government and public policy which encompassed foundational political theory, contemporary policy making, and economics. Furthermore, coursework in social studies, sociology, and the history of science allowed me to focus conceptually on the relationship between science and culture evident in the historical intersections of technology and society.
It has been a challenging undergraduate journey; one in which many fellow students have raised their eyebrows at the student of government who found herself at the microscope, and likewise at the scientist who came to discuss the nature of human reproductive desire with a class of sociologists. Despite encountering a good deal of skepticism, realizing that the lens of one discipline often casts a heated beam onto the discipline being observed, I have continued to drive toward my goal of assisting in the process of understanding and harnessing the genetic revolution. My recent work for the U.S. Department of State in Pretoria, South Africa, catalyzed the practical application of my academic studies. As an intern at the Amercian Embassy I witnessed firsthand the difficulties of international co-operation and negotiation on science issues. Temporarily replacing and later assisting the Economic Section’s science and technology officer, I conducted fieldwork to assess the status of biotechnology in the country, interviewing a range of actors from academia, industry, and non-governmental organizations and from various departments within the South African government. Given my academic background in molecular biology and genomics, I was able to gauge the technological capacity of the nation’s internal policy apparatus for differentiating genetically modified (GM) versus non-GM agricultural products. Furthermore, my studies in the social sciences provided the backdrop for these technological assessments, and my report was attuned to the indigenous intellectual-property norms and other cultural notions which would affect potential U.S.—South African Science and Technology agreements. It was this potential for collaboration and trade which was of greatest concern in Washington. South Africa, a country which uniquely straddles the boundary between the developed and developing worlds, continues to be considered the “foothold” for African development. Since returning to the States to complete my undergraduate degree, I am even more convinced that a positive biosciences evolution in South Africa has the potential to set a precedent for the continent and provide a valuable model for the rest of the developing world. In October, I submitted a proposal for a U.S. Fullbright grant to return to the country for a period of up to one year and assist in this process.
I am currently immersed in the senior honors thesis, which is providing another stimulating opportunity to synthesize my inter-disciplinary academic work. The thesis will explore the responses of American courts of law to reproductive technologies as they continue to destabilize traditional kinship notions by exploding the number of actors and procedural steps involved in the previously holistic act of human procreation. Law lag, a theory widely accepted in the legal community, suggests that the appropriate process by which such technologies are normalized within the law is slow and ponderous. However, the thesis will suggest a more complex involvement of the law, which is itself a technology through which society defines and defends its common values, as it meets another technology which presents and makes possible competing, non-normative definitions. In the case of reproductive technologies, this clash is seen when science makes possible kinship scenarios that run counter to traditional notions of family constellations accepted both by society and under law. When courts address such scenarios in the areas of law bound up with making and contesting families, they discursively re-shape kinship notions. It is clear from these cases that the law is certainly not lagging, but rather is saying something very explicit about the meaning of kinship in a technologically enabled reproductive world. The thesis will consider the significance of what courts are saying against the backdrop of traditional kinship notions, identify what principles consistently inform kinship discussions within the law, and chart the flow of influence between technology, law, and society over the shifting landscape of human reproduction.
In conclusion, for continuing study past my undergraduate years, I seek a field through which both science and values may be mutually accommodated. The law, and the institutions of courts, juries, and judges through which it is handed down, is viewed by most societies as the highest arbiter of cultural values and norms and is therefore the appropriate arena in which to grapple with the difficult, complex questions posed by new biotechnologies, I’d like to train in this field because I anticipate that the dilemmas posed by genetics will see resolution only in the law—perhaps the only space in which the equally important, but often divergent value systems of science and society can be mutually accommodated. I’d like to aid in bringing the immense possibilities of genetics into alignment with our affirmed democratic principles and with the liberty of every individual in mind.