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Introduction: biofutures/biopresents

Birch, Kean (2006) Introduction: biofutures/biopresents. Science as Culture, 15 (3). pp. 173-181. ISSN 0950-5431

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Two very different reports produced for the UK government in the last three years have connected the state of our physical health with that of our material wealth. The first of these was produced in 2003 by the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team (BIGT) titled Improving National Health, Improving National Wealth, whilst the second, called Health Inequalities-Status Report on the Programme for Action, was produced in 2005 by the Department of Health (DH).1 The former produced a series of recommendations designed to 'secure' the economic position of the UK bioscience industry and through this the health of the UK population, whilst the latter repeated the finding that socio-economic status and physical health are strongly related, revealing significant spatial and social health inequalities across the UK (see Batty, 2005; Shaw et al., 2005). These different understandings of the health-wealth link provide a useful foil to explore the central focus of this special issue, namely the construction and definition of particular problems and their solutions encompassing the technoscience of new genetics. Here the popular term technoscience is used to denote a technological context that promotes and maintains forms of scientific enquiry and understanding particular to that set of artefacts: in its simplest formulation, it posits that technology is both shaped by and shapes society. In this special issue we seek to explore the specific technoscientific context in which the biosciences-molecular biology, genetics, genomics, proteomics-are situated and subsequently promulgated: their biopresents and their biofutures. Using the government reports above to illustrate the context of the biosciences reveals two very different approaches to understanding national healthcare. The BIGT report implies that our health is dependent upon ensuring future industrial performance through building 'a mutually advantageous collaboration between the NHS and industry for patient benefit' (2003, p. 5). In contrast, the DH report implies that our health is dependent upon existing resource distribution with the government response, according to Shaw et al. (2005), consisting of an 'individualistic rhetoric of behavioural prevention [of illness]' as opposed to building 'mutually advantageous' alliances between different institutions. This is exemplified in the DH proposal for 'health trainers' for deprived areas which Caroline Flint MP, Minister for Public Health, says would assist people in adopting 'a healthier way of life' (quoted in Batty, 2005). Other wide-ranging changes to the UK health service have also been oriented towards promoting such an agenda based on personal choice, healthier lifestyles and medical innovations derived from modern biotechnology (i.e. targeted at individuals). Furthermore, this agenda has been supported by the extension of privatized provision of services across the NHS [see Pollock (2004) for a critical review].