Sociologist Mianna Meskus conducted an ethnographic study on how performance targets are putting pressure on biomedical research
Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Craftwork is undermined in stem cell research where translatable research findings are expected at an ever faster pace.
Sociologist Mianna Meskus closely followed the work of stem cell researchers and found how such pressures pose a threat to the everyday craftwork that is elemental in conducting basic research and creating the preconditions for innovations.
“My data illustrates the constant pressure between craftwork and high-throughput, increasingly automated and robotics-based knowledge production,” Meskus says.
Meskus has published her research findings in a recent book, Craft in Biomedical Research: The iPS Cell Technology and the Future of Stem Cell Science, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Since May, Meskus has worked as associate professor of sociology in the New Social Research programme at the University of Tampere, Finland.
Innovations do not arise without craftwork
The contradiction between labour-intensive craftwork and heightened productivity requirements does not apply to stem cell research only. According to Meskus, many of the problems in biomedical knowledge production are in some form familiar also in social research.
According to Meskus, stem cell research is a good example in that working on human biological material requires a special focus on manual skills.
“If a researcher does not learn how to meticulously care for and handle living cellular material through trial and error, laboratory experiments often fail. This means that craft skills are an essential element in producing new research results and scientific innovations,” Meskus explains.
Uninterrupted research without vacations
Many stem cell researchers hardly take a break in summer or at Christmas, because stem cell lines need to be continuously nurtured and monitored.
“The scientists are in many ways tied to the cellular material which needs to be maintained, fed and monitored. One researcher I interviewed said that his girlfriend hates iPS cells because he is always in the lab. Another researcher told me she goes to pick up her children from day care and to feed them at home before returning to the lab in the evening,” Meskus explains.
Cellular material requires a lot of work because it is unpredictable and often does not behave as the researchers want them to.
“Cells are living biological material that one needs to learn to handle and cultivate, which is a slow and labour-intensive job. Laboratories need many employees who know how to do this. At the same time, the scientific environment is changing so that results are expected faster and more efficiently,” Meskus points out.
Researchers need to justify their funding applications with the benefits the study will bring to the funders, society and taxpayers even though the benefits might only come in some years or decades.
Meskus’s ethnographic study shows how the conditions of research work are changing and getting more stringent. The craftwork in knowledge production is increasingly perceived as problematic because it is considered too slow and ineffective.
Robots lack craft skills
People are turning to automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to counterbalance repetitive craftwork. At the time Meskus gathered her data, however, stem cell research was lacking suitable robotic technology.
“If cell culture processes are automated, errors may occur just as well. The researchers explained that there was no robot that was be able to see when the cell populations should be divided onto new dishes or when they were behaving in an unexpected way. It takes a human to see these changes and to monitor the robot,” Meskus points out.
Much is expected of artificial intelligence and robotics also in medical diagnostics. Meskus considers the transformation of work a major societal issue, as we need to reflect upon the extent to which work duties can be handed over to machine learning.
“The scientific craftwork I studied is related to a wider picture; to the question of what are the conditions of work, in this case biomedical research, conducted in society,” Meskus notes.
Interest in the beginning and end of life
In her doctoral thesis in health sociology, Meskus investigated the introduction of foetal screening in Finland. She is currently interested in the biological processes related to reproduction and ageing, both of which are being studied and modified through cellular technology.
Meskus leads a research project that is exploring both clinical and therapeutic approaches to the beginning and end of life.
“These points in human life course have interesting commonalities. I want to compare the moral and value-related issues associated with the biomedical shaping of the beginning and end of life,” Meskus says.
For example, the research project aims to interview researchers who are investigating the biological processes of ageing. Memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are disease cases for which new therapies are being sought.
“I am interested in the attempts to shape the basic conditions of human life, such as reproduction and ageing. This is related to our understandings of the quality of life, but also to value debates on how and with what consequences we may try to control human life,” Meskus says.