The PhD Abstracts below were published in MSo Volumes 6, 7 & 8.

Enacting Biobanks

Governance as Scientific and Ethical Practice
Dr Lea Lahnstein, King's College London 

My PhD is dedicated to the phenomenon called biobanking-the creation, running and usage of assemblages of biological samples and data obtained from donors and patients. My thesis establishes the interconnectedness of notions of ethical governance and the practices that constitute biobanking for bioscientific research. My research connects enactments of biobanking and biological data, concepts or entities with their so-called bioethical concerns. Rather than thinking of biobanks as a priori entities that have an impact or must be managed in a certain way, I pose an epistemological question about what a biobank is and what it represents.

I discuss relevant literature from Science and Technology Studies, anthropology, the natural sciences and social science scholarship about genomics, concerning themes such as classification, social order and biological material and information. I connect to the discussion on governing biobanks a more wide-ranging one about the social and the biological. Alongside theoretical challenges, I present fieldwork from three sites that are involved in biobanking practices and, to varying degrees, in biobanking debate and regulation. I contribute to and challenge current understandings of biobanking and the biosciences in three ways. Firstly, I show how the construction of the categorisation of the social and biological is integral to making sense of governance issues and how this categorisation (re)frames these. Secondly, I reconceptualise biobanking as a practice and place the ethical and the governance within that practice. Thirdly, I query the relationships between people, materials and data within the domain of the “biosciences” that enact biobanking and, therefore its governance. Moreover, I question the status of this “biological” as it intersects with notions of biobanking, again through people, materials and information flows.

To dictate a “better” way of biobanking would attribute essential properties to both biobanking and governance, which my thesis refutes. Yet, it holds important lessons in practice for those governing and ethically ordering biobanks and for academics writing about ELSI of biobanks. I urge authors, scientists and policy-makers to consider their audiences, both in terms of scientific and donor communities and in terms of reaching relevant sites where biobanking “is being done”. Participants in activities of and debates about biobanking might miss important sites if they restrict their conceptions of biobanking to semantics, because scientists engage with and conduct biobanking through local practices and might not self-identify as “doing biobanking” according to standardised paradigms.

Instead, I suggest assessing the importance of biobanking as practice on social fabric and on roles within the bioscientific and biomedical sector. For instance, this reduces the likelihood of over- or underestimating the importance of biobanking across different contexts. Some scientists hold a view of biobanking as a domain of practice in its own right that is, however, carried out by a limited set of people defined as “biobankers”; other settings do not self-identify in this way, even though all professionals across the clinical and research domain are involved in the practices of biobanking at the site. Conceptualising biobanking as a practice remains key to these deliberations and it also, finally, urges a focus on how science and ethics work together to produce certain status quos.

To illustrate these points in contemporary biobanking debate, my thesis creates a juxtaposition between the debate on whether or not results from biobanking research should be returned to biobanking donors (and, if so, which types of results) with the debate on how and whether access to donated samples and data should be granted to other research groups within the bioscientific community. I argue that visions of the biosciences are often shared and propagated between donors and scientists, while donors are also enlisted as virtual allies in the alleged need to develop ethical data-sharing policies within science. On the other hand, biobanking practices that do not share with donors results of the research uphold and are often based on their enactment as a lay audience. Considering the two debates together thus deconstructs any a priori status of donors and of bioscience by questioning the social relations involved between donors and scientists and amongst scientists across various governance challenges for biobanking.

Dr Lea Lahnstein
King's College London

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Abstracts are published here as provided by the author and in the order in which we receive them.