Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Experimenter’s Museum: GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine

An undergraduate student (Aime Rankin) doing a project with me on citation and impact of museum collections came across a paper I hadn't seen before:
Strasser, B. J. (2011, March). The Experimenter’s Museum: GenBank, Natural History, and the Moral Economies of Biomedicine. Isis. University of Chicago Press. doi:10.1086/658657

Unfortunately the paper is behind a paywall, but here's the abstract (you can also get a PDF here):

Today, the production of knowledge in the experimental life sciences relies crucially on the use of biological data collections, such as DNA sequence databases. These collections, in both their creation and their current use, are embedded in the experimentalist tradition. At the same time, however, they exemplify the natural historical tradition, based on collecting and comparing natural facts. This essay focuses on the issues attending the establishment in 1982 of GenBank, the largest and most frequently accessed collection of experimental knowledge in the world. The debates leading to its creation—about the collection and distribution of data, the attribution of credit and authorship, and the proprietary nature of knowledge—illuminate the different moral economies at work in the life sciences in the late twentieth century. They offer perspective on the recent rise of public access publishing and data sharing in science. More broadly, this essay challenges the big picture according to which the rise of experimentalism led to the decline of natural history in the twentieth century. It argues that both traditions have been articulated into a new way of producing knowledge that has become a key practice in science at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

It's well worth a read. It argues that sequence databases such as Genbank are essentially the equivalent of the great natural history museums of the 19th Century. There are several ironies here. One is that some early advocates of molecular biology cast it as a modern, experimental science as opposed to mere natural history. However, once the amount of molecular data became too great for individuals to easily manage, and once it became clear that many of the questions being asked required a comparative approach, the need for a centralised database of sequences (the "experimenter's museum" of the title of the paper) became increasingly urgent. Another irony is that the clash between molecular and morphological taxonomy overlooks these striking similarities in history (collecting ever increasing amounts of data eventually requiring centralisation).

Bruno Strasser's article also discusses the politics behind setting up GenBank, including the inevitable challenge of securing funding, and the concerns of many individual scientists about the loss of control over their data. A final irony is that, having gone through this process once with the formation of the big museums in the 19th century, we are going through it again with the wrangling over aggregating the digitised versions of the content of those museums.

Update: See also
Strasser, B. J. (2008, October 24). GENETICS: GenBank--Natural History in the 21st Century? Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). doi:10.1126/science.1163399
(via Guanyang Zhang).