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Early Careerists at HSS Boston: Robin Scheffler November 19, 2013

Posted by sandyclaus in Annual Meeting, Early Career, hss, Profile.

543517_10100277321637380_1563009905_nRobin Scheffler, “Remembering the ‘Failure’ of Cancer Virology and the Fashioning of Molecular Biology’s Second Wave,” Session T4: Stories about Science: Mediating between a Reassuring Past and Uncertain Future, Room 251 (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center), Thursday, November 21, 3:00 – 6:00 PM

1. How did you come across this topic?

My talk arises from some questions that emerged as I came to the end of writing my dissertation, Cancer Viruses and the Construction of Biomedicine in the United States from 1900-1980. When researching my topic initially, I encountered many scientists who described cancer virology (sometimes vehemently) as a “failure” which “siphoned” hundreds of millions of dollars away from other research efforts. However, this description seemed at odds with historical developments. Rather than a case of isolated failure, cancer virology was tied, directly or indirectly, to a range of “successes” in molecular biology. Many of the most ardent critics of cancer virology were in fact associated with the field through their sponsorship by the National Cancer Institute’s ambitious Virus Cancer Program—an ambitious NASA-style program designed to manage biomedical research.

This discrepancy seemed like an opportunity to think about the history of cancer viruses not only from the perspective of the history of science, but also from the perspective of the history of memory. To make sense of this, I considered how “failure” might be understood from the perspective of the politics of memory, another theme that I’ve been interested in the history of science.  In this light, discussing “failure” has more to do with the turbulent politics of support for molecular biology in the 1970s. Condemning and commemorating cancer virology as a failure was a means of affirming molecular biology’s social autonomy and intellectual independence from medicine in the face of the Virus Cancer Program’s far reaching proposals to remake the scientific culture of molecular biology.

Like the origin stories associated with nationalism, the “failure” of the Program’s efforts, as recalled by molecular biologists ended up playing a constructive role in fashioning the identity of molecular biology in the 1980s and 1990s. Recalling this instance of failure was an object lesson in what kinds of social and institutional arrangements for biomedical research were acceptable, a theme repeated in planning for the Human Genome Project.

SVLP Logo2. What was the most interesting source you encountered in this project?

Much of the controversy associated with the Virus Cancer Program is associated with a report written by a committee chaired by bacterial geneticist Norton Zinder.  The “Zinder Report” while prominently referenced in Nature or Science, was neither officially published nor received by the National Cancer Institute.  Even fierce critics of the Program would acknowledge never having read a copy. In my research, it was exciting to find copies and drafts of the original report drafts at the National Cancer Institute, as well as transcripts of some of the committee’s working sessions!  These documents illuminated the political dimensions of the assessment of cancer virology for me. From the perspective of the print culture of bureaucracy, it’s been interesting to see where copies of this report were distributed, and how it gained folk status for molecular biologists.

3. What did you have to cut out of your paper that you wish you could have kept?

There are some interesting parallels that can be drawn between attempts to manage biomedical research and similar controversies over how to manage other forms of creative work in different industries. I didn’t have space for it in my talk, but in the future I would like to explore some of the continuities between the controversy over the Virus Cancer Program and the settings for scientific research created a decade later by the biotechnology industry.

4. What are you most looking forward to at HSS in Boston?

The material in my talk is still relatively new, so I’m definitely looking forward to getting feedback from my audience and other panelists.  Other than that, I’m very excited to see old friends and at the prospect of so many other great papers on the program!


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