The obsession with genetic explanations is a cheap and convenient way of dealing with complex human behaviour. Sociologist of science Dorothy Nelkin tells Gail Vines why she has chosen this issue for her latest battle
Read Nature or the News of the World these days and you will find news of putative genes for complex human behaviours - criminality, intelligence and now even "intuition". But why this contemporary obsession with genetic explanations? The short answer, says sociologist of science Dorothy Nelkin, is that it is a convenient way of dealing with troubling issues of blame and responsibility in societies under cost constraints. "Behavioural genetics shifts the blame on to the individual, and appears to legitimate the argument that no matter how much money we put into social services, it is not going to do much good."
It is a characteristic remark, hard-hitting and politically engaged. Nelkin - who as a professor at New York University teaches in both the sociology department and the law school - has always sought to make her academic work on science and technology relevant to live issues in the real world. "I get involved," says Nelkin. A member of the National Academy of Sciences influential policy arm, the Institute of Medicine, she has served on dozens of advisory boards - not least ELSI, the committee charged to oversee "ethical, legal and social implications of the human genome project".
Her most recent book, The DNA Mystique, written with Susan Lindee, investigates "the gene as a cultural icon" in comic books, cartoons, magazines, television soap operas and a host of other popular media. It is a good read; unlike many academics, Nelkin puts a premium on accessibility. Keen to "run the border" between theory and policy, Nelkin says she spends "an awful lot of time on writing and rewriting to get my texts to the point where they are both well enough documented to be useful for scholars but also written in a way so that they are accessible to educated lay people"' Do scholars appreciate what she is doing? "Some do, some don't. Some call me a 'journalist' as a pejorative label", Nelkin laughs. "But I get a lot of appreciative students who say, 'gosh, I can really read your stuff', and I like that. I mean, I like to communicate. I want people to read it, not just turn off."
For Nelkin, writing has become something of a compulsion: "Everybody has their neurosis and mine is compulsive research and writing." Born in Boston 64 years ago, she has written 21 books - almost a book a year since she began working in science studies in the early 1970s. With lawyer Lori Andrews, she is at work on her 22nd. Provisionally entitled Body Wars, it will dissect contemporary disputes over the commodification of human body tissue - who can use what, to whose profit. It is a timely choice, as more and more human DNA is put on ice. Nelkin specialises in the sociological study of controversies in which scientific expertise is to the fore, and she has a nose for a good fight.
At the core of all her work is a concern with public participation - or the lack of it - in technoscientific innovation. Scientists who advocate "scientific literacy" and "public understanding" often assume that if only people would understand scientific research they would appreciate and support it, notes Nelkin. "But there are other meanings of public understanding, and other goals. For instance, one might seek to foster public knowledge so that people are better able to make decisions."
But will scientists support moves to democratise decision-making in science? "Experiments with people's juries, ethics commissions and consensus groups will only succeed if there is much greater openness within the scientific community," Nelkin argues. She is not optimistic. "This is a difficult time for science in terms of funding and employment. Characteristically, institutions facing difficult times don't tend to become more open; rather, they tend to close up."
Even more ominous is the growing commercialisation of science. "The commodification of science is a real problem", she argues. "The autonomy of scientists is based on the assumption that they are disinterested, that they are neutral, that they have no profit motive, that their goal is to produce knowledge for the public good. Yet patenting or commercial alliances undermine this notion of neutrality. Private industry has never been conceived of as neutral - it is just not a word one would apply. So an alliance between these two institutions is deeply troubling. It undermines trust in science and in the long run will undermine the authority of science, because that authority was derived from the concept of neutrality."
Nelkin read philosophy as an undergraduate at Cornell and married a fellow student, a physicist. In her twenties she juggled work and motherhood as she carried out an in-depth study of migrant farm labour, in which she worked as a participant observer on farms in upstate New York. All the while she nursed an interest in technoscience and. when Cornell launched a science, technology and society programme in the early 1970s, seized the opportunity.
Misogyny spurred her academic career. "When I started working at Cornell in the early 1960s there was a sign in a faculty restaurant barring women research associates. Men of any faculty rank could come in to eat, women only if associate professor or above." A protest eventually resulted in reform. "But the first time I had lunch with my male colleagues in the august faculty dining room I was amazed to find out that what the men were talking about was their children. That was what propelled me: if they can do this, I can. It was the source of my academic determination to be productive."
One of the first scholars to analyse public disputes over nuclear power, she has also tackled disputes over housing technology, military research, methadone treatments for heroin addicts, airport development schemes, creationism, Aids and animal rights.
In the mid-1980s she helped to make "risk"'an important concept in science and technology studies. Her influential 1987 book Selling Science remains one of the few explorations of science and technology in the media.
A pioneer in the social studies of science, Nelkin shows no sign of retiring. "I find I'm not tired of it," she says. "There is endless variety and scope."