Background

This work's aim is to understand the discursive strategies, techniques, and instruments used by Craig Venter in his public communication activity. We point out that, among the many facets of the controversial American biologist and entrepreneur, his "public dimension" is mediatically well-known but not much studied academically.

We think that this work is relevant because the study of the mediatic and communicative sphere of contemporary science could help to recognize problems traditionally associated with public history of science: in particular, the historical vein which investigate what scientists tell, when, to whom and why, and their changing roles in society. This kind of approach is critical to understand how public images produced by scientists rise and grow, and what scientists want to be considered as being "science" in different historical and strategic contexts. There are many "public sciences", depending on how a scientist, or a group of scientists, manage to establish a specific science's image functional to certain goals. Thus, Craig Venter's public dimension is a good case study to map today's relationships between science and society, and the way battles are conducted in biology to negotiate the border between what science is and is not. Craig Venter offers to life scientists a set of tools to enter the public discourse and redefine their role and the public perception of 21st century's biology.

Objective

We analyze public communication activities and strategies of Craig Venter, especially focusing on the Sorcerer II, the Venter Institute’s ship that circumnavigated the planet between 2003 and 2006 to collect and classify marine microbial genomes, using techniques similar to the ones developed by Dr. Venter himself to sequence the humane genome.

We want to understand whether Craig Venter utilises public communication of science to assert and credit his scientific practices, defined by a specific typology of the relationship between science and society, enterprises, universities and other actors which participate in the making of contemporary biology.

Methods

We have collected all communicative materials about Sorcerer II we could collect in international media, scientific publications and Venter Institute's products from 2003 to 2007: data from multiple sources were analysed (journalistic articles, interviews, scientific papers, press releases, websites). Firstly, we traced the relationship between the Venter Institute and media structures, and investigated its diachronic development. We have then studied Craig Venter's discoursive strategies, by means of qualitative discourse analysis, especially focusing on the images of science and scientist proposed by Dr. Venter during the Sorcerer II’s voyage.

Results

The scientist's images proposed by Venter's public communication activities in the Sorcerer II's case, have been connected to two main images: the first one is that of a 18th century "savant" and 19th century naturalist which was hegemonic barely prior to the establishment of academic science: a searcher of the truth, devoted to the exploration of new worlds and new critical findings. The second image is that of the free lance scientist, the hacker: a scientist's who emphasizes his independence from both academy and industry, but is also capable to be an entrepreneur, building strong alliances with both spheres. Both images locate Craig Venter into the contemporary biotechnologies' market, building the image of a scientist who wants to credit himself has a genomic service's supplier and freelancer of genetic information.

Conclusions

Despite its exceptionality and spectacularity, the case of Venter is not anomalous with respect to the contemporary relation between scientists and communication. We argue that Venter's public communication activity does not represent a break from the norm, but the answer to the current physiology of the scientist's job, strictly related to a new communicative dimension and confirmed by the public activity of other "visible" scientists operating in today's biotechnology. Craig Venter provides tools and clues that the contemporary biologist may adopt to publicly negotiate and share the knowledge he/she produces. Besides this, Venter's practice also expresses the transformation of the relationship between science and society.

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 [PCST]
PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

"What Dr. Venter did on his holidays"
The Sorcerer II and the public communication of biotechnology

Alessandro Delfanti   SISSA

Yurij Castelfranchi   State University of Campinas

Nico Pitrelli   SISSA

Background

This work's aim is to understand the discursive strategies, techniques, and instruments used by Craig Venter in his public communication activity. We point out that, among the many facets of the controversial American biologist and entrepreneur, his "public dimension" is mediatically well-known but not much studied academically.

We think that this work is relevant because the study of the mediatic and communicative sphere of contemporary science could help to recognize problems traditionally associated with public history of science: in particular, the historical vein which investigate what scientists tell, when, to whom and why, and their changing roles in society. This kind of approach is critical to understand how public images produced by scientists rise and grow, and what scientists want to be considered as being "science" in different historical and strategic contexts. There are many "public sciences", depending on how a scientist, or a group of scientists, manage to establish a specific science's image functional to certain goals. Thus, Craig Venter's public dimension is a good case study to map today's relationships between science and society, and the way battles are conducted in biology to negotiate the border between what science is and is not. Craig Venter offers to life scientists a set of tools to enter the public discourse and redefine their role and the public perception of 21st century's biology.

Objective

We analyze public communication activities and strategies of Craig Venter, especially focusing on the Sorcerer II, the Venter Institute’s ship that circumnavigated the planet between 2003 and 2006 to collect and classify marine microbial genomes, using techniques similar to the ones developed by Dr. Venter himself to sequence the humane genome.

We want to understand whether Craig Venter utilises public communication of science to assert and credit his scientific practices, defined by a specific typology of the relationship between science and society, enterprises, universities and other actors which participate in the making of contemporary biology.

Methods

We have collected all communicative materials about Sorcerer II we could collect in international media, scientific publications and Venter Institute's products from 2003 to 2007: data from multiple sources were analysed (journalistic articles, interviews, scientific papers, press releases, websites). Firstly, we traced the relationship between the Venter Institute and media structures, and investigated its diachronic development. We have then studied Craig Venter's discoursive strategies, by means of qualitative discourse analysis, especially focusing on the images of science and scientist proposed by Dr. Venter during the Sorcerer II’s voyage.

Results

The scientist's images proposed by Venter's public communication activities in the Sorcerer II's case, have been connected to two main images: the first one is that of a 18th century "savant" and 19th century naturalist which was hegemonic barely prior to the establishment of academic science: a searcher of the truth, devoted to the exploration of new worlds and new critical findings. The second image is that of the free lance scientist, the hacker: a scientist's who emphasizes his independence from both academy and industry, but is also capable to be an entrepreneur, building strong alliances with both spheres. Both images locate Craig Venter into the contemporary biotechnologies' market, building the image of a scientist who wants to credit himself has a genomic service's supplier and freelancer of genetic information.

Conclusions

Despite its exceptionality and spectacularity, the case of Venter is not anomalous with respect to the contemporary relation between scientists and communication. We argue that Venter's public communication activity does not represent a break from the norm, but the answer to the current physiology of the scientist's job, strictly related to a new communicative dimension and confirmed by the public activity of other "visible" scientists operating in today's biotechnology. Craig Venter provides tools and clues that the contemporary biologist may adopt to publicly negotiate and share the knowledge he/she produces. Besides this, Venter's practice also expresses the transformation of the relationship between science and society.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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