National Biobanks: Clinical Labor, Risk Production, and the Creation of Biovalue

Science, Technology, and Human Values 35 (3):330-355 (2010)
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Abstract

The development of genomics has dramatically expanded the scope of genetic research, and collections of genetic biosamples have proliferated in countries with active genomics research programs. In this essay, we consider a particular kind of collection, national biobanks. National biobanks are often presented by advocates as an economic ‘‘resource’’ that will be used by both basic researchers and academic biologists, as well as by pharmaceutical diagnostic and clinical genomics companies. Although national biobanks have been the subject of intense interest in recent social science literature, most prior work on this topic focuses either on bioethical issues related to biobanks, such as the question of informed consent, or on the possibilities for scientific citizenship that they make possible. We emphasize, by contrast, the economic aspect of biobanks, focusing specifically on the way in which national biobanks create biovalue. Our emphasis on the economic aspect of biobanks allows us to recognize the importance of what we call clinical labor—that is, the regularized, embodied work that members of the national population are expected to perform in their role as biobank participants—in the creation of biovalue through biobanks. Moreover, it allows us to understand how the technical way in which national biobanks link clinical labor to databases alters both medical and popular understandings of risk for common diseases and conditions.

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