Interview on 4S Backchannels blog: “Rethinking value in bio-economy” — Kean Birch

Here’s an interview I’ve just done with Aleka Gurel for the 4S Backchannels blog.”Rethinking Value in the Bio-economy with Kean Birch: New Research in ST&HVAleka Gurel21 August, 2016In this series of Backchannels posts, we’ll be highlighting new research in the 4S journals, ST&HV and ESTS. Here, Backchannels interviews Kean Birch, author of the recent ST&HV…

via Interview on 4S Backchannels blog: “Rethinking value in bio-economy” — Kean Birch

New Book Proposal on “Neoliberal Bio-economies”: Open for Comments

I have just submitted a book proposal to Palgrave Macmillan. The title of the proposed book is “Neoliberal Bio-economies? The Co-construction of Markets and Natures” and its general description is as follows:

“A growing number of politicians, policy-makers, academics, commentators, and others globally have identified the ‘bio-economy’ as an important pathway for societal transitions towards a more sustainable future. The promise held by the bio-economy concerns the ability of societies to replace existing fossil fuel inputs in their economies with new bio-based inputs: for example, replacing petroleum with biofuels; oil-based chemicals with biochemicals; plastics with bioplastics; and so on. Conceptually then, the bio-economy is a termed used to reflect the sustainable use of biological, renewable materials in the development of bio-based products, services, and energy that substitute for existing fossil fuel-based products, services and, energy, as part of a broader societal transition to a low-carbon future. Although the bio-economy represents a potentially broad vision of future sustainability, certain policy options and pathways are preferred over others, especially those dominated by prevailing neoliberal ideas about the importance and roles of markets, technoscientific innovation, and nature in society. As such, the bio-economy has come to increasingly reflect neoliberal constructions of markets and the corollary constructions of nature in particular ways as the solution to global environmental problems.

This book is the first attempt to synthesize existing research on the bio-economy and empirically analyse the co-construction of markets and natures in the bio-economy as a policy response to global environmental challenges like climate change. It draws on over a decade of research on the bio-economy around the world, but especially in Europe and North America. The overall objective of the book is to examine what sorts of markets (e.g. price, contract, monopoly) and natures are being imagined and constructed in the pursuit of the bio-economy. Consequently, it aims to unpack neoliberalism and neoliberalization of nature(s) as concepts, as much as the concept and practices of the bio-economy.”

If you have any comments on the proposal then do feel free to post them on this session at


UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science: The changing political economy of research & innovation — Kean Birch

A video of session on the changing political economy of research and innovation (CPERI) that I helped organize at the UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science event – see Twitter handle #UKCanFrontiers – organized by The Royal Society and The Royal Society of Canada in March this year. It doesn’t have my talk in it (hopefully that’ll…

via UK-Canadian Frontiers of Science: The changing political economy of research & innovation — Kean Birch

4S/EASST Open Track: “Turning Things into Assets”

Here is a link to the track and papers in it.


Kean Birch (York University, Canada)
Fabian Muniesa (Mines ParisTech, France)

Short Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as objects of inquiry. An asset is a thing that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present. One key question emerges: how do things become assets?

Long Abstract

An increasing number of STS scholars are engaging with assets as interesting objects of inquiry, worthy of our analytical gaze. Scholars of the bio-economy – e.g. Birch and Tyfield (2013), Cooper and Waldby (2014), Lezaun and Montgomery (2015), Martin (2015) – have sought to differentiate asset from commodity markets in order to analyse the resulting socio-ethical implications, while scholars in the social studies of finance – e.g. Doganova and Karnøe (2015), Doganova and Muniesa (2015), Muniesa (2012, 2014), Ortiz (2013) – have sought to understand how assets are constituted by and come to constitute, in a performative fashion, valuation processes. By asset, we mean a thing – e.g. patent, business model, technology, land, forest, skills and experience, CV, bodily function, personal popularity, pollution emissions, building, infrastructure, life form, molecule, etc., etc. – that can be owned, traded and capitalized as a revenue stream, often involving the valuing of discounted future earnings in the present.

In the recent STS literature mentioned above, one key question emerges: how do things become assets? What this question requires us to do is tease apart the (techno-economic) configuration of assets and capitalization; that is, the tangible materiality and intangible knowledge that enable things to be turned into assets (or not). It leaves us with many more questions about where to take any critique of capitalism and technoscience more generally. First, this might be the threat of assetization stifling innovation, promoting the pursuit of rentiership (i.e. extraction of value through property ownership) over entrepreneurship (i.e. creation of value through development of new products and services). Second, it might be the implications of capitalization in reshaping how we think about things (including ourselves), turning them into a purely financial calculation of costs and benefits over other concerns (Chiapello 2015).


In light of these issues, we invite contributors to address but not limit themselves to the following questions:

  • How might we conceptualize the difference between commodities and assets? What does this difference mean for our understanding of value and valuation?
  • How are things turned into assets? How are they capitalized? What sort of techno-economic configurations does this involve? What are the implications? Does this entail new or old forms of rentiership?
  • How might we use concepts like assetization and capitalization in place of dominant terms like commodification, marketization, privatization, neoliberalization, etc. as a critique of capitalism?
  • How does capitalization differ with different materialities? How can we recognize the material traits of assetization?
  • How is the logic of the asset transforming science and technology? What is driving science and technology policy in the era of the business model?


Birch, T. and Tyfield, D. 2013. “Theorizing the Bioeconomy: Biovalue, Biocapital, Bioeconomics or… What?” Science, Technology and Human Values 38(3): 299-327.
Cooper, M. and Waldby, C. 2014. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lezaun, J. and Montgomery, C.M. 2015, “The Pharmaceutical Commons: Sharing and Exclusion in Global Health Drug Development,” Science, Technology and Human Values 40(1): 3-29.
Martin, P. 2015. “Commercialising Neurofutures: Promissory Economies, Value Creation and the Making of a New Industry”, BioSocieties, doi:10.1057/biosoc.2014.40
Doganova, L. and Karnøe, P. 2015. “Clean and Profitable: Entangling Valuations in Environmental Entrepreneurship”, in A. Berthoin Antal, M. Hutter and D. Stark (Eds.). Moments of Valuation: Exploring Sites of Dissonance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 229-248.
Doganova, L. and Muniesa, F. 2015. “Capitalization Devices: Business Models and the Renewal of Markets”, in M. Kornberger, L. Justesen, J. Mouritsen and A. Koed Madsen (Eds.), Making Things Valuable. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 109-215.
Muniesa, F. 2012. “A Flank Movement in the Understanding of Valuation”, Sociological Review 59(s2): 24-38.
Muniesa, F. 2014. The Provoked Economy: Economic Reality and the Performative Turn, London: Routledge.
Ortiz, H. 2013. “The Limits of Financial Imagination: Free Investors, Efficient Markets, and Crisis”, American Anthropologist 116(1): 38-50.
Chiapello, E. 2015. “Financialization of Valuation”, Human Studies 38(1): 13-35.

CPERI Workshop Call for Papers

The Fourth Annual Workshop

The Changing Political Economy of Research and Innovation (CPERI): Producing and experimenting with publics in new political economies

28-29 June 2016
University of Liège, Belgium

Many disciplines investigate how research and innovation (R&I) contributes to socio-economic development. Yet most mainstream studies tend to focus rather narrowly on R&I as a resource to be mobilized instrumentally to address grand challenges: first and foremost economic growth, but also increasingly climate change, food security, low-carbon economy, social welfare, and the ageing societies. Often, these goals are framed with a loose reference and appeal to ‘the public’ as important agents in these issues. An alliance of scientists, entrepreneurs and the public is increasingly emphasized by policy-makers and innovation actors, developing alternative pathways in science, policy and industry. This agenda has attracted interest also from more critical scholarship, generating an appetite for meaningful movement towards new, sustainable socio-material transitions. Yet the translation to (public) action remains a challenge. A crucial question here concerns understanding of the public – more precisely, publics – and their role in the changing political economy of R&I, where these issues of substantive R&I trajectories and their political economic conditioning and effects are too often neglected.

This workshop seeks to explore how publics and their knowledges, practices and processes as political-economic phenomena transform R&I – actually and potentially – within and across changing contexts and evolving geographies (Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Mirowski 2010, Tyfield 2011, Birch 2015). Publics have always been an important topic in science and technology studies (STS), with studies of public engagement in, and/or public understanding of, science problematizing scientific authority with regard to lay individuals’ opinions (Wynne 2007) and the emergence of “counter-publics” (Hess 2011). However, the various ways that publics have been mobilized or given roles in R&I processes often overlook issues of political economy that are themselves also changing dramatically: the continued prevalence of programmes of austerity are changing the very institutions of the ‘public’ political economy including of R&I. Moreover, it is critical to unpack issues of political economy in light of proliferating new discourses like Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) or promissory imaginaries such as the “creative economy” (Howkins 2013), the “sharing economy” (Wood and Scantlebury 2014) and the “3rd industrial revolution” (Rifkin 2011), which invoke publics in diverse and possibly novel ways, both descriptive and normative. Furthermore, an array of new situations involving publics in R&I are also emerging; from participatory design in decision-making processes and public value mapping, to Living Labs or FabLabs, to public protests against particular innovations. In ‘techno-nature-society’, thus, ‘publics’ and their changing meaning, forms, socio-political roles and responsibilities, and normative cultural valence thus sit at the heart of changing relations of scientific research, innovation and political economy; and vice versa, regarding investigations of publics as a constructed or imagined contributor to R&I and its governance, as a produced audience and recipient of the outputs from R&I, and as performers in situated experiments of new social forms (Laurent 2010).

The workshop focuses on four substantive and overlapping issues that address the co-production of publics and the political economy of research and innovation:

  • The future role of publics in processes of government: the involvement of publics in participatory decision-making processes (regarding R&I) today is meant to guarantee enhanced democracy and stronger, more robust and more legitimate decisions. This raises questions:
    • Do we overestimate what publics can do, and/or expect too much of them? Based on what conceptions of ‘the public’?
    • Can publics actually direct R&I? How? Or, has public involvement become just another procedural requirement?
    • How might we envision the future role(s) of publics in decisional processes? And to what broader (socio-political) ends?
    • How can ‘publics’ be invoked and included in ways that turn R&I into a locus of a constructive politics, as opposed to merely directing given trajectories and/or minimizing their negative effects?
  • Empowering publics in new innovation processes: today the proliferation of new experiments with publics are often accompanied by an empowerment rhetoric that – ostensibly – profoundly challenge the dominant intellectual property-intensive, global model of science-based innovation. But:
    • When value is generated in such innovation processes, how are the potential benefits shared with directly involved publics? What kind of struggles about risk and benefits (e.g. with intellectual property) are emerging?
    • More generally, how can political economy help to make sense of such embedded innovation/creativity to explain the dynamics of advanced capitalism?
    • How shall we account for the embeddedness of publics in innovation processes that are themselves inserted in socio-economic and socio-political contexts?
  • Public participation as a luxury: the context of multiple and overlapping (economic, ecological, social) crises has often led to the fabrication of imaginaries of scarcity (of competitiveness, of sustained growth, of natural resources, of qualified workers, of public monies).
    • How do such imaginaries impact public participation exercises and the fabric of publics when the context asks for quicker results with smaller budgets? Is quick-and-dirty public participation on its way?
    • What future tensions are there when public involvement is voluntary, unprofessional and potentially biased by public or private sponsors seeking quick returns on investment?
    • How do these scarcity and austerity discourses and imaginaries influence the conception and measurements of impacts of public participation? What ‘public’ is being constructed as a result?
  • Publics and political economic crises: the lack of economic growth is often used to justify cutting public services and institutions, or for introducing new performance indicators and new public management and governance tools. This contributes to enforcing neoliberal dogmas and channelling public and private investment away from what does not directly contribute to short-term economic performance. In R&I, the economization (Popp Berman 2013) of policies is a term coined to highlight the pervasive idea that the main purpose of government is to affect positively the larger economy with R&I as central vehicle. This process happens against the backdrop of mounting social protest and an intensification of “Occupy-movements”/organised publics across the globe, whereas even mainstream economists today denounce continuing neoliberal and austerity politics that are reshaping the ‘public sector’ and public investment.
    • How do studies of publics invoked, performed and constructed by contemporary R&I illuminate this growing divorce between political priorities and societal demands – the growing apotheosis of the ‘public’ in political discourse alongside its systematic dismantling in political economy?

Keynote Speakers
Pr. Ulrike Felt, University of Vienna
Pr. Phil Mirowski, University of Notre Dame (to be confirmed)
Dr. Johan Söderberg, University of Gothenburg

Paper Submission
Please email your abstracts (400 words max) to and by the 31st of January, 2016. Feel free to get in touch before the deadline to discuss your ideas.

The Workshop will be held at University of Liege, Belgium, and hosted by SPIRAL Research Centre.

Dr Pierre Delvenne, University of Liège
Dr Nathan Charlier, University of Liège
Dr Mélanie Antoine, University of Liège

Series Organizers
Dr Kean Birch, Department of Social Science, York University, Toronto, Canada
Dr Charles Thorpe, Department of Sociology, UCSD, USA
Dr David Tyfield, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK