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‘Big data’ or ‘big knowledge’? Brazilian genomics and the process of academic marketization

Abstract

‘Biocapital’, ‘biovalue’ and ‘bioeconomics’ are examples of terms formulated to interpret the commercial exploration of genomics science. Although highlighting important aspects, these terms tend to suggest the triumph of the market logic, which would have tamed all other logics. In this paper, it is argued that national and global markets obviously draw on economic rationales but can also be shaped by other rationales such as the academic logic. I analyse the genomics complex (formed by the combination between genomics inquiry, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics) in Brazil. A process of academic marketization is identified, four manifestations of which are analysed. First, academic interests have played a major role in the definition of themes to be investigated in Brazil at the expense of companies’ interests. Second, academics have prioritized human health studies at the expense of agrarian studies. Third, academic demands have expanded the importation of DNA sequencing devices to Brazil. Fourth, these demands have conducted Brazil towards an increasing and subaltern involvement in the global market of sequencing services. Markets are surely shaped by actors wishing to maximize profits. At times, however, they can also be modified by actors decisively moved by academic goals such as scientific prestige or access to research tools. A crucial challenge is that access to hight-throughput technologies (big data) does not necessarily lead to the formulation of theories of considerable scientific and political import (big knowledge).

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Notes

  1. Helmreich (2008) discusses the historical evolution of these concepts in a most interesting and comprehensive way, even though it is somewhat controversial whether such debate really traces back to Marx, Engels and Weber.

  2. In this paper, the word ‘genetic’ refers to the association between DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, without the theoretical genomics area.

  3. In this paper, I only deal with human genetics companies, not with agriculture and livestock companies.

  4. I conducted 4 interviews in the city of Sao Paulo (SP), 3 in Campinas (SP), 4 en Belo Horizonte (MG), and 4 in Recife (PE). All interviews but one were recorded with permission from the interviewee.

  5. At that time, the former goal (combining the scientific and market realms) was attained; as for the second goal (maintaining Brazil’s global position), it suffices to say that in 2013 Brazil continued to be the world’s first citrus producer.

  6. The modest figures in the animal research area is to a large extent due to the concentration of this type of study at Embrapa, the federal company for agrarian and farming studies.

  7. It is worth noting that genetic tests are excluded from the national health system. Nor are they covered by private health insurance schemes.

  8. On its website, a German genetic company describes itself as follows: “Centogene is one of the leading laboratories focusing on genetic testing for rare hereditary disorders. We now offer more than 2,200 routine genetic and biochemical tests”.

  9. Coming back to the Xylella project, many hoped, in 1997, that modern gen etic analyses would solve the problem. In 2013, the targeted plant disease was under control, which, to a large extent, was due not to genetic modification but to an ancient technique: seed selection.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the editors and reviewers of BioSocieties for helping me improve this paper. I am grateful to Professor Brian Salter (King's College London), Professor Alex Faulkner (University of Sussex) and Dr. Sylvia Garcia (University of Sao Paulo) for the academic support I have received from them. I also thank all my interviewees for their invaluable contribution.

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Correspondence to Edison Bicudo.

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Bicudo, E. ‘Big data’ or ‘big knowledge’? Brazilian genomics and the process of academic marketization. BioSocieties 13, 1–20 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0037-4

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0037-4

Keywords

  • big data
  • genomics
  • bioinformatics
  • Brazil
  • genetic companies
  • globalization