Laboratory studies, that is how to understand science in action


Advanced biotechnologies, those that transform the set of chromosomes of an organism by transferring in it genes from another organism, represent an application of genetic engineering that has not been widely legitimised yet. The main reason for this is due to the numerous elements of uncertainty that still characterize genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Thus, scientific community has to face a big problem: to justify its research activity by making clear the underlying motivations. In fact, the success of science depends in great part on its social impact, that is on people that will use scientific and technical progress.
The heterogeneity of the social groups currently involved in the debate about OGM security corroborates the social character of scientific research. For this reason the application of genetic engineering to agriculture represents an interesting case study for social analysts. This suggests that the right moment to understand how science works and to reconstruct the system of relationships between different groups of actors is before scientific results has been taken for granted.

The term ‘laboratory studies’ refers to a perspective of the sociology of science that analyses science and technology activity using the methodology of direct observation inside research institutes, in contact with social actors and their practices. Although the translation of scientific concepts in issues of public interest and the widening of laboratory through field trials are crucial for scientific research, these aspects were not taken into account before laboratory studies because science were not seen as a social activity. Thus laboratory studies represent an important development of the sociology of science because they have changed the focus from the experiment to the numerous dynamics that are part of scientific activity. According to this approach, the laboratory is not only the place where scientific products are created, but it represents also the social and political structures that transmit expertise and determine careers and has its own modus operandi.
The case of GMOs confirms that when a scientific event has not been constructed together with a wide network of actors it might have a weak social impact or it can even be rejected. In fact, since the success of a scientific discovery or a technological break-through is determined from future users, it is important that science and technology take into account social interests.
Scientific communication may have an important role in covering the gap that exists between scientists and citizens. This communication could be effective if it tries to answer layman’s questions that not always deal with scientific problems. In fact, the public credibility of science depends also on the capacity of scientists to explain the validity and usefulness of their results.