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Reflex Regulation: an anatomy of promissory science governance

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Publication details

JournalHealth, Risk and Society
DatePublished - May 2012
Issue number3
Number of pages240
Pages (from-to)223-240
Original languageEnglish


With reference to two comparative UK biotechnology case studies, spanning recent decades, this article outlines the main features of what might usefully be expressed as ‘reflex regulation’. This includes a set of reactive institutional habits, routines and reflexes that continue to characterise the regulation of the biosciences in the UK. Methodologically, the article draws on long-term social scientific engagement with policy-making in the field of xenotransplantation in the 1990s and, a decade later, the politics of trans-species embryo stem cell research. Our focus in this article is on questions of time and timing in the temporal relationships between developments in bioscience, policy-making and wider political deliberation. Both case studies exhibit a range of persistent policy-making features, specifically a range of temporal reflexes including: the largely uncritical susceptibility of policy communities to promissory scientific claims by key entrepreneurial scientific stakeholders; a perceived policy need to react rapidly to often unchallenged claims about imminent benefit; a tendency towards the construction of regulatory measures that are often poorly adapted to long-term socio-technical processes; and an institutionalised historical amnesia whereby policy communities fail to critically reflect on the periodicities of hype and disappointment. These features of science governance, we argue, continue to inhibit and narrow the opportunity for a potentially more ‘reflexive’ as opposed to ‘reflex’ science policy.


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