Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jessica O'Reilly's "The Technocratic Antarctic"

Jessica O'Reilly is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Technocratic Antarctic: An Ethnography of Scientific Expertise and Environmental Governance, and reported the following:
From page 99:
At this New Zealand biosecurity border, it is assumed that the samples are alive and the ministry required them to be rendered not alive. When that takes place, the danger lies in the samples being compromised to the extent that the anticipated scientific knowledge cannot be credibly read from them. Also, officials from the MAF (now the Ministry for Primary Industry) were not the only ones who conducted the government’s work of giving samples clearance to travel around New Zealand. In this case, as an expert scientist, Demelza participated in this work too, refusing certain devitalization techniques and offering suggestions that were more appropriate for the specific scientific possibilities her Antarctic water contained.
Page 99 of The Technocratic Antarctic takes us into the ethnographic weeds of my fieldwork in and about Antarctica. In this case, my friend Demelza, an Antarctic biogeochemist based in Christchurch, New Zealand, was dealing with her bottles of Antarctic pond water that she brought back to New Zealand to analyze. Her samples got stuck repeatedly in national security borders in the interest of environmental security. Demelza’s samples made it out of the airport after some questioning but it took her over a year to fly them up to the North Island, where the analytical equipment she needed was located. We shared an office in Christchurch, and she spent hours on email and the phone with her advisor and New Zealand officials trying to get those bottles of water cleared for transport.

The samples eventually made it to the proper lab after I moved back to the US. What struck me, as I wrote about it in the book, was the negotiations among experts. Scientists and bureaucrats were invested in projects of national interest—security, broadly defined, and the production of new scientific knowledge, which contributes to policy making as well as state power and legitimacy. Neither group of experts was subservient to the other—the scientists especially refused to “devitalize” their samples in a way that rendered them unable to be analyzed (or defended as robust scientific methods). The New Zealand government representatives, mindful to the expensive, government sponsored research that led to the dilemma, worked with Demelza and her team to find a solution.

This case study is one example of what I call epistemic technocracy, systems of governance enabled by knowledge. Antarctica, with its extreme and sublime nature and isolation, is a continent set aside in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty for “peace and science.” The continent is at once both transnational and intensely national, a place requiring military or military-like logistics to get to and stay alive and a strong measure of environmental protection and scientific cooperation to manage. As such, the spectacular Antarctic is a generative site for knowledge-based governance. The ideals are lofty, but the practice often requires collaborations of experts among disciplines, agencies, interests, and nations that can be bumpy, like the example above.

The people who enliven The Technocractic Antarctic are scientists and policy makers mobilizing their expertise and the technocratic skills to manage a continent through and for scientific research. Resilient, smart, and flexible, these people helped me reconsider bureaucracies as potentially generative sites for working through new ideas and solving problems using service-oriented practices of expertise. Antarctica is a place governed by expertise, with no non-expert public. However, these experts at the bottom of the world connect their work to the rest of the planet, through climate research, policy, and international cooperation.
Learn more about The Technocratic Antarctic at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue