Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Summer 1998

Book Reviews

Private Science: Biotechnology and the Rise of the Molecular Sciences

Nancy H. Fontaine
Information & Education Services Librarian
Biomedical Libraries, Dartmouth College

Private Science: Biotechnology and the Rise of the Molecular Sciences. Arnold Thackray, editor. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, c1998. 304 p. $52.50. (ISBN 0-812-23428-6)

Private Science: Biotechnology and the Rise of the Molecular Sciences is a collection of essays about biotechnology by noted scholars in the fields of history and sociology. Divided into three sections, Part I is called "From Brewing to Biotech." In it the authors place biotechnology in the context of 20th century science, a necessary task considering much of what is written in the media about biotechnology implies the discipline emerged fully-formed without antecedents in the 1970's. Part II, "Macromolecular Politics," contains somewhat diverse discussions on the economics, politics, and rhetoric surrounding biotechnology, and addresses the interconnection between science and industry, the role of government and venture capital in the growth of biotech firms, and the issue of  intellectual property rights. Part III, "The Molecular Workplace," addresses the way the science of biotechnology is practiced and the very human influences that play out therein.

The phrase "private science" refers to different ideas depending on which essay one is reading, which points to the basic difficulty with this book. Although the authors were able to meet to discuss each other's essays, the book does not flow well and is therefore not necessarily best read straight through. The levels of inquiry, from the macro level of the international economy to the micro level of individual scientists struggling over lab space, vary too widely and interpretations differ too much. In the end, the authors offered no consensus of what is meant by "private science."

The fact that the book is somewhat loosely tied by its theme is perhaps not the fault of the editor or any of the authors. As editor Arnold Thackray points out in the introduction, it is difficult enough for scholars to agree on the particulars of social revolutions long past (e.g., the Industrial Revolution). Biotechnology is a part of an ongoing biomolecular revolution and therefore a moving target.

Overall the book is a fine collection of scholarly work that is supported with copious notes and an index, although the latter is not terribly detailed, and its usefulness suffers from occasional entries with excessive page number references. The book should play a valuable role in any academic collection, especially if its individual essays are indexed by the indexing and abstracting services, thus providing more detailed access to its contents. Scholars in the disciplines of the history, sociology, and economics of science will also find it interesting for the look at biotechnology it offers from the point of view of a discipline other than their own. Those readers looking for an introduction to or overview of biotechnology will be better satisfied with another source, although they will find this volume helpful once they have narrowed their topic of interest.


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