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Enacting the Good Economy: Biocapitalization and the little tools of valuation

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - LITTLE TOOLS (Enacting the Good Economy: Biocapitalization and the little tools of valuation)

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2020-12-31

What shall we live off in the future? This question was the starting point for the LITTLE TOOLS research project. Across Europe, the transition to a new “bioeconomy” offers promises of a sustainable future. The life sciences are called upon to create new forms of value from biological life. The promise is not only that this economy will produce surplus value; it should also provide sustainable growth, employment, animal and human welfare along with the protection of nature – solutions to our current predicaments. In other words, the economy promises to be good. This, the making of what we term the promise of “the good economy”, is what the LITTLE TOOLS project has investigated: How and by what means do such transformations happen? What roles do science, markets, and politics play, and how do they work together, both historically and at present? Moreover, helped by the notion “the good economy” the LITTLE TOOLS project opens up the economy towards its normative dimensions.

Given our societies’ urgent need to move away from fossil-based economies and into a sustainable, good economy, we need to understand the dynamics and ramifications of these ongoing transitions. In studying such questions, the LITTLE TOOLS project has centred its focus on the sectors of fisheries and aquaculture and their role in what is now often called “the blue economy” and “the ocean economy”. By following the Atlantic cod from Norway and across the world, we have investigated past and present political processes, technological innovations, scientific advances, expanding markets, public controversies, and environmental conflicts. Across these sites, we have analysed how the Atlantic cod is valued and made valuable in widely different and often contradictory ways.

In order to investigate these topics, the LITTLE TOOLS project has pursued a twofold objective that has been achieved by (1) providing new empirical insights about how biocapitalization processes are enacted in practice and at carefully selected strategic sites, using cross-disciplinary methods from actor-network theory, history, and economic sociology; and by (2) providing a novel analytical and methodological framework for the studying of such processes that responds to core challenges in contemporary science & technology studies (STS).

During its five years of operation, the team has conducted a deep case study that follows the marketization of the wild Atlantic cod, along with the efforts to produce a viable domesticated cod. Other case studies have shown how the ‘blue bioeconomy’ is built upon risky calculations of future value production. Key conclusions suggest that this approach is highly problematic in terms of environmental concerns. This in turn has potential policy implications, as we face the risk of building a bioeconomy that does not take environmental concerns and threats into account. Project insights thus have great public interest, as they may potentially help policymakers and society at large to be critical of optimistic growth scenarios. Simultaneously, the project have provided tools and approaches that invites researchers to ‘open up’ the economy for close empirical and critical scrutiny, thus equipping us with ways to partake in these debates at the intersection of policy, science and markets.
For the duration of the project, the team has been involved in comprehensive interdisciplinary data collection and analysis and scientific publishing with leading journals and publishers across the humanities and social sciences as outlined in the project’s main objectives (see above). The scientific publications include an edited volume (2016), two monographs (forthcoming), two textbooks (in Norwegian 2020, in English forthcoming 2021),three book chapters, and seven scientific articles in leading international journals (notably History & Theory, British Journal of Sociology, Social Studies of Science and Journal of Cultural Economy). In addition come two scientific book reviews and seven journal articles currently in preparation or review.

The project team has throughout the period organized international workshops and conference panels at leading international conferences (notably the annual 4S conference) and has given invited lectures to multiple relevant research communities in Europe, thus initiating and engaging extensively in building international research networks in Europe and the US. In parallel, the team has taken advantage of the project’s ongoing research to intervene in ongoing public debates in Norway, notably on the topics of the Norwegian government’s aquaculture policy and Ocean Strategy; the definitions of impact in science policy; and historical perspectives on current developments within environmental policy and way of life, hence reaching a considerable number of policy makers, industry leaders, civil society, and the general public. While the potential impact and wider societal implications of these media contributions are challenging to measure in exact terms, the value of research-based interventions in urgent political matters should not be underestimated.
The project has been highly productive in terms of scientific publishing, and has here outperformed the initial project plan. This has allowed the team and the PI in particular to contribute actively to key issues in the scholarly fields of valuation studies, economic sociology and STS. In addition, the team has contributed to expanding interdisciplinarity across the social sciences and humanities by a consistent effort to craft integrated methods and analytical concepts. The major contributions of monographs and textbooks will sustain the impact of the project far beyond its completion date. The methodological textbooks on 'practice-oriented document analysis', a method developed by and within the project, is already expanding core achievements of the project to a wider audience of students and researchers internationally.
Cod eggs. Left: Photo credit IMR, Bergen. Right: Sketch by G.O.Sars, ca. 1865, NLN collection.