Monthly recommendation blog posts are back! Our blog has been on hiatus while our working group has focused on developing a curriculum for what we hope will become a discussion-based workshop offered during the January term (Independent Activities Period) at MIT. However, this fall we’re resuming our blog posts and hoping to bring you lots of new recommendations, as well as other types of content from guest writers. Here are our recommendations for the month of October:
Long read: The Disordered Cosmos by Prof. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
The Disordered Cosmos – by astrophysicist Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein – is a beautiful and impressively accessible work of science writing brimming with awe-infused descriptions of the processes that shape the cosmos, and at the same time an equally passionate call for justice and social transformation within and beyond the sciences. Throughout the book, Professor Prescod-Weinstein steadfastly refuses to draw an artificial boundary separating science from the social and political context and dynamics of power within which it is embedded. Her discussion of astronomy includes – and, she stresses, must include – a discussion of how the construction of telescope facilities on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i dispossessed indigenous people. Her discussion of her interests and achievements as a physicist includes – and must include – just as much discussion of her background in working-class communities of color in East LA and of the racism, sexism, and classism that constantly impinges on her career and those of other scientists. She relates how writing an article about cosmic expansion inevitably turned into a discussion of sexual violence at academic institutions. While the scientific method is often presented as objective and transhistorical, Prof. Prescod-Weinstein emphasizes that the actually existing process of scientific knowledge production takes place within a matrix of power structures and historically contingent injustices that shape what scientific research gets done and by who, the metaphors we use to understand and communicate about science, who has the opportunity to succeed within scientific institutions, and how the benefits and harms of science and technology are distributed.
By discussing the physics of melanin, by declaring that “spacetime isn’t straight” and that quantum particles defy binary descriptors, Prof. Prescod-Weinstein points out that juxtaposing discussions of science with discussions of race, class, and gender is incongruous or provocative only to the extent that one has been socialized to see one’s own perspective as the objective, neutral, and scientific one – a standpoint that only some have the privilege of occupying. The Disordered Cosmos stands as a powerful call to recognize the epistemic authority of those excluded from the canon of science, and to make scientific institutions equitable, just, and inclusive ones where everyone can thrive, contribute, and find excitement and wonder in studying and understanding the universe.
In addition to The Disordered Cosmos, I also highly recommend checking out Prof. Prescod-Weinstein’s Decolonizing Science Reading List!
MIT highlight: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s commencement address (video; transcript)
This past May, MIT welcomed Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) – to campus to give a commencement address to the graduating class. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is both the first woman and the first person from Africa to lead the WTO – a hopeful sign of change for an international institution that has too often served the economic interests of its wealthiest member nations at the expense of increasing global inequality.
In her speech, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala highlighted the importance of not only developing new technological solutions for global problems, but also addressing their underlying social and economic causes: “[F]or the kinds of problems we’re dealing with, new inventions, and new ways of doing things, will have an impact mainly to the extent that they are scaled up across dividing lines of income and geography… We need innovation, but we also need access and diffusion.”
Although the points Dr. Okonjo-Iweala raised in her speech and her appointment as director general seem like signs of progress, structural problems with the WTO as an institution and with the policies it administers still need to be addressed in order to create a more equitable future. Development economist Professor Ha-Joon Chang and economic anthropologist Professor Jason Hickel, among many others, point out that the WTO and other international economic institutions force low- and middle-income countries to open their markets to cheap imports of manufactured goods from rich countries, preventing the development of domestic industry. Meanwhile, low- and middle-income countries do not have the same recourse against rich countries that subsidize (for example) their agricultural sectors to compete with imports from the Global South, since rich countries with larger markets have greater bargaining power and enforcement powers within the WTO. This forces many low- and middle-income countries into an economic relationship similar to the one European imperial powers forced on their colonies – permanent underdevelopment of local industry, import of manufactured goods from rich countries, and extraction of cheap raw materials, labor, and agricultural products.
The WTO also administers the Agreement on Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS agreement) that enables companies in wealthy countries to enforce monopolies on patented technologies worldwide, restricting many forms of tech transfer. The TRIPS agreement restricts the production of affordable generic pharmaceuticals in the Global South that would relieve enormous suffering from preventable diseases. The result has been limited supplies and high costs for drugs for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and countless other diseases. In 2017, the WTO passed amendments to the TRIPS agreement that attempted to create carve-outs and exceptions for pharmaceuticals essential for global health. This move was seemingly an implicit admission of the cruelty and injustice of the system created by TRIPS, but it would ultimately do little to materially disrupt power imbalances within the WTO, and would fail to create equitable public health outcomes when put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic. For anyone in STEM who hopes to see the benefits of science and technology widely and equitably distributed – and a more just global economy – the WTO is a key institution to be aware of as a site of political contestation.
Short read: Monopolies are getting in the way of mRNA vaccines
In this article in Scientific American, global health expert and advocate Achal Prabhala outlines how the ability of vaccine makers to monopolize mRNA technology has led to extreme and unnecessary disparities in access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. More than 100 manufacturers in the Global South have the capability to make mRNA vaccines if given key information about how the vaccines are formulated, but Moderna and BioNTech so far have not cooperated with the World Health Organization’s plans to create tech transfer hubs for mRNA technology. This forces companies in the Global South (like Afrigen in South Africa) to spend years reverse-engineering the technology themselves based on publicly available data. mRNA vaccines have proven more effective against the Omicron lineage of SARS-CoV-2 than some of the other vaccine platforms widely used in the Global South (such as the inactivated virus vaccines made by Sinovac and Sinopharm). As a result, even as South America and Asia have closed the gap with North America and western Europe in terms of overall vaccination rates, their populations remain at greater risk from new variants of the virus. In response to public pressure, Moderna pledged not to enforce its patent claims in a subset of Global South countries, but the list of designated countries excludes many of the countries that have existing manufacturing capacity that would enable them realize the benefits of this pledge by rapidly producing generic vaccines (e.g., South Africa and Brazil). Similarly, the WTO recently waived some TRIPS agreement protections for COVID-19 vaccines, but the waiver essentially only clarified the provisions of TRIPS amendments the WTO had already passed, was limited to a five-year window (too short a time for Global South vaccine manufacturers to conduct clinical trials, obtain regulatory approval, scale up production, and recoup their costs), and did little to encourage vaccine makers to engage with tech transfer programs. To address ongoing inequality in access to protective COVID-19 vaccines, Achal Prabhala argues that governments and the public will need to put greater pressure on vaccine makers to share knowledge about their manufacturing processes, license their already-approved products to generics manufacturers, and ensure global access to effective vaccines. Ultimately, vaccines that were based on publicly funded research and developed with extraordinary public support should be put to use to serve the public good, and poor countries have as much of a right to these life-saving medicines as rich countries do. In the near future, mRNA vaccines may function as a versatile, programmable vaccine platform to address countless diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. If we can solve the inequities and tech transfer problems that Prabhala highlights in this article, the potential impact on global health could be transformative.