Research

Talking cancer moonshots with Vice President Joe Biden

My research explores how formal organizations have shaped the science and policy trajectories of American cancer research and innovation from the Cold War to the present day. I advance a theoretical approach to cancer research organization as a social learning process rooted in rigorous mixed-method empirical projects, including comparative analysis of archival and interview data from field sites in the US, Latin America, and India as well as computational analysis of budget data for the National Cancer Institute (NCI). My work contributes to science, technology, and society (STS), pragmatist social theory, sociology of medicine and health care, and public policy.

 

Book Project

Analyzing 30,000 pages of archival documents as well as oral history interview data, I compare two approaches to directing basic research findings to develop vaccines against virally-induced cancers at the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). I demonstrate how the organization of several large-scale attempts to develop cancer vaccines from basic research findings affected scientists’ ability to produce effective biomedical innovations. I find that successful innovation depended upon NCI scientists’ construction of administrative infrastructures that stabilized inquiry according to local patterns of collaboration. These patterns emerged from and were maintained by informal cultures of cooperative problem-solving that were substantially decoupled from the NCI’s formal managerial structures. Administrative infrastructures emerged from an ongoing learning process guided by shared understandings of flexible constructs like “targeted research” in the 1960s and 1970s and “translational research” in the 1990s and 2000s. A within-case temporal comparison demonstrates how collective action oriented toward solving local problems of collaboration shapes the research trajectories and state policies of cancer innovation. The case of virus vaccine development in the NCI also demonstrates how sociologists and STS scholars can benefit from revising process theories of organization to more explicitly build upon the transactional theoretical models of G.H. Mead and John Dewey. This book will provide an essential academic resource for social scientists and historians studying cancer research, and sets an ambitious theoretical agenda for STS scholars who analyze the role organizations play in shaping the political economy of biomedical research.

 

Transnational HPV Vaccine Development

In August 2016 I launched a mixed-methods study that utilizes qualitative interviews and historical analysis to compare transnational HPV vaccine innovation programs in public and private research organizations in the US, India, and Costa Rica since 2008. This study examines how critiques of the market’s capacity to reduce cervical cancer disparities informed decisions to develop alternative HPV vaccine technologies in ways that decenter neoliberal explanations of HPV vaccine innovation. I focus on local elaborations of global health and public good as understandings of these concepts travel from federally-funded US laboratories to biotechnology firms in India and academic research institutes in Costa Rica, where access to affordable pharmaceuticals shapes both citizenship debates and the political economy of vaccine innovation to different ends from the American context.

 

Organizational Learning and Policy Change

Since September 2016 I have overseen a team of research assistants in the development of a cultural, longitudinal, and network data set using archival sources on congressional appropriations hearings for the National Cancer Institute from 1958-2016. This data set includes quantitative budget figures as well as thick qualitative description of appropriations hearings, congressional budget reports, and annual reports from NCI divisions. I will use these data to develop a robust explanation of the production, organization, and transmission of budgetary information across the bureaucratic hierarchies of the National Cancer Institute and among the NCI, Congress, and the White House throughout the appropriations process. Using Bayesian modeling with posterior passing, my team will simulate various paths to realizing the disputed futures that frame these debates according to the political composition of legislative and executive bodies. We also analyze how local scientific-managerial practices are performed across the different media of budgetary reports and congressional appropriations testimony to chart in great empirical detail how the meso-level social orders that sustain the NCI as an organization are insinuated into macro-level policy strategies for funding cancer research across multiple iterations of the annual appropriations process.

This data set will also allow me to develop computational models that use Bayesian algorithms with posterior passing to simulate various budget scenarios given prior funding in Republican- or Democrat-controlled sessions of the Congress and White House. Bayesian models will allow our research team to creatively explore different possible trajectories of cancer research against actors’ accounts of historical bipartisanship in NCI funding.

 

Collaborative Side Projects

I have conducted theoretical work with Isaac Reed (Virginia, Sociology) that examines the plural processes whereby sociologists deploy mechanistic explanation in sociological inquiry. I have also collaborated with historian of science Robin Scheffler (MIT, Science, Technology and Society) to examine how the National Cancer Institute planned vaccines against human viruses not yet known to exist during the 1960s and 1970s.

I am currently conducting research with Ian Mullins (UC San Diego, Sociology), Vanessa Carels (UC Berkeley, Neuroscience), and Christopher Pappas (Sacramento State, Sociology) that investigates how political scientists use fMRI data to claim a biological basis for political conservatism. We argue that when political scientists adopt fMRI they elide the controversies surrounding the validity or reliability of these technologies in other disciplines. Abstracting from the case of how political scientists deploy fRMI to investigate political ideologies, we discuss the broader processes relating to the disciplinary transfer of technologies and the implications of this process in the receiving discipline when the controversy surrounding these technologies is lost in translation.

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