Debating CRISPR/cas9 and Mitochondrial Donation: Continuity and Transition Performances at Scientific Conferences

Neil Stephens, Rebecca Dimond


Conferences are important performative sites. Here we detail a UK science policy conference debating the novel biomedical techniques CRISPR/cas9 and mitochondrial donation. Both techniques have received significant attention from scientists and bioethicists about their clinical potential, social implications, and the prospects of genetic and germline modification. In many countries the policy debates on regulating both technologies is ongoing and operating in tandem. The UK, however, is operating in a distinct policy context in that mitochondrial donation was formally legalized under license in 2015, meaning the British CRISPR/cas9 debates occur in the light of a confirmed policy position on mitochondrial donation. Our analysis of the Progress Educational Trust 2015 annual conference ‘From Three-Person IVF to Genome Editing’ argues that this event conducted important staging work in articulating the relationship between these two technologies in the UK. These efforts constitute what we call a ‘transition performance’ that (i) enacted the successful resolution of the mitochondrial donation policy debate, (ii) performed the success of British biomedical politics, and (iii) opened the space for a public debate on CRISPR/cas9 in line with a specifically configured set of legitimacy practices. Subsequently the conference contrasts to many other conferences that fit what we term a ‘continuity performance’ that seek to assert consistency and progress through iteration. We close by articulating further applications and developments of these notions in Science and Technology Studies.


scientific conferences; CRISPR; cas9; mitochondrial donation; mitochondria; gene editing; performative; performativity; embryo politics

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Copyright (c) 2016 Neil Stephens, Rebecca Dimond

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