20 Nov 2013 2:30pm - 4:30pm CRASSH, Seminar room SG2, Ground floor


The Elusive Lab:  Roundtable on Scientific Infrastructure in Africa


Professor David Dunne (Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge)

Dr Wenzel Geissler (Division Social Anthropology, University of Oslo and University of Cambridge)

Dr Ferdinand Okwaro (African Studies, University of Cambridge)

Dr Branwyn Poleykett (Division Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Dr Noemi Tousignant (Division Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Professor James Wood (Department of Veterinary Medicine)


Session Abstract 

From self-representations of early Imperial scientists to critical analyses by historians of colonial science a century later, Africa has been described as a laboratory, notably of medical and biological sciences, and by extension of social and political forms. In practice, this trope points to the fact that Africa itself was then the site of experimentation, a vast field of data collection connected to sites of analysis largely located outside the continent. Transnational configurations of African science have limited investments in actual lab infrastructure on the continent. Before the 1940s, there were few efforts  to build up coherent laboratory infrastructures beyond isolated outposts of metropolitan institutions. More recently the decay of these structures and those built during the developmental decades of the 1940s-1970s, and the concomitant rise of few globally networked high-end research laboratories lends the image of Africa as field-cum-laboratory new purchase.

The tension referenced by this metaphor – between science and empire, between human bodies, knowledge, power and value – and the questions it raises about the place of Africa in a global division of scientific labour remain pertinent. This panel discussion addresses these issues through a more limited and material focus on African laboratories as buildings, apparatus, technicians and routines –exploring memories and remains of their pasts, their present state and future promise.

Laboratories in Africa are critical sites for diagnosing diseases and maintaining human well-being; they train future technologists, doctors and scientists; they can serve to inform governments and policy through regular survey and monitoring data; and they produce, under shifting global regimes and priorities, scientific knowledge. Yet although the continent does need more and better laboratories, it is less clear what kinds of labs, for what purpose and for whom.

Today’s panel brings together leading life-scientists with extensive experience from health research and laboratory work, and the making of laboratories in Africa, and anthropologists and historians of African science, to address questions of the past and future of labs as scientific infrastructure in Africa: What have been the obstacles to building up lab infrastructures in Africa, and how might these change? What has motivated the creation of labs in Africa? How have developments in scientific and health technology, from scientific miniaturisation (test kits, mobile phone diagnostics…) to networked extension of science (data pooling, multi-site research consortia…), changed what counts as an effective lab in Africa? What futures do African laboratories hold, what labs  will be needed in the future, and how does one build, a century or more into the ‘African laboratory’, laboratory infrastructure that is relevant to African needs and materially and scientifically sustainable?


Open to all. No registration required

Civic Matter: Infrastructure as Politic

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