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Blind watchmen: the value of strategic ignorance at the FDA

Dr Linsey McGoey
University of Essex
Date: 13 November 2012
Time: 1pm - 2.30pm
KSW 3.01


In 2012, the New York Times reported that the FDA had conducted an extensive surveillance operation of scientists working at the FDA, drawing up what the Times called an "enemies list" of its own staff in order to suppress criticism of the agency's drug review processes. At first glance, the FDA's surveillance techniques are a clear reflection of Weber's definition of bureaucratic rationality as "the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge." But a closer examination of recent FDA controversies reveals a more complex picture. In this paper, drawing on interviews with FDA staff, I suggest that FDA officials deliberately harnessed their own ignorance in order to review drugs swiftly in the face of industry and public concerns over the sluggish pace of drug approvals. In the case of Vioxx, Avandia, and bestselling antidepressants such as Prozac, staff would often compete over who could prove to have the least knowledge of the risk-benefit profile of a new drug, pointing to ambiguity over drug effectiveness in order to hasten drugs to market or to lobby for their removal. In contrast to Weberian and Foucauldian emphases of the links between knowledge and power, I argue that strategic ignorance - the effort to find creative ways of deterring knowledge from emerging in the first place - is an underappreciated mainstay of regulatory authority. For obvious motivations, the social sciences have placed a premium on their main currency – knowledge itself – at the expense of appreciating the value of ignorance as a political and economic asset.

About the speaker

Dr. McGoey moved to Essex after a PhD in Sociology at LSE’s BIOS centre, followed by an ESRC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography, and a James Martin fellowship in science and technology studies at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, based at the Said Business School, University of Oxford. Dr. McGoey's research is focused on three broad areas. First, the sociology of ignorance and the usefulness of strategic unknowns in asserting expertise, evading liability and consolidating authority in daily and organizational life. Second, the politics of “philanthrocapitalism,” and a study of how new philanthropic players such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are reshaping the fields of global health and education delivery in US and global contexts, often with unintended or unspoken consequences. Finally, a third, nascent project is focused on the politics of abundance, exploring how a range of theorists, from Sen to Bataille, have reconfigured notions of scarcity, excess and surplus wealth.