Review of The Market in Mind: How Financialization Is Shaping Neuroscience, Translational Medicine, and Innovation in Biotechnology. Mark Dennison Robinson, Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2019, 239 pp.

Reviewed Book

The Market in Mind: How Financialization Is Shaping Neuroscience, Translational Medicine, and Innovation in Biotechnology. Mark Dennison Robinson, Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2019, 239 pp.

The Market in Mind: How Financialization Is Shaping Neuroscience, Translational Medicine, and Innovation in Biotechnology. Mark Dennison Robinson, Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2019, 239 pp.

Cover of The Market in Mind (2019)

Alberto Eduardo Morales

Princeton University

What are the current capacities of translational neuroscience in developing psychopharmaceutical therapies when much of biological knowledge production in this field of research is in transition? Based on 2010 fieldwork, The Market in Mind offers a multifaceted discussion chronicling the development of translational neuroscience in the United States and the intricate effects of such modes of knowledge production and accompanying financial arrangements on ideas of biology.

Translational neuroscience (TN), a form of translational science and medicine (TSM), is “focused on accelerating the development of novel brain technologies,” including psychopharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and devices. The Market in Mind demonstrates how the development of TN has been shaped by an urgency for commercialization, or the creation of market-ready products, and the production of profits. As Robinson argues, such research efforts and financial arrangements to bring knowledge out of the laboratory have reoriented the mass of public science funding and shaped epistemological changes in the life sciences.

The book takes readers on a multi-sited journey into the changing research university, the highly designed laboratory spaces, and the intimate conference settings of scientists. It highlights the experiences of neurobiologists, venture capitalists, intellectual property lawyers, and a few other figures shaping TSM and central nervous system (CNS) markets. Each chapter addresses TN entanglements with the financial world of biotechnology and the corporate life sciences while also offering reflections on the changing semiotics of health, therapeutics, knowledge production, and biological materials under neoliberalist logics.

Robinson opens the book with a more historical approach, weaving some ethnographic vignettes throughout to trace the development of TN vis-à-vis shifting changes in the pharmaceutical industry’s management of risks and the recent financial and scientific rearrangements shaping the role of the research university. In the wake of pharmaceutical divestments and the emergence of the increasingly entrepreneurial university, Robinson’s main argument is that TN intersects and becomes a solution for the financial costs and risks associated with biotechnology innovation. Robinson contends that such risks emerge due to overleveraging problematic models in neuroscience and neuropsychiatry. Where diseases are not always well understood and biotechnologies do not always work, Robinson proposes that TN comes together to “produce order in the throes of biological, social, and biotechnological chaos” (p. 15).

Exploring the growing entanglement between academic research (university science) and market-oriented approaches transforming scientific knowledge production, Robinson compellingly argues that TN should be considered a form of finance and not merely a new form of science or medicine. Through a series of ethnographic vignettes coupled with tracing historical and significant university-pharmaceutical partnerships, Robinson repeatedly demonstrates how biopharmaceutical companies have outsourced the riskiest parts of early-stage research and development to universities. As the university laboratory transforms in relation to private investments and risky bioscience, educational outcomes and epistemological practices for university-based science are notably constituted by entrepreneurial thinking and stakeholders’ agendas.

Robinson also uncovers how TN and CNS research is replete with knowledge risks associated with the inefficacy of some of the psychopharmaceuticals recently marketed. CNS research and its outputs—in the form of porous psychopharmaceuticals—are packed with knowledge problems and scientific ambiguities such that their consumers, suggests Robinson, ingest these (various scientific, knowledge, and health) risks. Nevertheless, despite the knowledge problems of efficacy attached to psychopharmaceuticals, CNS research offers the possibility of financial returns due to increasing mental health markets.

Later chapters explore themes ranging from the design, infrastructure, and the epistemic effects created by translational science discourse and imaginaries to the worlds of the patient and the complex relationship between TN and the clinic. Robinson draws attention to design as part of the translational vision that shapes knowledge actions, arguing that translational thinking and actions are informed by a set of overarching ideals about the aims of knowledge. As a result, specific knowledge environments become “neoliberal fantasies about innovation,” affecting the kind of knowledge created and the varied forms people engage in scientific work (p. 136). In various chapters, Robinson briefly addresses the moral and ethical dimensions of engineering environments for translational medicine and thinking yet leaves unaddressed whose moral and ethical prescriptions matter in shaping trajectories for knowledge workers and the future of health.

While compellingly written, some chapters could use reorganization or more connective tissue between the sections. Chapter 5, for example, is an ambitious chapter that might have been split into two chapters. It starts with an exploration of the neurotechnology investor conference and its crucial role in shaping TN funding and practices; moves to examine the social networks that constitute intellectual property value and the role of information and knowledge exchange in these networks; then pivots to underscore the discursive production around biological materials; and ends with crucial insights on the partially constituted patient subject of neuroscience. By the end of the chapter, it can be easy to lose the threads that bring these things together, and one is left wondering how these sections answered the beginning question. Aside from this, Robinson gives a piercing analysis of what people say about the ever-expanding set of phenomena labeled neurotechnology or brain science and the underlying markets that animate investments in them.

The Market in Mind could have benefited from a deeper conversation with more anthropologists and science scholars examining speculative markets, science and finance, and the political economy of the life sciences. Another point of engagement that could have used deeper attention is the analysis of infrastructure and knowledge practices. The analytical work of two science studies scholars come to mind, Michelle Murphy’s (2017) “epistemic infrastructures” and Nicole Nelson’s (2013) “epistemic scaffolds.”

One of the book’s laudable strengths is its intermingling of methods combining a careful examination of documents with an analysis of interviews and ethnographic experiences. There are vibrant metaphors for the study of finance and knowledge production that help us understand recent epistemological shifts in the life sciences. These include Robinson’s proposed “epistemology of parts,” “semipermanent commercial architectures,” and “systems of epistemological contouring.” Readers may enjoy finding the rest as they read the book.

The Market in Mind would be a perfect addition to an advanced undergraduate course in critical medical anthropology, graduate courses on methods, and science and technology studies seminars addressing the shifting life sciences and finance. In addition, professionals working on science policy, knowledge management, and entrepreneurial design may find that this work helps them understand neuroscience’s failures and its impact on society and the constitution of the patient self.

References Cited

Murphy, M. 2017. The Economization of Life. London: Duke University Press.

Nelson, N. C. 2013. Modeling Mouse, Human, and Discipline: Epistemic Scaffolds in Animal Behavior Genetics. Social Studies of Science 43: 3–29.