Aihwa Ong


On her book Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life

Cover Interview of January 17, 2017


The constellation of life scientists is now diverse, and they are busy pushing the frontiers of life. New milieus are emerging at the intersection of science, markets, politics and ethics. How life is discovered, tweaked, decanted, owned, traded, and valued is being decided in Asia as well as in the West.

We need to adjust our lens for understanding life and science in contemporary times. The Western-centric view of Global Health implies that global ills can only be (sporadically) managed by Western agencies such as the WHO, the Gates Foundation, or humanitarian NGOs. This view blinds us to the reality that the life sciences are being transformed by many other institutions.

In newly affluent Asia, most health interventions are managed by the state. Biopolis is a state-initiative, but it is also weaving a new science ecosystem through public-private partnerships with overseas institutes. Post-SARS, the focus is on mobilizing collaborations, samples, and resources in a fractious region for combating emerging epidemics. Some assistance from the WHO and the U.S. military medical research units arrive during an emergency, but the state supervises the work of virus surveillance, field tests, vaccine development and quarantine in anticipation of biosecurity threats.

Life scientists in Asia consider themselves, unlike say in the classic fields of chemistry or physics, at the same starting point as their counterparts in the West. They quickly adopt, refine methods such as IPS cell technique or gene-editing. They are quite capable of scientific innovations. As in the West, the science is speeding ahead of ethical caution and guidelines, and of the public’s understanding.

I hope Fungible Life engenders public discussions about life sciences in Asia. Citizens are barely aware of what experts, ensconced in their gleaming aeries, are doing to life itself. Often, a controlled media and limited interest in science have kept the public complaisant and happy to leave life science decisions in expert hands. At Biopolis, researchers tinker with IPS cells and genetically modify mosquitoes, all for good public ends. In China’s diverse and poorly regulated science world, some scientists may seek to design novel life forms for strictly commercial ends. Of course, in the United States, maverick scientists have created synthetic life forms, purportedly to help us adjust to an environmentally damaged world. As the blurring of life and science accelerates, the public anywhere needs to be more informed and consulted.

The life sciences involve, in different degrees, our lives and those of our children. An international consortium of life scientists and individual governments can play a more rigorous role in regulating the conduct of the life science and its myriad goals. Public forums, universities and the media can promote discussions of troubling experiments, the ethical limits therein, and visions of life that are sustainable and spiritual. We need to expand debates about novel life forms that can take on a life of their own.