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‘Transport to where?’: Reflections on the problem of value and time à propos an awkward practice in medical research

Based upon Kenyan ethnography, this article examines the gap between the bioethics aversion to value transfers in clinical trials, and research participants' and researchers' expectations of these. This article focuses upon so-called 'transport reimbursement' (TR): monetary payments to participants that are framed as mere refund of transport expenses, but which are of considerable value to recipients. The interest in this case lies not so much in the unsurprising gap between regulatory norms and poor study subjects' lives, but in the way in which this discrepancy between bioethical discourse and materialities of survival is silenced. In spite of the general awareness that TR indeed is about the material value of research, about value calculation, and expectations of return, it is not publicly discussed as such - unless ironically, in jest, or in private. This double-blindness around 'reimbursement' has provoked discussions among ethicists and anthropologists, some of which propose that the work that generates scientific value should be recognised as labour and participants, accordingly, paid. Here, this paper argues that such a re-vision of trial participation as work rather than as a gift for the public good, risks abrogating the possibility of 'the public' that is not only a precondition of public medical science, but also its potential product. The supposedly radical solution of tearing away the veils of misrecognition that 'free' gifting ideology lays upon the realities of free labour, though analytically plausible, fails to recognise the utopian openings within clinical trial transactions that point beyond the present - towards larger forms of social association, and towards future alignments of scientific possibilities and human lives.

Categories: Clinical research
Geography: Kenya
Reference: Geissler PW. 20100. 'Transport to Where?': Reflections on the problem of value and time à propos an awkward practice in medical research. J Cult Econ;4(1):45–64.