Tea in TiP: Interview with Visiting Professor Mark Elam

Continuing our series of ‘Tea in TiP’ informal interviews with visitors to the group, here is a conversation with visiting professor Mark Elam. We cover Mark’s professional trajectory, his recent research projects on smoking controversies and the development of nuclear waste management in Sweden, and his plans for future research .

Rachel: Hi Mark! Welcome to TiP. Can you tell us what institutes have you worked at before, and what are you up to while you’re at TiP?

Mark: Born in London I started academic life as a geography student in the UK during the 1980s (LSE and Hull) then ended up doing a PhD in Technology and Social Change at Linköping University in Sweden. Thereafter, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Denmark for 6 years in the 1990s (DTU and University of Copenhagen) before joining the Department of Sociology at the University of Gothenburg where I am currently professor. So I’m something of a migrating North Sea creature with a now long-standing interest in social studies of science, technology and innovation. It is wonderful to be back in Copenhagen on a part-time (30%) basis as a visiting professor at TiP for three years. As well as helping out with teaching on the MSc. In Digital Innovation and Management I look forward to the opportunity to initiate new research with colleagues at TiP.

Rachel: Tell us about your current research projects

Mark: In recent years I have been researching patterns of innovation and risk minimization in relation to two particular matters of global concern: cigarette smoking and nuclear waste management. So I’m currently a bit of a nerd when it comes to controversies over nicotine replacements and substitutes for cigarettes and the geological disposal of spent nuclear fuel. In both these fields, Sweden has been a leading innovator since the 1970s.

When the connection between smoking and lung cancer first became known in the 50s and 60s, cigarette smoking was classed as a problem of drug habituation not addiction/dependence. Literally everyone smoked at this time making the idea that smokers closely resembled illicit drug users a bit hard to swallow. Even the addiction scientists smoked (pipes typically) in the 1960s. However, by the end of the 1980s opinion had turned and smoking was declared a problem of nicotine addiction by the U.S. Surgeon General. How did this shift take place? In my research I argue that the Swedish invention of Nicorette® chewing gum in the 1970s played an important role. Many new drug problems arise as medicinal drugs ‘leak’ out into illicit drug markets (e.g. heroin, Oxycontin®), but the smoking habit became a drug problem as nicotine replacement therapies globally diffused as smoking cessation aids.

I’m also interested in how basic psychopharmacological research triggered in part by the invention of Nicorette® gum helped to advance a new ‘brain disease’ model of addiction gaining currency from the 1990s onwards. This model is associated with the controversial identification of a growing range of behavioural addictions including pathological gambling disorder and internet addiction.

[You can read Mark’s paper on the Nicorette® story here one on the ‘brain disease’ model of addiction which will appear here in Science as Culture shortly.]

Rachel: And what about the nuclear work? Are you looking at both historical and contemporary developments there as well?

Mark: Yes, collaborating with Göran Sundqvist from Oslo I’ve been studying both current and historical aspects of the development of nuclear waste management in Sweden and internationally for approaching ten years now. Swedish nuclear waste politics were particularly tumultuous during the 1970s and 80s, but the long-term outcome of past conflicts is that Sweden has become a recognized technological leader in the field. One aspect we have looked at is how technical and political rationalities guiding the development of the field interact. So how, for example, the relative importance of natural and engineered barriers in geological disposal solutions are negotiated determining how much attention should be paid to physical bedrock versus the bedrock of local public opinion when siting controversial facilities.

The unique time frames guiding nuclear waste management make the field fascinating to study. Imagine designing a technology and trying to claim that it is capable of working for 100,000 years without need of repair! You are just asking for controversy and there is plenty available to research.

[A recent article of Mark’s called ‘Meddling in Swedish success in nuclear waste managment’ is available in Environmental Politics here.]

Rachel: Fascinating. What about research coming up? What are you interested in developing while you’re with us at TiP?

Mark: I would like to take the opportunity to develop new research interests while at TiP. A logical step for me would be to look further into the e-cigarette phenomenon but I have also started applying for funding to study compulsive free-to-play app-based games. I have been inspired by STS research on the development of machine gambling and think this offers insights into the current development of mobile games. So I am thinking of a shift from focusing on psychoactive substance (nicotine) to ‘psychoactive services’ like free-to-play games. I’m also currently collaborating with some security studies people in Gothenburg and have applied for funding to look at emerging technologies of seaport security governance. If this funding comes through this would be another area of concern I would like to bring into TiP discussions.

Rachel: As you’re visiting from Sweden but have lived in Denmark, what do you try to pick up when you’re over here?

Mark: I like to stock up with tea at A.C. Perch on Kronprinsensgade, although I don’t go into the city centre that often, coming over the bridge to the ITU. I’m also a habitual consumer of fynsk rygeost (Funen smoked cheese) which I invariably pick up at Irma before taking the train home to Varberg.

Posted in News.