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12 April 2016

Assisted Reproduction and the 4.0 Industry

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Despite the incredible breakthroughs in assisted reproduction and in the genetic technology applied to it, the embryologist profession is still very artisanal. However, the fourth industrial revolution with the development of nanotechnology and robotics could change that very soon: from robotic ICSI to the lab-on-a-chip movement. How can embryologists maintain their added value and what lessons can be learned for other professions that today offer added value and tomorrow could be replaced?

The fourth industrial revolution could wipe out 43% of jobs, according to the conclusions of the 2016 Davos Forum. Robots and nanotechnology can carry out highly accurate and advanced decision-making work even better than human beings. This includes skilled and high value-added jobs, such as that of embryologists in assisted reproduction. In fact, Eeva technology works with algorithms that predict the viability of the development of embryos to be implanted better than professionals with many years of experience and scientific knowledge.

The 4 articles below show the impact of the 4.0 industry on the world of assisted reproduction, an area always at the limit of what is scientifically and ethically possible. Being a paradigmatic area of what is regarded as skilled labor, it can offer valuable lessons for keeping the job or even creating new jobs.

Assisted reproduction and biocapitalism

Assisted reproduction has become part of biocapitalism. On the one hand, because of the commercialization of human life, of the human body or of its parts (commodification), such as gametes and embryos (Scheper-Hughes, 2002; Bestard, 2004, 2007, 2013; Almeling, 2007; Constable, 2009), and on the other because the international flows of patients (cross-border reproductive care or CBRC) are part of the global tourism industry (Bergmann, 2011).

What is the professional position of embryologists in private assisted reproduction clinics today? The embryologist fulfills two main functions. First, it performs the technical laboratory work, which despite being scientific in nature is highly artisanal (Franklin, 2013), meaning a non-industrialized job in the sense of Bravermann (1998) and Senett (1998). In other words, controlled by the workers and meaningful for them. In a clinic’s hierarchy, the embryologist is the “second in command” after the doctor. Their second function is scientific research. Scientific work is crucial for assisted reproduction clinics to be able to improve their success rates.

In terms of salary, the embryologist’s position does not correspond to that of the “second in command”, except for the laboratory director. The abundance of biology graduates in the labor market is not favorable to embryologist salaries. However, because of the artisanal nature of their work, experience is highly valuable and this job is not subject to the de-skilling processes seen in other industries (Bravermann, 1998), and which will be described later.

However, what will the professional evolution of the embryologist be like? There are two factors that lead to believe that their salary’s evolution will not be positive. On the one hand, there is no evidence that there will be a shortage of this professional profile. And on the other, if we examine the work by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Piketty, 2015), we observe that the historical series of macroeconomic data show a growing labor inequality since the 1970s. Moreover, while productivity has kept growing since 1900, in the 1970s salaries stopped increasing. If we analyze the Gini indices on income inequality in Spain we see a sudden and exponential upturn since 2008 in a variable that had been declining since the 1960s.

These trends will not change until the deregulated economy comes to an end or until -for some as yet unknown factor- this framework is overcome. A deregulated framework means more freedom for the financial and business agents and increasingly less bargaining power for workers. For now, this topic is not on the agenda of any institution or political party[1], so an improvement should not be expected in the next 5 years, on the contrary: more flexibility in work and employment contracts, more professionals working in an outsourced manner and fewer labor guarantees backed by the State.

Image: Pixabay (public domain)

The second element that will possibly have a relevant effect on the quality and working conditions of embryologists is technology. We have mentioned that laboratory work is essentially artisanal. Sarah Franklin (2013) claims that the embryology laboratory is an ex vivo uterus, which requires a great deal of attention and skill by the technicians. An industrial machine can never reach the precision of a human being, who also has complex knowledge of the biological processes used. Except for incubators and ERP systems, automating technologies have not shown in embryology laboratories the success that clinical analyses, for example, have had.

Up until now automated technologies had not had the same level of success in the laboratories of embryology than they had in the field of clinical analysis. But this is all changing very rapidly thanks to the development of the technology 4.0. In the next post we will describe how the advances in microfluidics, artifical intelligence  and microrobotics are challenging our conception of quality labor in the laboratory.


[1] Except for emerging parties such as Syriza and Podemos. As we have seen in the case of Syriza, regulatory proposals disappear quickly from the agenda. Even without the pressures received by Greece in the spring of 2015, the relation of forces of the players and the interdependence of global economic flows would render domestic regulations null and void.

Carlos Bezos Deleske

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