ESRC Seminar Series: Synthetic biology and the Social Sciences

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


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Description Synthetic biology is a new field which draws on both biology and engineering to design and construct new living things, or parts of living things, and to modify existing ones. Synthetic biology promises social and economic benefits, but because of its potential to create life 'from scratch', it also raises many social and ethical concerns. This has led to a great deal of policy interest in the field, and to the early-stage involvement of social scientists. The central aim of this seminar series was to build a network of social scientists who are critically engaged in the analysis of synthetic biology.

Social scientists have become involved in various different synthetic biology initiatives in the UK, but they have been dispersed institutionally, collaborating with different scientists, and coming from different disciplinary perspectives. The ESRC seminar series brought these social scientists together to share and build upon their experiences, and to explore the development an interdisciplinary research agenda for the social scientific analysis of synthetic biology. This cumulated in the final seminar with the public release of an online 'manifesto for experimental collaborations between social and natural scientists', which has provoked comments and responses (see The manifesto has been developed into a co-authored paper (Balmer, A et al. (2015) 'Taking Roles in Interdisciplinary Collaborations: Reflections on working in Post-ELSI Spaces in the UK Synthetic Biology Community' Science and Technology Studies 28 (3): 3-25).
Exploitation Route Our experiences of collaborations between social scientists and synthetic biologists will be of relevance to those engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations in other areas of emerging science and technology.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Synthetic Biology UK Roadmap Coordination Group
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Our engagement with policy-relevant issues during the seminar series led to invitations for Calvert and Marris to join the Synthetic Biology UK Roadmap Coordination Group, Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Calvert and Marris are co-authors of the Roadmap, published in July 2012 (see Kearnes was involved in the equivalent roadmapping exercise in Australia.
Description Biology Week event; Synthetic Biology; could we? should we? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A public event hosted by the Royal Institution, London as part of Biology Week. A panel of experts - including Susan Molyneux-Hodgson as the only social scientist - debated the topic 'Synthetic Biology: how far could it go: how far should it go?' The audience of a couple of hundred was accessed and the event was filmed by RI for their dedicated YouTube Channel. To date, the video has been viewed 11,900 times. The comments/discussion on the video are extensive and include a very wide range of opinions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Rearranging research relations : the making of new forms of collaboration between STS and science and engineering 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Session as part of Society for Social Studies of Science and European Association for the Study of Science and Technology joint meeting. New forms of collaboration between social scientists and natural scientists/ engineers are being encouraged by research funders. These

developments are part of broader attempts to fundamentally restructure research systems as a means of fostering innovation and securing

public legitimacy. Whilst they offer new opportunities they also pose major questions about the role and independence of STS research.

This panel emerges from a series of workshops and debates on the place of STS within the emerging bioscience of synthetic biology, where

the STS community has attempted to define new roles and practices. Many researchers find themselves entangled in scientific communities,

and with scientific research objects, in ways that feel novel, but also are challenging and destabilising. In attempting to address these issues

different (imagined) roles such as collaborators, co-operators and critics have been differentiated as a means to refine relations beyond bland

notions such as being 'inter-disciplinary' and to give meaning to the kinds of engagement that STS researchers assemble in their research

practice. The panel seeks to address the overarching question of whether, and in what ways, relations between STS researchers and

science/engineering researchers are taking new forms and how we might respond to these opportunities and challenges.

This conference session spread knowledge of the ESRC seminar series to the international community of academics in Science and Technology Studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description Royal Society Panel Debate at Hay Literary Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Royal Society organised evening session at the Hay Literary Festival (May 2017). Susan Molyneux-Hodgson the representative for the social sciences on the Panel with 3 senior scientist, to discuss 'genetic technologies'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017