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Synthetic Biology and the Social Sciences

BIOS Research Group, Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine, King's College London

Tuesday, 19 June 2012 from 09:00 to 17:00 (BST)

Synthetic Biology and the Social Sciences

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 Social Scientists' Adventures in Synthetic Biology

Fifth and final seminar in the ESRC-funded series on
"Synthetic Biology and the Social Sciences"

Synthetic biology is an emerging field of science and technology that seeks to make biology easier to engineer. A distinctive feature of synthetic biology has been the early-stage attention to social and ethical concerns. In the UK, research councils (BBSRC and EPSRC) have required synthetic biology to address ethical, legal and social issues (ELSI) as an integral part of its research, drawing upon expertise from humanities and social science from the start. Thus, all seven multi-institutional networks in synthetic biology funded by UK research councils had mandatory social scientific involvement; and the EPSRC-funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) is a joint enterprise between Imperial College and the BIOS research group at King's College London, again integrating social scientists from the outset. In the USA, the Human Practices Thrust at SynBERC had similar ambitions. In parallel, artists and designers have also become engaged with synthetic biology, for example through the Synthetic Aesthetics project jointly funded by UK EPSRC and US NSF.

This seminar aims to critically analyse and learn from these early experiments in the involvement of social scientists and other ‘outsiders’ in synthetic biology. It will present findings from the previous four seminars in the series, which explored the possibility of developing a ‘post-ELSI’ interdisciplinary research agenda for the social scientific analysis of synthetic biology, which would consider the societal, ethical and policy dimensions of synthetic biology as embedded within scientific research and innovation. From this perspective, ‘upstream’ engagement with social scientists would not simply be chronologically simultaneous to scientific and policy developments, but would involve fundamentally different conceptions of the relationship between science and society, and therefore between social scientists and synthetic biologists.

The main focus of the seminar will be on UK experiences, but we will also discuss experiences at SynBERC in the USA, and in other European countries.

The main focus of the seminar will be on synthetic biology, but we will seek to draw lessons from similar cross-disciplinary collaboration in other fields of science and engineering, such as nanotechnology.

Intended participants:

  • Synthetic biologists and social scientists who have participated in SB/SS collaborations
  • Artists and designers who have participated in collaboration with synthetic biologists
  • Funders of synthetic biology research and of SB/SS collaborations
  • Scientists, engineers, social scientists and others who have participated in collaborations across social/natural science borders in other fields of research


9:00-9:30        Registration and coffee

9:30-10:30      Jane Calvert, Edinburgh University and the rest of the organising team

                        Introduction to the ESRC seminar series and launch of our “Post-ELSI Manifesto: Towards the Practice of Collaborations for Social and Natural Scientists

                        Discussants:  Karen Polizzi, Imperial College

                                               Ana Delgado, Bergen University

10:30-11:00    Matt Kearnes, University of New South Wales

                        “A post-ELSI manifesto: reflections on the meanings of synthetic biology”

                        Discussant: Ros Rouse, ESRC

11:00-11:30    Break

11:30-12:00    Gaymon BennettThe Center for Biological Futures

                        Mediating Salvation: How SynBERC Proposed to Deliver the Promised Future of Synthetic Biology

                        Sara Aguiton: SciencesPo Paris

12:00-12:30    Pablo Schyfter, University of Edinburgh

                        “ArtSociologyScienceDesignPhilosophyEngineering: Multifaceted collaborations in theory and practice”


13:30-13:30    Lunch

13:30-14:00    Andy Balmer, Manchester University

                        “Make Yourself at Home:  Some Notes Towards Hospitality as an Ethics of Interdisciplinary Collaboration”

                        Discussant: Katie Bulpin, Sheffield University

14:30-15:00    Claire Marris, King’s College London

                        “The Elephant in the room: 'We must avoid another GM'”

                        Discussant: David Guston, Arizona State University

15:00-15:30    Break

15:30-17:00    Collaborative Practical Session on the Manifesto

                        All participants will be invited to help develop the ideas in the Manifesto further: What would your dream collaboration look like? What would be its aim(s)? What would need to change at the level of the research councils, the laboratory, the site of application, etc.?


Do you have questions about Synthetic Biology and the Social Sciences? Contact BIOS Research Group, Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine, King's College London
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