1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Research

The Regulatory Role of Bioinformatics: A Case of Soft Governance (2008-2011)

Sabina Leonelli

Start date




Email: s.leonelli@exeter.ac.uk


The development of online databases is a platform for negotiations among biologists of a variety of expertises, computer scientists, bioinformaticians, public sponsors of research, corporate R&D departments and politicians at both the national and the international levels. The need to agree on what counts as efficient tools for data sharing transforms these negotiations into confrontations about the role, goals and means of regulation within genomic research and its applications.

This project focuses on the institutionalisation of bioinformatic tools for data sharing. A sociological study of the rise of bioinformatics will shed light on how this field and its practitioners have become institutionalised within biological research, and with what consequences for the regulation and practice of biomedical science and its applications.


This projects aims to elaborate a sociological and conceptual analysis of the various kinds of governance affecting genomic research and its applications. To this aim, I will examine how various groups within genomics interact to develop bioinformatic tools for the circulation of data, with particular attention to the decision-making processes through which bioinformatic tools are adopted and maintained; their regulatory impact on data circulation; and the implications of adopting these tools for research practices and networks. I will focus on cases such as the Open Biological Ontologies, the Gene Ontology Consortium and the GARNet, and examine how these consortia have established themselves as a reference point for the regulation of bioinformatic standards.

This investigation leads not only to an improved understanding of the use of bioinformatics as a tool for regulation, but also to an understanding of the relation between hard and soft governance within genomics. By ‘soft’ governance, I mean the bottom-up approach to regulation embodied by the practices and institutional settings through which scientists select and maintain bioinformatic tools. ‘Hard’ governance indicates the top-down approach to regulation fostered by national and international institutions. An analysis of how these two types of regulation interact, and to what effect, is bound to shed light on the nature of governance of genomics. It also enables me to discuss the shifting role of scientific expertise in governance, particularly in relation to other types of expertise playing important roles in the regulation of data sharing (as in the case of national and international policy, marketing, diplomacy and public understanding).


Through semi-structured interview with key scientists, curators and governmental sponsors, I will compare the implementation of bioinformatic tools across several countries, including the UK, the USA, the Netherlands and Belgium, and assess their impact on science governance at both the national and international level.

Project update

As a result of this research, a wide-ranging project studying the impact of has taken shape.


Leonelli, S. (2010) Packaging Data for Re-Use: Databases in Model Organism Biology. In Howlett, P. and Morgan, M.S. (eds) How Well Do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

Leonelli, S. (2010) Machine Science: The Human Side. Science, 330 (6002): 317. 

Leonelli, S. (2010) The Commodification of Knowledge Exchange: Governing the Circulation of Biological Data. In: Radder, H. (ed) The Commodification of Academic Research: Science and the Modern University. Pittsburgh University Press.

Leonelli, S. (2009) Centralising Labels to Distribute Data: The Regulatory Role of Genomic Consortia. In Atkinson, P., Glasner, P. and Lock, M. (eds) The Handbook for Genetics and Society: Mapping the New Genomic Era. London: Routledge, pp. 469-485.

Leonelli, S., (2008) 'Regulating Data Travel in the Life Sciences: The Impact of Commodification.' LSE Working Papers on the Nature of Evidence: How Well Do ‘Facts’ Travel? 27(08).