Jane Calvert (University of Edinburgh), Paul Martin (University of Nottingham), Matthew Kearnes (Durham University)
Organised byJane Calvert (Innogen) & Emma Frow (Genomics Forum)
VenueGenomics Forum, Edinburgh
The aims of this workshop are twofold: to explore the role of social scientists in synthetic biology, and to put forward some ideas for an agenda for future STS research in this field. There will be a small number of presentations, but the emphasis will be on group discussion.
Recent funding initiatives in synthetic biology have required an ELSI component, and as a result an increasing number of STS researchers are becoming involved in this field. For example, in 2008 the UK Research Councils funded the creation of seven networks in synthetic biology, all of which involve social scientists. Such developments are exciting, but they raise some difficult questions for STS researchers. For example, policy-makers can be heard saying that one reason for involving social scientists ‘upstream’ in synthetic biology is to avoid ‘another GM’. Should social scientists be held responsible for stopping such developments? Furthermore, the ELSI issues associated with synthetic biology already seem to fall under a standard list of headings: biosafety, biosecurity, intellectual property, and ethical concerns over creating ‘life’. To what extent are these topics for STS research?
The first half of the workshop will be ‘inward’ looking, and will address questions such as:
• Why are social scientists being invited to join natural scientists in synthetic biology?• How might we imagine the role and identity of STS researchers in these new configurations?• Should we adopt the ‘ELSI’ label? • Can we avoid tokenism, co-option or becoming part of a public relations exercise?• Can we/should we prevent ‘another GM’?• What is our (imagined) relationship with the ‘public’?
The second half will be more ‘outward’ looking, and will ask, for example:
• What should our objectives be? e.g. should we aspire to help create a more ethically acceptable and socially useful field of research and application?• What can we learn from previous contentious technological areas where STS researchers have been involved?• What can we learn from the experiences of social scientists in synthetic biology programmes in other countries (e.g. the ‘Human Practices’ Thrust of SynBerc)?• Should we adopt the categories of biosecurity, biosafety, etc?• Is there opportunity for a new form of (reciprocally) reflexive research in synthetic biology involving STS researchers, scientists and engineers?• What might be the central elements of an STS research agenda in synthetic biology?