An evil person’s guide to doing public engagement badly

A few weeks ago Deborah Scott and I were invited to participate in an interdisciplinary workshop organised by the Eastern ARC on synthetic biology and society. For my presentation I basically gave Claire Marris’ paper ‘The Construction of Imaginaries of the Public as a Threat to Synthetic Biology’. As this would have been too lazy though, I changed things up, by using the paper to create an evil person’s guide to doing public engagement badly. Here is that guide! (Seeing as we are heading into iGEM season this post might also be of particular use to any teams planning on doing some public engagement). Steps 1-4 are my own, but reflect what I learnt from the Marris paper.

Step 1 – Misunderstand what publics is

Stills taken, from top to bottom: Independence Day (1996) rights Twentieth Century Fox; Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) rights Michael White Productions, National Film Trustee Company, Python (Monty) Pictures; The Hunger Games (2012) rights Lions Gate.

Evil guidance: Make sure that you only conceive of the public as either; a group that needs saving from itself; as a neutral mass of lemmings whose views can be easily swayed; or as wild-eyed political extremists.

In her paper Marris looks at the ways in which the public is imagined by policy makers and by scientists, these three versions of the public being amongst the most common. So instead of relying on these imaginaries of the public, public engagement folk should be open to drawing on a far wider range of conceptualisations of the public, and be aware that the publics they engage in any given exercise are necessarily limited. In many cases they might end up asking whether general ‘public engagement’ exercises should not really be replaced by things that are much more specific, and to do with targeted groups.

Step 2 – Only allow certain framings

Still from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) rights Warner Bros. Pictures.

Evil guidance: Make sure you decide ahead of time what positions are legitimate, and which illegitimate, so that you can identify the bad eggs. If people start talking in ways that you do not understand, or which sound a bit threatening to you, just make sure they are pre-assigned as ‘not open for discussion’.

While it is obvious that engagement exercises can’t be completely open-ended, it is important not to eliminate what for some organisers might be unpredictable significance’s that publics bring to the table. More important is the need to listen and perhaps readjust one’s own understanding of the event or exercise, in light of such responses. If an event is organised in such a way that it is impossible for alternative perspectives to be shared, or in ways that make them easy to marginalise, then it hasn’t really been a public engagement exercise, but something more like propaganda. If in the planning of the exercise organisers are too focused on ‘making it a success’, they might take measures to avoid people ‘rocking the boat’ etc. but if taken too far then again this will end up missing the engagement mark. Organisers need to be committed to the possibility that the whole thing might fall apart, because that collapse is all part of doing engagement well.

Step 3 – It’s the ignorance, stupid!

Still from Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) rights Lucasfilm.

Evil guidance: The main reason to do public engagement is because any problems the public has with ‘the science’ is due to fear, and that fear has been caused by ignorance. If they only understood more, they would adopt the correct view.

Broadly conceived as the deficit model, this is absolutely detrimental to any valuable form of public engagement. It is a point about public engagement work that people in the synbio space have no doubt heard made on many occasions, but I include it here again for completeness (it also seems to require repeating quite a bit). Public engagement pursued on these terms is just about people who already agree on a topic telling each other that they agree. It is not really engagement at all. Rather, as Marris emphasises, we should not shy away from opportunities to draw on people with very different views, and within settings that are far from easily managed. 

Step 4 – Don’t be a Negative Nelly or a Critical Thinking Chris!

Still from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) rights Warner Bros.

Evil guidance: Look, people like science because it blows their mind. That’s the main thing. So let’s just focus on these aspects! Let’s focus on how science can be so artful, and how artful science can be. No need to complicate the picture! Moreover, anyone who does seem to have a slightly tricky question, or an issue that is causing them concern, that person is probably an undesirable, or part of the anti-science brigade. OR they don’t really understand what science is all about. So go forth my science communicators, with your springiest of steps and smiliest of smiles, and charm them into line.

Critical thinking can sometimes involve criticism, but often does not. And creating space for critical thinking is one of the most important things a public engagement exercise can accomplish. If organisers are feeling the need to make sunshine and rainbows central, they should ask themselves why. If organisers find they can’t enjoy and explore criticism, again they should ask themselves why. Perhaps there is something in their own perspective that they are insecure about, which could be fruitfully explored in the engagement.

That’s all from us this time, as ever we’d enjoy comments and criticisms in the below.

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What about the frogs?: Reflections on ‘Community and Identity in the Techno-Sciences’ workshop

Our post this month comes from Chris Mellingwood, a PhD student affiliated with and contributing to the Engineering Life project. You can contact Chris on c.r.mellingwood [at]

The sight of un-melted dirty snow on an urban street may not seem that interesting.  More importantly, “what the hell has this to do with frogs?!” I hear you say. Well, I want to suggest that frogs and snow are much alike, with an important difference that I’ll come to later. The reason frogs come in at all is thanks to a paper included in a STS workshop hosted in Austria on ‘Communities and Identities in Contemporary Techno-Sciences’. The title of my paper was ‘Experimental automation: Amphibious practices in UK bioscience’, and amphibious practices are one way that I have conceptualised observations made over a number of years in UK academic biosciences labs, more specifically, labs trying to fully automate parts of their experimental systems. Although I have observed strikingly different contexts for laboratory automation in UK academia, one similarity across all sites has been the presence of researchers who are comfortable within both ‘wet’ biological labs and ‘dry’ computer science labs – they are amphibians. Frogs.

So, walking down this sunny Vienna street on my way to the workshop I noticed the soot-covered snow drift, one which was noticeable thanks to its being out of place, and thought about my frogs, about how they fit with their place, and about how both snow and amphibians each have a duality. Snow is both solid and liquid, a frog requires both wet and dry habitat to survive. The word amphibian derives from the Latin-Greek ‘amphibios’ which translates literally as ‘living a double life’.  The double life of snow, you could say is constant transition from solid to liquid, from ice to water and eventually as hydrogen and oxygen evaporating in to the atmosphere. And here’s the important difference between frogs and snow, a frog must maintain the duality of wet and dry, amphibians are simultaneously land and water species, they do not switch or transform at the point of leaving or entering one domain or another. Frogs do not have the same transience as the patch of snow I snapped on my way to the workshop.

The conference, however, was stock-full of perspectives on the transient, fragile and unstable dimensions of both community and identity. For example, in contemporary sciences fixed-term contracts and finite funding cycles result in constant movement of people between projects and locations; community in this sense is always in flux. Similarly, and related to such multiple belongings across different communities, identity was conceptualised as being continually re-enacted. A number of presentations highlighted the identity-work that goes on as individuals identify- with one group or another. A clear example of this kind of identity-work, from my own PhD research, is the way that the label of ‘synthetic biologist’ is taken on, ignored, or outright rejected by laboratory users who seem to be using very similar tools in the laboratory, but have differing aims, expectations and affiliations.

The key point for me here is the tension between constant transition and the need to hold any research object still to undertake meaningful analysis. The labels attached to particular disciplines, be that systems biology, synthetic biology, or biodesign are but one example of these perpetual transitions. Seen cynically, as a number of workshop participants noted, affiliations with one label or another can come down to strategic decision-making about how best to secure the next round of funding. This may be the case for prospective PIs during grant writing processes but, for the postdocs in my cases at least, there was something more fundamental about why they took on certain identities or threw their hat in with certain groups.

For this small but important group of frogs across my research sites, disciplinary labelling did not seem to feature in their self-conceptualisations; they often articulated multiple belongings – as, say, both computer science programmers and ‘green fingered’ wet lab biologists – but these identities were intertwined with individual autobiographical narratives that reflected the multiple, and sometimes contradictory trajectories that bring people in to careers. In the same way I am holding the snow in a fixed-state in my picture however, informants in my cases also had to hold their own lives still to recount and explain how they seemed to have found belonging across the multiple worlds of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ lab science.

This brings us back to an important theme coming out of the conference for me, tensions between stability and dissolution. What can be seen, for example, when this shrinking pile of snow catches the eye of a passer-by? Is it a tangible sign that winter is now giving way to spring? Or will a Viennese local be transported back those few short days to a city blanketed in glistening white? As for me, an outsider in several ways the left-over snow was anachronistic, out of time and place, entirely dissonant from the previous hour’s experience, taking in Vienna’s stunning architecture under crystal blue skies. In short, the snow pile represents a multitude of possible pasts, always to some degree unknown because what people see and feel when standing on this corner, looking at this pile of soot and ice depends largely on their connection to this place at this particular time.

From unknowable pasts to seemingly predictable futures then. Do we ‘know’ that the ice will soon turn to water, solid to liquid, evaporating in to the atmosphere and finally leaving no trace of the rapid changes in season that have been and gone? Perhaps, but the traces of those changes will be left behind in each individual’s experience, some fleeting – like my own – others inherently stickier as those experiences are reflected back by others also sharing that time and place. This, it seems, is the power of community, to act as a repository of collective experience making, firmly connected to a shared space (physical or virtual), and often anchored to a particular period of time. Now that I have described them to you, will the amphibious researcher become all the more visible? Or will certain sets of skills always be appreciated at their parts rather than their whole?

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Pablo Schyfter article, ‘A nature with their nature’, in LA+ issue on simulation

This month Dr Pablo Schyfter has featured in LA+ (Landscape Architecture Plus). You can find the full issue and Dr Schyfter’s article here.

For those without access to this journal, we upload the final draft here.

Schyfter, 2016, A nature with their nature

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Creation, Care and Complicity: exploring synthetic biology with the Golem

By Deborah Scott

This post is a continuation of thoughts prompted by the Shuffle Festival. Other scholars more systematically consider the role of fiction and legends in how societies understand and seek to influence science and technology. If, like me, you aren’t very familiar with this literature, maybe this blog post will serve as an inspiration to explore further (I, for one, have ordered delightfully promising library books…It’s a start). If you are trained in this area, by all means, please school me.

In my previous post, I argued that Jurassic Park – for all its awesomeness – is no longer operating as a useful narrative to open up conversation around areas of science and technology such as synthetic biology. Instead, it serves as a short-cut to certain standpoints in what are becoming well-worn debates on novelty, control, and trust. Anyone who has been part of public discussions on the life sciences will probably agree that the story of Frankenstein has come to play a similar role. So then, what stories can we use to orient our conversations as we consider emergent areas such as synthetic biology.

First, let’s step back and consider what we are asking of fiction. Science fiction is often asked to play an anticipatory role – what will be the next cutting edge science, and what will be its unintended impacts. In this mode, we ask sci-fi authors to crouch on the hood of The Steamroller of Science, casting their light onto the near future, alerting the driver to potholes, keeping us all on The Road to Progress. And bear in mind, this is a steamroller we are talking about; it’s gotta be a dang big pothole to require a route diversion. (The poor sci-fi author. A constant crick in the neck, a glaring headache from peering into the obscured landscape ahead. Is that a cliff’s edge? Will it mean an uptick in sales, or accusations of fear-mongering? Both?)

Instead, I’d rather think of storytelling as helping us envision the journeys we might go on, with different routes, each with its own potential perils and possibilities, leading to a multiplicity of destinations. Stories needn’t be about the current cutting edge to speak to contemporary concerns. Older stories remind us of past fears and dreams, of how our cultures previously navigated compromises and complicities along the way. Should we stick to that route? Have our desired destinations changed?

A classic golem.

A classic golem.

With this in mind, what stories can provide a substrate for enriching conversations around synthetic biology and its governance? Allow me to offer one: the enigmatic figure of the Golem. There are many tales of golems, mostly based in the traditions of Jewish mysticism. A holy man with a few helpers (also holy men) shape an image of a large man out of clay, and through the proper recitation of the proper words, imbue it with power, with energy, with something like a life force. Often this is done by placing the Hebrew word for truth on its forehead, or by placing a scroll under its tongue. The Golem is almost always mute, strong, more or less amoral. Often it is obedient, although this literal obedience sometimes causes trouble; sometimes its desires grow apart from those of its creator and this causes trouble; sometimes it does exactly what is asked of it and there is no trouble at all. The Golem’s creator can stop it, by erasing a letter from its forehead and changing the word to “death,” or by removing the scroll. In some tales, the rabbi is crushed by the collapsing Golem’s body, other times it is no big deal.

Now, you may well be thinking: dude, 20 years late. Okay, yes, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch used the Golem to describe science and technology in their very popular series on understanding controversy and contestation. They chose this figure in order to strip science of enchantment, rooting it firmly as a human endeavour: “Golem Science is not to be blamed for its mistakes; they are our mistakes. A golem cannot be blamed if it is doing its best. But we must not expect too much. A golem, powerful though it is, is the creature of our art and our craft.”


The Shuffle Golem, led by Ionat Zurr & Oron Catts

But Collins & Pinch’s Golem series doesn’t actively engage much with this central metaphor. So, if you’ll allow me, I will follow the lead of others and apply this figure to synthetic biology, and see where it might take us. There are a number of seemingly neat parallels between the figure of the Golem and the figure of synthetic biology as it is coming into being:

A Vision of Control – At the Shuffle festival “Golem” installation, bioartists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr talked about the Golem as a figure that can be stopped if the creator so chooses, speaking against the popular narrative of inexorable, undirectable scientific progress. And yet, from a slightly different angle, we could see synthetic biologists’ attempts to create “kill switches” in micro-organisms, “reverse” gene drives, and other approaches to build-in safety controls as mirrors of the word on the Golem’s forehead, the scroll under its tongue.

Motivations – Golems may be created simply to see if they are possible, but most stories focus on golems created for protection. The Golem of Prague protects its Jewish community from being framed for ritual murder. Synthetic biology is being asked to do many things, including to protect us – from the Zika virus, from the end of peak oil, from hunger and sickness and want.

The Material of the Mundane – Jurassic Park opens in a jungle, where unnamed labourers unearth a chunk of amber with That Mosquito. The creators of the Golem shape him from the humble mud of their city’s river. Some argue that practices of bioprospecting are shifting from exploring areas far from scientific labs to staying at home, using advanced sequencing technologies to mine existing collections and even the back garden.

As one philosopher has pointed out, these are not perfect parallels. But hey, if they were, we’d apply the morals of the story to the practices of the technoscience and be done with it. This is not storytelling to shine a light on the path ahead; this is storytelling to help us think through what paths we might choose to forge. And I find the very multiplicity of golem tales as enriching these discussions. Whereas Jurassic Park 2, 3, and 4 largely repeat themselves, golem tales don’t have the same plots, the same moral lessons. How do we weigh the varied stories of control – between the tales where all works as planned, where all goes terribly wrong, and where all works as planned and yet there are still unintended consequences? Even when the Golem’s creators act with the noblest of intentions, golem tales are often warnings of the dangers of hubris. What if, instead of a small group of holy men devising a solution, the community had been asked what should be done? And if they requested a golem, how might the plot shift if a broader community was involved in its creation and oversight? Does using more mundane material from the scientists’ world affect how they relate to their work? Could it lead to a more intimate connection? What kinds of relations and responsibilities to their work do scientists and corporations have? Should this change when their work involves life?

Sure, Jurassic Park could be used to ask such questions, but at this point it has become a stand-in for pat moral lessons rather than opening up debate. The many tales of the Golem, both old and new, provide a less settled context for engaging with new life sciences. So let’s tell each other tales of golems, of muddy banks and dusty attics, of protectors and vigilantes, of care and complicity. Let’s tell these stories not simply to anticipate what synthetic biology will do for or to us, but to explore. What kinds of creations do we want, and what shapes those desires? What possible permutations of community could exist to look after such creations? Who are the creators we want to be?


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The Jurassic Park Effect: the stories we tell when deciding how to govern emerging science

By Deborah Scott.

I recently took part in the Shuffle Festival, a 24 hour festival in London’s Mile End with the theme of “Gods + Idols + Lights.” In a glade nestled among tall trees and Victorian tombstones, the Shuffle science team programmed science storytelling and participatory art. Biological artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr led the building of a Golem incorporating mud, horse manure, compost, and flasks of cells from hamster ovaries and mouse muscles. Alongside, people sat on picnic blankets and folding chairs while actress Rayyah McCaul read from Julian Huxley’s 1927 short story “The Tissue Culture King” and I talked about Jurassic Park and synthetic biology. This is the first of two posts based on that talk.

I love Jurassic Park. In the mid-1990s, my father came home with ungainly fake-wood-paneled speakers that he set up in different parts of our living room, we popped in the VHS tape, and…That first herd of CGI dinosaurs! The soaring score! The glass of water! The ominous footsteps! T-REX! Cutting edge sight and sound technologies heightened storytelling to a mind-blowing intensity.

T-Rex at the London Museum of Natural History. Disappointingly, there is no picture of a dinosaur in a lab coat on Wiki-media Commons. Yet.

T-Rex at the London Museum of Natural History. Disappointingly, there is no picture of a dinosaur in a lab coat on Wiki-media Commons. Yet.

Today the original Jurassic Park is still invoked, no longer as the cutting edge of movie technology but because of its science. When asked whether he had visited genetic engineering firms in preparation for the book, Michael Crichton replied “Why would I? They don’t know how to make a dinosaur.” But the basic idea of the science of Jurassic Park – that the ability to sequence DNA seamlessly led to the ability to construct an organism – mirrored expectations of genetics at the time. Through DNA sequencing, the Human Genome Project was going to make possible new levels of control over and intervention in our own genetic material. This promise of control, however, did not pan out; one of its legacies was instead greater appreciation for the roles of complexity and contingency in genetics.

But the promise of simplicity and control didn’t die. Synthetic biology’s engineering approach to life can be seen as a way of designing in the desired simplicity, so that biology can be rebuilt rationally. An international network of labs are currently collaborating to construct a synthetic yeast genome; the project aims not just to re-construct the sequenced genome, but to re-design it to be more amenable to control. The majority of uses of synthetic biology that are at or near commercialization involve engineering industrial microorganisms to produce high-value compounds, such as vanillin and the anti-malarial compound found in the shrub Artemisia. Looking beyond the immediate horizon, there are countless promises of what synthetic biology will deliver. Directly reminiscent of Jurassic Park, some “de-extinction” projects make use of synthetic biology tools to work towards creating organisms physically and/or functionally similar to extinct species. For example, the US-based foundation Revive and Restore is supporting research to adapt elephant DNA to include woolly mammoth traits.

Jurassic Park is regularly invoked in relation to cutting edge biological research. In fact, scientists themselves often bring it up. Feng Zhang, one of the developers of CRISPR-Cas9 as a gene-editing tool, points to watching Jurassic Park as a young teenager as helping him realize “biology might also be a programmable system.” Tom Ellis raised a laugh at the synthetic yeast conference by showing this image of the charismatic scientist leading their project. Richard V. Solé et al. consider how their proposal to use synthetic organisms to “terraform the Earth” might be challenged by the “Jurassic Park Effect: even designed systems aimed to population control can eventually escape from genetic firewalls” (i.e., “Life finds a way.”)

I’d like to use a different set of “Jurassic Park Effects” to describe how I’ve seen Jurassic Park used in conversations around synthetic biology.

1) Jurassic Park serves as an assurance that we’re not there yet, that science has not yet progressed to the point that it needs to be governed differently. Negotiators for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety rejected including nucleic acids from fossil or resuscitated organisms because Jurassic Park was “good fiction” but not reality. Today, reporters keep asking, how close are these de-extinction projects to Jurassic Park, really? This leads to a focus on the novelty of scientific practices, such that they are not open to contestation, critique, or question unless they meet the test of being really new. Scientists alone, so it goes, are best qualified to judge this novelty.

2) Dinosaurs are obviously terrifying. A main lesson of Jurassic Park: bring back a velociraptor, and you will end up huddled in the kitchen, one yellow eye peering at you through the window, while the doorknob slowly starts to turn…. The disaster spectacle of Jurassic Park is obviously part of its invocation, but not necessarily as a warning. In this TedX webcast, Carl Zimmer a) invokes Jurassic Park; b) explains that dinosaurs aren’t possible; and c) offers instead the Stellar sea cow, a giant extinct manatee. Not only is this reassuring that scientists are choosing safer research subjects, dinosaurs are also a threat whose dangers are obvious. In Jurassic Park, control mechanisms fail in unexpected ways, but the results are exactly as foreseen: humans are ripped apart.

3) Jurassic Park is invoked as a way to signal distrust. This goes two ways: that we can’t trust arrogant scientists who believe their own promises of control; and that we can’t trust the uneducated public (or journalists, or decision-makers) who are gullible enough to be influenced by a scary story of impossible dinosaurs.

In these ways, Jurassic Park has come to operate as a shortcut, shutting down discussion of important points. In what forums can we explore the kinds of societal relationships that particular scientific projects enable? Can we examine the overall trajectory of particular scientific developments, rather than the novelty of the latest headline-grabbers? How best can different kinds of expertise and perspectives be brought into a project so that the less-obvious, unintended impacts are noticed? What kinds of accountability mechanisms need to be in place for actors to begin to move towards trust?

So, as much as I love Jurassic Park, I think it’s time we move on to other stories. In my next post, I recommend an alternative story with the potential to open up, rather than close down, discussion. In the meantime, what “Jurassic Park Effects” have you seen? What stories would you prefer? Please share in the comments!

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‘Doing Engineering’: Engineering Life’s first workshop

This week Pablo Schyfter explains the motivations and outcomes of our first project workshop.

On Friday, 3 June, 2016, the ‘Engineering Life’ project held the first of its experimental interdisciplinary workshops. These events form a crucial part of our project; they are meant to be innovative: productive, rewarding, risky, challenging… and fun. This workshop hinged on interdisciplinarity and diversity. We invited social scientists, historians, philosophers, synthetic biologists, and engineers from seven institutions across four countries. Each brought distinct interests and perspectives on our topic of interest: engineering.

What is engineering?

The question is immense, almost ridiculously so. And yet, it sits at the heart of our project because it sits at the heart of what synthetic biology hopes and is trying to be. One cannot study the field without immediately recognising the vital role played by ‘engineering’ in its rhetoric, practices and ambitions. We don’t hope to answer it with any kind of finality, but we do intend to break ground in our understanding of what engineering is and does, to open new spaces for debate, and to form new relations with those practicing and those studying engineering.

‘Doing Engineering’ contributed to all of these. Our day began with introductions based on images chosen by each participant. These—which included photographs of Saturn V rockets, locomotives, characters from Kurt Vonnegut novels, and sailboats flying over the water—were meant to capture how each person views engineering. This first session supported our intuitions on the topic: there is no single starting point, no single perspective, no single approach for the question, ‘what is engineering?’ The rest of the day followed from this diverse constellation of images, ideas, claims and stories.

Social scientists then led dialogues with synthetic biologists and engineers, asking about engineering passion and imagination, hopes and challenges, successes and failures. These dialogues explored important questions through conversation, rather than presentations. Our later two sessions, which involved deeper discussion on the relationship between engineering and biology, also eschewed normal academic practice in favour of less structured debate and discussion. The result was a flood of ideas, sometimes disconnected from each other, sometimes difficult to comprehend, but always captivating and useful.

By the time that we were listening to the closing reflections, we had amassed a collection of questions and thoughts that will drive ‘Engineering Life’ further along its trajectory. What does biology/life lose by gaining engineers? Engineers are trusted, but does this change when we start engineering biology? Are engineers handmaidens to the establishment? What do we need to teach the new generation of (biological) engineers? Is it time to toss out engineering metaphors and deal with the ‘actual’ biology?

All of the things that came up, that we debated, left me more uncertain about engineering than I had been earlier that day. As one of our participants noted, he walked into the room knowing what engineering is, and left without that confidence. Unsettling, perhaps, but also encouraging, as this uncertainty can be the groundwork for future work. We had questions to answer; now we have more. We needed ideas to harness; now we have more.

What to do with engineering?

When thinking back on ‘Doing Engineering,’ I began to wonder if perhaps a better way to phrase our overarching question is, ‘what to do with engineering?’ What should social scientists, historians,

philosophers and anyone else interested in engineering do with the topic? How should we study it? Why should we study it? What should we do with what we learn?

What should synthetic biologists do with engineering? Why should they refer to it? Why and how should they model their work after it? What can they do with an identity as ‘true’ engineers?

And more broadly, what should our societies do with engineering as it grows to incorporate new forms, new aims, and new materials? How should we view it? Regulate it? Employ it?

In a sense, ‘what to do with engineering?’ forces us to think about what engineering is in terms of the lived, ‘real-world’ consequences of that identity.

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EVENT: Philosophy of biology meets social studies of biosciences. Perspectives on living organisms

Screenshot 2016-05-11 at 16.00.15Tuesday 24th May 2016

This workshop is sponsored by the ERC Consolidator grant

Perspectival realism. Science, Knowledge, and Truth from a Human Vantage Point

(PI: Michela Massimi, Philosophy, Edinburgh)

in collaboration with colleagues in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies at Edinburgh (ERC Consolidator grant Engineering life: ideas, practices, and promises, PI: Jane Calvert, STIS; and ERC Starting grant: Medical translation in the history of modern genomics, PI: Miguel Garcia-Sancho, STIS)

ROOM CHANGE: IASH seminar room   7.01 in Dugald Stuart Building

13:00 — Sandwich lunch

14:00 – Sandra Mitchell (HPS, Pittsburgh) – Multiple perspectives and model/model integration

15:00 – Miguel Garcia-Sancho (STIS, Edinburgh) – How to be (and not to be) a proactive historian

15.30: Tea/coffee

15.50 – Jane Calvert (STIS, Edinburgh): Social Studies of Synthetic Yeast

16:20 – Dominic Berry (STIS, Edinburgh): Practice across experimental spaces: HPS by ethnography

Please note: The event is open and everyone is very welcome, but registration is required given room capacity.

Please email: if you would like to attend.

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Engineering HPS and STS: the (Re)Engineering Biology workshop, Pittsburgh

As those of you who have come across this blog before will know, we are an interdisciplinary group of researchers engaged in an investigation of biological engineering, all the while probing the larger subject of engineering itself. It is exciting to be a part of such a project because engineering offers a vast and largely unexplored terrain for historians and philosophers of science (HPS), and those in science and technology studies (STS). Paying attention to engineers, their distinct professional identity, their practices and knowledge, is not only revealing in itself, but also allows us to rethink many of our favoured analytical or historiographical assumptions. Engineering Life has grasped this opportunity, but it is all the more exciting to situate the project within international trends, or rather (as this post does) attempt to identify such trends. For instance, only a couple of weeks ago a 3 day conference was held in New Jersey dedicated to ‘The Maintainers’. I was able to follow along on twitter, and recognised the research questions, methods, and conclusions that emerged as (in some cases) bearing directly on engineering itself, and in other cases, thanks to their focus on different kinds of labour, or overlooked forms of ‘innovation’, pursuing precisely the same kinds of interest. Just two weeks later came the ‘(Re)Engineering Biology’ workshop in Pittsburgh. Dr Pablo Schyfter and I attended this meeting, so my post is both a report on what was discussed/not discussed, but also the raising of a flag for those elsewhere, either already contributing to this emerging research community, or who are interested in the prospect.

The Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh

The Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh

Philosophy of engineering, or Philosophy of engineering within the philosophy of science, or something else?

As all of the papers given were quite exploratory, I won’t be referring to any in particular (you can read all of the abstracts here). Besides, finding languages that are common across the many different disciplines represented would also be pretty difficult. With regard to the ‘philosophy & engineering’ question though, it was hard to draw out common agreement from the papers, largely thanks to that old devil biology. The workshop was dedicated to biology’s purported new ‘engineering paradigm’:

This workshop aims at characterizing the new engineering paradigm in biology, especially how engineering practices and epistemological perspectives differ with respect to established biological modes of practice and accepted biological epistemology, and at examining the transformative aspects of the concepts, techniques, strategies, and epistemic principles that engineers bring to biological phenomena and how these conflict, contrast, or accord with traditional biological approaches.

However, many of those who had investigated biology on these terms, had come to find that it actually had little to do with engineering and much more to do with longer legacies of research in the biosciences. That’s fair enough, and these are important conclusions in their own right, but it did also mean that the engineering component (and its significance for wider HPS/STS) got dropped. Another couple of papers focussed instead on how ‘engineering-like’ ideas or terms, can be applied to the philosophy of biology, or used to understand social change (in some cases the connection was made by analogy, in others it seemed far more direct). This was not an angle that I had anticipated, and again, it meant that the question of understanding engineering knowledge itself got set aside. One presenter did indeed take on the latter, but their answer (at least through my warped spectacles, which by that time were also pretty knackered and caffeine stained) seemed to require use of a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘technology’. Historically speaking, this division has not worked in favour of those looking to investigate the technical and practical life of knowledge production, so its preservation makes for an interesting choice (again, provided I understood the argument).

Aside from biology, there were other factors at play which made it difficult to bring our collective attention to the significance of enginering in HPS and STS. For instance, I got the sense that for the purposes of the workshop, ‘engineering’ had been made synonymous with ‘practice’, or perhaps to put it another way, that the strides which have taken place thanks to the philosophy of science in practice have been, as it were, contributing to the engineering agenda all along. This is true for some of it, but not all. Speaking as a fan of the philosophy of science in practice, I agree that much of their work can be picked up and applied readily to cases that aim to understand engineering (as I did in my own paper through Ankeny et al. on situated modelling). However, the decision to extend these arguments to include engineering contexts deserves comment, and invites the opportunity to compare and contrast science and engineering (even if we ultimately conclude there are limited or zero grounds for demarcation).

Ultimately, it’s impossible to anticipate what different people see when they all look at the phrase ‘engineering biology’, and perhaps all that the previous paragraphs record are my own ambitions, which may or may not have been shared by everyone else (or perhaps are dumb for reasons which I look forward to learning). My perspective is also of course a result of my current research project. The way I have come to understand our mission (which doesn’t speak for everyone else on the project!) is that: A) you might want to say of most anything that is has been ‘engineered’; but B) only sometimes have the people involved been ‘engineers’. A) requires an investigation of that wide range of practices and ways of working that typically get reduced to ‘the engineering approach’, while B) asks us to find out what working and knowing as an engineer has actually entailed.  

Right, what were the common themes?

Analogical reasoning

Many of the papers described either how working with analogies, or building analogies between different things, seemed to constitute an important part of that thing called engineering. Mary Hesse’s work was mentioned, which certainly could work as a common meeting ground in the future. I particularly like a focus on analogical reasoning because it can also allow us to think about those analogies in our own work, in particular between the structure of our arguments about engineering and engineering itself. You could call this the ‘How owners start to look like their dogs’ problem. Indeed, as I explained above, some of the work presented was aimed at drawing direct analogies between cultural change and biological development, in ways that I was not the least bit prepared for. The extent to which ‘emergence’ captures the phenomena at play in synbio is also worth thinking through in this regard – is it something ‘like’ emergence that synthetic biologists are dealing with, or that very concept?


Though often discussed in partnership with analogies, the practices of modelling were also themselves a point that many congregated around. Again though, whether engineering models contribute something different to our extant work on modelling in the philosophy of science did not get much attention.


Some focussed on the role of synthesis in contemporary biology, and its rhetorical or experimental significances. An important point that emerged during discussion was that synthesis, as a method or a way of organising one’s research programme, has a far longer history than some of those practicing in contemporary biology might have you believe (it was suggested that we look to the history of biochemistry). As an historian, this pointed directly to how different factions in the contemporary biosciences are mobilising the ‘novelty’, or in some instances the ‘long history’, of their work, depending on the audiences that they are communicating with.

Trial and error

There are a great many ways in which to pursue a research agenda according to something like ‘trial and error’, a term which was used in a number of papers. What would be really handy would be a catalogue of cases exemplifying different ways of working in a ‘trial and error’ mode. Such a catalogue would be a great help for future historians/philosophers/sociologists, providing richer analyses of much of the research that takes place in engineering, for which ‘trial and error’ might otherwise be an oversimplification. Exploratory experimentation might be a handy place to start looking for the right descriptive language.

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Art, design and biodesign

Jane Calvert

Before starting the Engineering Life project, Pablo Schyfter and I were part of Synthetic Aesthetics, which brought together synthetic biologists, social scientists, and artists and designers to think about their work in new ways. The other members of the project team were the synthetic biologists Drew Endy and Alistair Elfick, and the critical designer Daisy Ginsberg.

The five of us were recently provoked into writing an open letter to the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council, published on the Synthetic Aesthetics website. In it we point to the misrepresentation of our project in the new Strategic Plan for UK synthetic biology Biodesign for the Bioeconomy, which presents Synthetic Aesthetics as aiming to ‘beautify’ or ‘better communicate’ the science.

Although this is likely to have been an unintentional error, it does reflect a broadly-held assumption that this is the role for art and design in art/science collaborations. It is much easier to gloss the work in this way than to see it as critiquing and challenging dominant ways of imagining the future, which was one of the main objectives of the Synthetic Aesthetics project.

In our letter we also draw attention to a broader point that emerged from the project about the inseparability of values from design. This is particularly pertinent since the Strategic Plan calls for a move towards ‘biodesign’, but seems to assume that the only value that underlies this is commercialisation. We wrote about these issues, and many others, in our motley, interdisciplinary and multi-authored book Synthetic Aesthetics.

The point I want to make here, however, is that the both book and the letter to the Leadership Council were the result of collaborative thinking across disciplinary divides. Neither of them are critical interventions from disgruntled social scientists or external observers of the technology. Drew Endy and Alistair Elfick are leading figures in the synthetic biology community, and Daisy Ginsberg comes from the playful and subversive tradition of critical design. But what we found through working together is that we all shared a desire to broaden and diversify debates around synthetic biology, and to interrogate notions of ‘better’ design.

I am optimistic that these aims are shared by other scientists, engineers, social scientists, humanities scholars, artists, designers and civil society groups, and that together we might be able to challenge the narrow way in which synthetic biology is currently being framed in reports such as Biodesign for the Bioeconomy.



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CRISPR in the history of science and intellectual property

Those of you with even a glancing interest in the biosciences will have noticed the flurry of high profile articles relating to the patenting of CRISPR-Cas9. Now that the USPTO has agreed to an interference proceeding, the range of such articles will continue to grow in variety and scope, drawing in the perspectives of lawyers, DIY-biologists, scientists, artists, economists and yes – your humble historians. If you want to know more about what CRISPR-Cas9 actually is, a good place to start is by watching this video of a seminar recently given by Engineering Life’s own Emma Frow.

In this post I want to suggest that our understanding of the CRISPR ‘controversy’, or ‘legal proceeding’, or ‘biotech showdown’, or ‘embarrassment’ (depending on how extraordinary you think this case actually is, or what you take it to exemplify) can be improved by a look at the history of science and intellectual property (IP). My motivation isn’t to ‘take a step back’ or to ‘pause for reflection’, but because – as those pursuing what has been called ‘The New Historiography of Science, Technology, and IP Law’ have demonstrated – it is through cases such as these that the standards of university/institutional conduct, the goals of public policy, our expectations of scientists, and what we think scientific research is for, all get debated and (for a time and place) decided.

The most obvious way to start is by showing that the CRISPR case is playing out – at the broadest level – in similar ways to how high profile science and technology IP disputes have played out in the past. For the historian this causes a sensation rather like when a doctor tests your reflexes by tapping your knee. Every time you read something new that reminds you of something that happened in the past, your mind goes ‘ooph, I’ve seen that’, then a few days pass and another article is published and, tap, ooph, there it goes again. These spasms don’t reveal anything in themselves, but can help us figure out what else might be going on, and what might be the most important questions to ask.

I felt a particularly strong spasm just last week, on reading an article in Cell written by Eric Lander: ‘The Heroes of CRISPR’. Both Lander’s astute and not so astute readers will have noticed the neon signage that arguably runs between its lines, pointing towards the importance of MIT in the application of CRISPR to mammalian cells. My historical muscle reflex was provoked by a case detailed in Graeme Gooday and Stathis Arapostathis’ Patently Contestable (2013) from the history of wireless telegraphy. After key patents were awarded to one Guglielmo Marconi at the end of the nineteenth century, a range of different histories of wireless telegraphy began to emerge, ones that more or less stressed the greater importance of other individual scientists, or the international collective. The ‘Arch-builders of Wireless Telegraphy’ as John Joseph Fahie called them in one of the earliest of these histories (1899), are brought together most evocatively in this visual representation from his book on the subject. Fahie’s intention, so Gooday and Arapostathis argue, was to decenter Marconi from this history, making his patent claims look less legitimate or at least less worthy.


Frontispiece to – Fahie, A History of Wireless Telegraphy, 1838-1899, William Blackwood and Sons, London (1899). My thanks to Dr Elizabeth Bruton for helping me source this image.

There are clearly similarities and differences between the Lander case and that of Fahie.

In both, for instance, the way in which their histories are written ultimately suggests, or can be read as suggesting, that certain candidate inventors are more or less legitimate. Likewise, in both, visual representations of the collective endeavour are put to good effect, Lander with a map and hotspots, Fahie with a ‘map of portraits’ (these people also worked in many different countries, as in the CRISPR case). Both also implicitly advance a certain view of what inventorship might mean: either as the outcome of the work of dispersed brilliant individuals or as emerging from a collective. This point has already been made excellently in a Wired article on CRISPR from Sarah Zhang who (also drawing on scholarship in the history of science) aimed to broaden the story of CRISPR to include important contributors that might be ignored if one focusses on the Doudna and Feng Zhang patent dispute, as many other journalists seem intent on doing.

The differences between Lander and Fahie are also worth noting. Lander for instance is up there with the most powerful figures in the glamorous world of big budget bioscience, while Fahie (though well known) did not have such status in engineering. Moreover, the development of CRISPR has taken place inside universities and institutions that are in receipt of considerable public funding, while Marconi’s operation was private (though, as Elizabeth Bruton has demonstrated, the Marconi Co. relied a great deal on the expertise, facilities and research undertaken within the state funded Post Office and the Admiralty, and in its early years depended greatly on government contracts).

With such historical episodes in mind (and there are many many more to draw on) we can begin to see the most relevant questions. Rather than focussing on ‘who really did it first’, there are perhaps bigger issues at stake. For me, the following present themselves with regard to the CRISPR case:

  • What model of inventorship (individual or collective) has the USPTO been inclined towards when it comes to biotech? – asking this question helps us see what are going to be the most likely areas of importance for the upcoming interference proceedings.
  • How have patent disputes been settled or avoided? – there are a great variety of ways after all, and knowing their results for the development of different technologies could help inform university and public policy (and influence contemporary deliberations).
  • What is suitable subject matter for a patent claim? – the CRISPR case, and Myriad before it, and many others charted in the history of science and IP, return us to this question time and again. There is no right answer, and it is not a question that belongs to lawyers, scientists, or policy makers.

Ultimately then, I’d like to see more reporting like Sarah Zhang’s in which the opportunity to discuss what intellectual property is, what is appropriate for people to own, and what kinds of industry gets established, are explicitly opened up for discussion by a wider range of people. Even if you don’t think you have views on all this yet, you might well have opinions about what scientists are for, what public funding is for, and how the history of a subject can be used by various actors to substantiate arguments about intellectual property.

Update: Professor Nathaniel Comfort, historian of science and medicine, has written an in-depth analysis of the Lander paper, highlighting very precisely the ways in which the latter might be doing a number of jobs of work, as well as considering the kind of historical writing that Lander might be thought to conform to.

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