Following the herd: paradoxes in the social study of synthetic biology

This week we are very pleased to feature a post from Chris Mellingwood, a researcher based here at STIS associated with the Engineering Life project.

There are two motivations for this post. First, to introduce myself as a second year PhD student associated with the Engineering Life project. With a background in organisational research and research methods, I am interested in people, and groups, and how, at different times and places, they share ideas, agree on certain ways of working, employ, resist and project various technologies, as well as all aspects of hierarchies of expertise, particularly different types of ‘publics’. My second motivation is to unpack a quandary about the popularity of this thing called ‘synthetic biology’.

The main issue I want to raise can be summed up by the following questions: Does my concern with synthetic biology gain from, or lose out because of, the (seeming) popularity of this subject within the social sciences at present? How does this relate to synthetic biology’s perception, in government, industry, and publics?

Perhaps there needs to be a couple of further qualifications. The ‘popularity’ I’m aiming to understand includes the many examples of public and private funding initiatives around synthetic biology, but mainly, though, I’m interested in how this major funding council support has included social science expertise. So, can we say there’s been an institutionalisation of social science in synthetic biology research projects? One argument in favour of this might be the change in language, where previously funding calls and policy documents spoke of the ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI)’ of synthetic biology, there appears now to be a shift toward focusing on a ‘Responsible, Research and Innovation (RRI)’ agenda. Importantly, the institutionalisation of social science in synbio has not been complete, and reflective engagement for instance would be required to see social science expertise as having a place ‘upstream’ in the research process (RRI), rather than only in the ‘implications’ of already developed technologies and techniques (ELSI). The ‘I’ bit of ELSI is sometimes replaced with ‘A’ for ‘Aspects’, and may offer something of a bridging concept between RRI and ELSI.

I am now increasingly aware of others, like me that want to study synbio from historical, sociological, and philosophical perspectives. There’s also a set of formally funded projects and centres with an ‘in-house’ social science component. As a newbie to the area this is fascinating and has made me question my own motivations and expectations for studying science in the making. Does it matter to me that synthetic biology has traction in certain policy circles as something that deserves attention? It of course matters for any analysis of the field in general. The question, for me, is does it matter for how I present myself when conducting my research?

Provisionally, I’m going to say it does matter, and has caused me to spin off into an introspective dance with myself, and the opportunities that present themselves in accessing potential resources in my research.  Like a prospector in a ‘New World’ across the sea, I am in danger of feeling swept up in a rush toward the rich seams of a new (to me, at least) and exciting frontier. I have found myself, on a couple of occasions recently, jostling for space alongside others from sociology departments, note pads and voice recorders at the ready. It is fashionable (and perhaps profitable) to be a researcher of research in synthetic biology. This doesn’t sit well with my strategies for identity formation, which in turn takes me back to my own ‘origin’ story. I have come to synbio with a background in English literature, organisational research (within the NHS) and research methodology (particularly qualitative). Along the way I’ve always been attracted to the obscure and unseen, the shadowy subjects that reside in the margins of interest to an imagined general population of keen young researchers. Regardless of my own instincts, there is also a pragmatic incentive for aiming for the unpopular or understudied, as this is a crucial part of hitting the right metrics for publication and getting the ‘right’ PhD topic focus; identify, differentiate, and publish seem the watch words for building an academic career. I am not immune to these messages and ambitions.

Neither of these two grounds for justifying the PhD (on the grounds of synbio’s importance, or on the expectations of my discipline when it comes to novelty) are enough to motivate my research.  What I am interested in, sociologically, is the practices and ideas that bubble up through the disparate activities of life sciences research, when aspects of engineering knowledge come to seem valuable.  In this respect, I think I prefer the moniker ‘biological engineering’ to synthetic biology, and I’m sure there are plenty of other preferential labels used by practitioners in the field.  At the same time however I and they can affiliate strategically with the term ‘synthetic biology’ when this appears to be everyone else’s focal point. The latter manoeuvre comes with problems of course, because I often then spend a considerable amount of time trying to distinguish myself from other social scientists that have been there before me. To deal with this unease, or the paradox of ‘following the herd’, I take to forums like this and irritate my friends endlessly with neuroticism about the ‘genuineness’ of my self-presentation at research sites.

There is a potentially more valuable consequence of seemingly endless introspective musings, and that is the realisation that much of what I’m encountering in my approach to research, is felt also by the scientists themselves (and most other PhDs presumably). We are all affected (and afflicted!) by labels, and the need to be part of something tangible and worthy of investment, both intellectual and financial. If nothing else, the ambiguity of my need for both insider and outsider status, and the wider reward structures of a life in academia, may be a shared experience in both natural and social sciences alike.

Chris Mellingwood   You can also follow Chris on twitter: @SynBioMan

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