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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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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Designing reflection at the iGEM Jamboree

Emma Frow

Well, it has been about a month since I returned from the iGEM Jamboree in Boston. Since its humble beginnings in 2004, the Jamboree has outgrown its original venue at MIT and for the past two years has been hosted at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. I’ve been involved with iGEM since 2008, when I first helped to advise the University of Edinburgh team. This is my third time attending the iGEM Jamboree as a Judge, and I’m always blown away by the enthusiasm of the students and how polished their presentations are.

igem 2015

iGEM from above at the 2015 Jamboree

The core reason for my involvement with the competition is because it encourages students to tackle issues outside the laboratory. ‘Human Practices’ has been an explicit part of iGEM since 2008. It is broadly defined as “the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work.” Teams are encouraged to consider any broader social, legal, ethical, philosophical, environmental, safety, justice, etc, aspects of their specific project or of synthetic biology more broadly. The Human Practices work pursued by teams often falls into one of the following categories:

  • surveys designed to elicit views about synthetic biology and/or a proposed application,
  • education and outreach activities designed to introduce iGEM and synthetic biology to broader audiences,
  • engagement with stakeholders to help shape the design of their proposed product and the system it is intended to be used in.

Judges have typically rewarded the last approach more frequently than the former two – it’s easier to see what the students themselves are learning with this approach, and in the end there is greater possibility of designing a viable product that may actually benefit its intended user.

As with much of iGEM, the specific Human Practices requirements change over time – and have seen significant flux in the past couple of years. This year the Human Practices prize was split in two, with one prize available for ‘Best Integrated Design’ and another for ‘Best Education and Public Engagement’ project. One possible consequence of these more clearly defined prizes may be to narrow the types of projects teams pursue under Human Practices. Time will tell whether the ambition of winning a prize steers teams more towards integrated design and outreach than broader philosophical or legal investigations.

From an STS perspective, Human Practices could be seen as an experiment in whether and how reflexivity might be introduced into the biological engineering design process. I’m certainly not speaking on iGEM’s behalf with this statement – indeed, I’m not sure this is a core motivation driving their promotion of Human Practices. But from an STS vantage point it is an interesting case study to observe. Building reflexive practitioners in science and engineering seems to be a growing priority for funding councils, as seen for example with the rise of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) as a funding theme in European synthetic biology (and science & engineering more broadly).

So, does Human Practices work lead to the development of more reflexive iGEMers? This question clearly demands much more structured and systematic investigation than a weekend at iGEM. But I do have a couple of observations – and a question – that I’d like to advance in this blog post. A trend I noticed this year among teams competing for ‘Best Integrated Design’ was that their work was often geared towards seeking affirmation of their existing project or idea, rather than being a more open-ended investigation designed to make their projects stronger. Please note I’m not saying that all teams did this! But, for example, a common approach seemed to be to come up with an idea, and then to approach ‘the public’ (or a sub-section of the public with relevant interests) and ask in very broad terms whether they would like a solution to the general problem identified. Not surprisingly, the typical response to this was “yes, it would be great to have a solution to this problem.” Which was often interpreted by teams as a license to forge ahead with their project, and used during the team’s presentation as evidence of having consulted with stakeholders about their design.

The problem is, the devil is often in the detail. These broad questions can obscure the real challenges in engineering design. Sure, we’d all love to have solutions to problems we face in our daily lives and communities. But, what form these solutions take, how they work, who owns them, who pays for them, and how responsibilities and benefits are distributed, are far trickier questions – and ones with much deeper implications for the design of engineering solutions. Integrated design should be a more iterative and open-ended process. Asking whether there is general support for investing in solving a particular problem is fine, but it represents the very first step – the tip of the iceberg – in terms of actually designing a product and a system that might productively contribute to addressing the problem or need identified. It is not a validation of whatever device might then be developed.

What does all this mean in terms of promoting reflexivity? Reflexivity is not about searching for straightforward validation of one’s ideas. It is about cultivating a mindset of openness and inquiry about how to relate to the world. For iGEM teams, ideally it would be less about promoting a particular solution than about applying one’s talents in response to others’ needs – a mental shift that puts people first, not the technology. The competition format of iGEM encourages teams to present ‘successful’ designs, which doesn’t necessarily facilitate reflexivity. As was visible this year, integrated design was often equated with finding broad support for fixing a general problem. The authority and right to determine what form the solution would take rested firmly in the hands of the students, with little iteration or discussion with stakeholder groups about the specifics. A real practice of integrated design would likely involve students frequently discovering that their initial idea for a device will not work / not be taken up by their intended users / not find a viable market. How do we make this discovery ok to talk about and even celebrate – a step on the road to success, rather than failure in the compressed cycle of iGEM? And then how do we provide them with tools to creatively re-think and re-imagine what could work given their findings? These seem to me to be key challenges for the development of reflexive synthetic biologists.

So my parting question is this: is it a realistic ambition to think that a competition like iGEM can encourage the development of reflexive biological engineers? If so, how might this be fostered within the current competition framework? – acknowledging that it is already very structured and makes huge demands of its student teams. I’d welcome your thoughts on this!


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Talking gender with synbio students

This week we feature a brief report from Pablo Schyfter on his ongoing research into synbio and gender, which he was recently invited to explain at an event organised by synbio students themselves.

On 7 October, I delivered a lecture to and participated in a discussion with, the Edinburgh University Synthetic Biology Society, an undergraduate student organisation. My talk was based on a pilot study I carried out earlier this year on the developing gender politics of this emerging field. The presentation was actually my very first chance to share my findings with an audience, and it was wonderful to do so with a group of student as enthusiastic and engaged as these.

Broadly, my talk discussed the continuing gender inequities in science and engineering, and the potential to make synthetic biology a new, better type of engineering. As a field that brings together a science with comparatively high numbers of women practitioners (biology), and a series of professions with abysmally low number of women (engineering), synthetic biology offers a unique chance to examine gender politics in-the-making. As synthetic biologists import principles and practices from engineering, will they also import the gender politics of those fields?

Synthetic biologists are engaged in finding the best tools and procedures to build with biology. They could also set out to identify the best ways to build a discipline. Synthetic biology has a chance to be not just a new engineering, but also a *better* engineering.

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Putting synthetic biology in historical context: Becoming a Tralfamadorian

This post is designed to introduce myself as a member of the Engineering Life team. Hello. I am Dominic, and I am a historian of science. Because of the kind of research questions I have typically chosen, I have always worked on scientists that are long dead. They’re great! Their archives are often accessible, provided someone had the good sense to archive their work in the first place (and if you yourself are a scientist you should be looking into ways to do this too, for yourself and your lab). Nor can they get in the way with their own view of what actually happened. It’s true that autobiographies are useful, and talking to their relatives or people who worked with them is an essential part of the research process, but at the end of the day I get to write the history (and even if I deliberately adopt a writing posture that accommodates multiple interpretations, it’s still me who gets to organise things). Lastly, you can’t piss them off.

My research questions have now developed in a new direction, and as part of Engineering Life I will be bringing a historical perspective to bear on that most contemporary of biosciences: synthetic biology. Fortunately I am far from alone in these efforts, and aside from my colleagues here at Edinburgh, the historicization of synbio has already begun thanks to the likes of Luis Campos, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Sophia Roosth.

Tralfamadorian. Artist: Lupi.

Tralfamadorian. Artist: Lupi.

So how am I going to start making the transition from the past to the present, or rather, start seeing the past and present simultaneously? Well, my starting points will be something that two recent authors have complained bitterly about. “If preemptive analogizing is both rampant and low on the serious speech act metric, equally futurology is not the answer to emergent things.”* I will be doing both! But this requires a little more explanation.

The analogizing Rabinow and Bennett are taking aim at is of the superficial type, where people notice a certain (often compelling) surface similarity between two things, and then assert them to be the same. Such analogisers often then go further, professing that any manipulations which worked on the one will work in precisely the same way on the other. As you can guess, this is not the kind of analogising that I will be doing. Instead, I would like to compare and contrast synthetic biology with an earlier discipline that appears to share very similar trajectories and ambitions, namely genetics. The principle analogy that I am working on is that the earliest geneticists also cast their science in the terms of making biology engineerable, just as synthetic biologists are doing today. However, rather than stay at this level, I will go deeper, looking at a range of potential historical trajectories for genetics, within which engineering language was more or less troublesome or effective, and which therefore may prove to be more or less troublesome or effective for synthetic biology. If all goes well, the conclusions that I arrive at will make synthetic biologists more effective as researchers and as a community, all the while ensuring a more rounded understanding of synbio within policy circles (always circles!) and – provided I am sufficiently good at my job – the public too. In short, my analogies are tools for entry into the present through the past.

What of futurology? Well again Rabinow and Bennett are critiquing something more specific. The futurology they dislike is of the kind that measures current trends and then projects into the future: think of lines on a graph. My futurology is different, and is – as far as I can see – of precisely the same kind that R&B are themselves interested in when they say they want to ‘inflect’ synbio. What synthetic biology means is currently up for grabs. Those who want to get involved can try and anticipate where it might go, what meanings it might be able to have in local and global contexts, and attempt to change (or maintain) the world accordingly. This requires a certain amount of imagination and description of what the future could be like, and here it helps to be able to say what the world was once like. Perhaps that last bit is horribly naïve, and in five years time (after synbio has been bought by Google Alphabet and we’re all living in Gas Town because some neonucleotides got weaponized) I’ll regret it. But until then; it fascinates me that synthetic biologists seem to care about intellectual property, it fascinates me that they are reconfiguring the arrangement of values attached to making and knowing, and it fascinates me that they are attracting so much funding and attention from national governments.

That should be enough by way of introduction, I will leave you with two clear goals that I have set myself while working with synthetic biologists in particular. These are not the sum total of everything I hope to achieve in my time on the Engineering Life project, nor are they my priorities. They are just two goals that are easily expressed, and which help to illustrate the kind of work that I do.

  • Show synthetic biologists the importance of the history of biology for their current work, and that the history of biology offers just as much inspiration as does the history of computing and engineering.

The history of biology is ripe for exploration and full of episodes that can directly inform contemporary problems in synbio, including how to be certain of the identity of the organic material one is working with, the management of intellectual property, collaborations between industry and public funding bodies, and so on. My goal here is not necessarily to displace the history that synthetic biologists have built for themselves (around computing and engineering), but to augment it, making engineering and biology equally attractive pools for inspiration.

I imagine this goal will meet with the most resistance from the community itself, but this will perhaps be based on anxieties about my motivations. I am not out to prove that engineering is actually crap, far from it. I am out to prove that engineering is even more interesting than they realise. My hope would be that by taking a closer look at the actual history of engineering and how technology develops, will help synthetic biologists reassess their goals and ambitions, perhaps even the way in which they organise their research (all of which appears to be happening without any help from ineffectual old me).

Please do get back to me with any feedback on this post, or if I have said anything immeasurably stupid. As ever, I will interpret silence as praise.

* Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett, Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology, University of Chicago Press (2014).


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