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

ESRC Seminar Series on Synthetic Biology
and the Social Sciences

Seminar 2: Making, STS and Synthetic Biology

Conference Centre, University of Nottingham

Start date: 25th May at 1pm
End date: 26th May at 1pm

This seminar will reflect on the imperative of engineering to 'make things' by taking it up as a challenge for STS itself. This is not an entirely new project within STS: the call to produce ‘new-literary forms', for example, has been controversial in the past and hasn’t been significantly taken-up by scholars within the field. However, in the interdisciplinary collaborations that characterise many of our engagements with synthetic biology, there is an increasing call for us to put forward our arguments and analyses in formats that are more accessible and thus for us to reconsider the processes of giving-form that we use in our work. Our collaborators in the natural and technical sciences are regularly engaged in the making of material reality and of translating this into representations such as graphs, diagrams and statistics. These are often the markers of good science and good peer communication, and thus of reliability and validity. Furthermore, and perhaps antagonistically, they are increasingly called on to communicate their work to multidisciplinary and lay audiences using a range of accessible forms. As sociologists and anthropologists from a variety of qualitative traditions, our reliability and validity rest on different philosophical tenets, and we are generally far more concerned with the 'richness' of our data than with its format. As such, both the field of synthetic biology and of STS are faced with the dilemma of giving-form. The challenge is therefore to break new ground in thinking about how we can represent and communicate the knowledge and ideas we produce.

The seminar will bring together STS, sociology and design to interrogate the value of new forms of production for the representation/translation of our data. What new forms might we consider? How might they work within interdisciplinarity? What knowledge can be acquired from them and what actions do they make possible?

It will also seek to move away from an ELSI agenda, by turning inwards for its ethical dimension to ask more theoretically informed questions about responsibility, loss and visibility and our role in the making of synthetic biology as a field: What responsibility do we have to our collaborators to represent our knowledge in a way they can interpret? What are the existential issues posed by making things in these contexts? What is erased and what made visible in these new forms? What is the virtue of making things? To what degree are we 'making' synthetic biology and what responsibility do we have to nurture it? To what extent are we contributing to the creation of expectations through the discourses and forms of engagement we construct?

 

Attending the Seminar

Space at the seminar is limited and so we are asking for those interested in attending to explain how their interests and research fit with the remit of this seminar as outlined above. Invited participants will also be required to produce some work in advance of the seminar (please see below).

The seminar is organised by Andy Balmer (a.balmer@sheffield.ac.uk) and Paul Martin (Paul.Martin@nottingham.ac.uk) – please contact both with any questions and to request attendance at the seminar.

 

Preparation for the Seminar

Synthetic biology has emerged as a heterogeneous collective of actors and material objects. Many of its forms, for example the BioBrick, seek to challenge the form-giving practices of genetic engineering. Synthetic biology has also emerged within the current ‘ELSI’ and governance frameworks that require technical projects to engage with publics and the ‘social issues’ implied by their objectives and practices. This has meant that those seen to have expertise in working with publics and social issues have been brought into these technical projects and networks, namely ‘social scientists’. STS scholars involved under this banner of social science and public engagement have quickly found themselves called-upon to produce outcomes for projects and networks. However, our traditional modes of journal article writing and text-heavy presentations have been met with consternation and confusion: what exactly are we saying? Thus, at the nexus of synthetic biology and STS there is a current concern with form-giving.

We feel this topic is best served through experiment in advance of our discussions and workshop groups. Therefore, in order to prepare for the seminar we’d like participants to produce some work prior to the meeting, which will be used throughout the seminar and also to create outputs from the seminar and the series. What we mean by this is that individuals take some time to experiment with different processes of representing their concepts, data, arguments and dispositions that move away from the traditional journal article format. For instance, how might a snippet of dialogue from an ethnographic interview be transformed into a material object? How might an observation of a process and its conceptual analysis during a lab ethnography be translated into a diagram?

We are asking for three things:

1. Please identify one or two STS theories and/or concepts that can be used to think about ‘making’ and write a couple of paragraphs about the theory/concept and how it can be related to the current situation we face as STS scholars working in and around synthetic biology.

2. Please take some of the data you have collected from your work on synthetic biology (or a cognate field, if you don’t yet have SB data) and find a new form of representation for that data. It may be that to find new forms one has to change other aspects of the data, for example it may require rethinking the audience of the work. A suggestion would be to think outside of textual representation and instead consider graphical, diagrammatic, visual modes of communication. Perhaps inspiration could come from art, design, science, technology, video, animation, photography, etc.

3. Please prepare a few paragraphs in response to some of the questions posed below.

"The seminar will bring together STS, sociology and design to interrogate the value of new forms of production for the representation/translation of our data. What new forms might we consider? How might they work within interdisciplinarity? What knowledge can be acquired from them and what actions do they make possible?

It will also seek to move away from an ELSI agenda, by turning inwards for its ethical dimension to ask more theoretically informed questions about responsibility, loss and visibility and our role in the making of synthetic biology as a field: What responsibility do we have to our collaborators to represent our knowledge in a way they can interpret? What are the existential issues posed by making things in these contexts? What is erased and what made visible in these new forms? What is the virtue of making things? To what degree are we 'making' synthetic biology and what responsibility do we have to nurture it? To what extent are we contributing to the creation of expectations through the discourses and forms of engagement we construct?"

 

Programme

Download the Nottingham seminar programme - Making, STS and Synthetic Biology (PDF, 42 kB)