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

ESRC Seminar Series on Synthetic Biology
and the Social Sciences

Seminar 3: Building a Post-ELSI Agenda in the Life Sciences

The Buck Inn, Malham, Near Skipton, Yorkshire Dales
Start date:
12th October 1pm
End date: 14th October 1pm 

In recent years a succession of new technologies has occasioned the development of new areas of social science research. In conjunction with iconic research programmes such as information and communication technologies, genomics and nanotechnology, allied social science research programmes have been developed. Indeed, alongside these developments social science research has fractured into largely distinct fields of enquiry, including information ethics, nano-ethics and the burgeoning work on the societal aspects of genomics. In a commentary on these developments Wynne (2006) identifies five distinct positions that social scientists have tended to occupy:

1.    Studying public opinion and political mobilisation processes, with the hope that 'upstream' social intelligence helps to anticipate public controversy;
2.    Helping to shape innovation processes and 'pick winners' by identifying wider public and consumer attitudes;
3.    Enhancing public communication of science and technologies;
4.    Eliciting public forms of knowledge that are relevant to identifying, assessing and managing risks; and
5.    Interpreting and reporting (thus, representing) public concerns and questions, which have not been recognised by policy experts.

Despite advances and conceptual sophistication in STS approaches what Wynne identifies here is a persistent positioning of social science research in two principle ways – as a mediator between processes of scientific and technological innovation and public concerns and as providing intelligence on the possible implications of new technologies. This positioning of social science alongside the physical and natural sciences is perhaps best epitomised by the development of structured research programmes on the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) of new technologies.

As Wynne and others have noted, the ELSI approach has been the subject of extensive critical debate and revision. Concern has focused in the timeliness of social science interventions and the implied distinction between scientific research on the one hand and social implications on the other. In light of these critical assessments of ELSI research programmes, a range of alterative approaches have been developed. These include, for example, 'real time technology assessment' (Guston and Sarewitz 2002), 'upstream upstream public engagement' (Wilsdon and Willis 2004), 'responsible innovation' (Owen and Goldberg 2010), 'constructive technology assessment' (Rip and Te Kulve 2008), 'anticipatory governance of emerging technologies' (Barben et al  2008) and the 'human practices' (Rabinow et al. 2009) research programme in synthetic biology. Though unique in their own terms, each of these approaches seeks to develop a distinctly post-ELSI approach to research in emerging technologies and the life sciences. Each approach also attempts to embed social science research and philosophical and normative reflection into the process of technological innovation, in a way that avoids ethical consequentialism and social determinism.

The purpose of this workshop is to build on these developments by developing a collaboratively authored manifesto for a post-ELSI approach to social science research on synthetic biology, and the life sciences more generally. Through interactive workshop discussion, presentation and collaborative writing exercises the goal is to build a set of principles around which a post-ELSI approach to the field will be built.

If you are interested in attending the workshop please contact Matthew Kearnes (M.B.Kearnes@durham.ac.uk).


Barben, D et al., "Anticapatory Governance of Nanotechnology: Foresight, Engagement and Integration," in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies - Third Edition, ed. E. J Hackett, et al. (Cambridge: M.A.: MIT Press, 2008).

Guston, D and D Sarewitz, "Real-Time Technology Assessment," Technology in Society 24 (2002).

Owen, R and N Goldberg, "Responsible Innovation: A Pilot Study with the Uk Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council," Risk Analysis in press, no. 30 (2010).

Rip, A and H Te Kulve, "Constructive Technology Assessment and Socio-Technical Scenarios," in The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society, Volume 1: Presenting Futures, ed. E Fisher, C  Selin, and J. M Wetmore (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008).

Rabinow, P et al., "Prosperity, Amelioration, Flourishing: From a Logic of Practical Judgement to Reconstruction," Law and Literature 21, no. 3 (2009).

Wilsdon, J and R Willis, See-through Science: Why Public Engagement Needs to Move Upstream (London: Demos, 2004).

Wynne, B "Afterword." In Kearnes, M. B., Macnaghten, P. And Wilsdon, J., Governing at the Nanoscale  (2006).


Download the Malham workshop programme - Building a Post-ELSI Agenda in the Life Sciences: Synthetic biology and the Social Sciences (PDF, 78 kB)