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Synthetic Biology and Society – A Q&A with Jane Calvert

Calvert picture LeipzigDr. Jane Calvert is a social scientist working at the University of Edinburgh in the field of Science and Technology Studies. Her work is around the area of the sociology of life sciences and her research focuses on many different facets of synthetic biology. First, she is interested in our attempts to engineer living things: the sociological and philosophical analyses of engineering life, the design, evolution and values in engineering biology and how engineering principles can be integrated into the life sciences. Moreover, she is interested in the interdisciplinary collaborations between scientists, social scientists, engineers, and artists and designers around visualizing a future for synbio. To this end, she was a principle investigator for the Synthetic Aesthetics project, which brought several designers, artists and scientists to explore directions synbio could take and encourage thought and debate on the topic in unique ways. Finally, she is also interested in exploring ontology and intellectual property in life sciences, and exactly how the policy side of things will work with emerging technologies in this field.


1. How do you view your role in the development of synthetic biology as well as in helping to shape the views of society at large on synthetic biology? What do you see as the social scientist’s role in synbio research?

I’m a sociologist of science from the field of ‘science and technology studies’ (or STS as it’s often known). Even though I am a social scientist, my focus of study isn’t society, it’s science (although science is, of course, part of society).

The sociology of science, like the philosophy of science, is interested in how scientific knowledge is produced, except that rather than philosophising from afar, the sociology of science looks at science in practice, and at how scientific knowledge is generated by everyday interactions in the lab, in conferences, in seminars etc.

I’m involved in synthetic biology because I’m fascinated by its attempt to apply engineering principles to living systems. I’m interested in the different cultures of biology and engineering, in the broadest sense. For example, I’m interested in how biology and engineering have different ideas about knowledge, methods, vocabularies, and aims.

2. What is your view on synbio, and more importantly, how would you define it?

Following on from above, I would define synthetic biology as the application of engineering principles to biological systems. I’m interested in asking how far this idea can be pushed and what the limits are. For example, when do engineering metaphors (like ‘chassis’) fall short in biological contexts? Is it possible to rationally design entities that can evolve? What happens to our engineering ideas when we start thinking about symbiosis, multicellular communities and ecosystems?

3. Do you think that a lot of public perception of synbio is the result of fear mongering, or do you feel that it is one of the technologies that really has the potential to make lasting impacts (positive, negative or both?)?

Like I said, I don’t do research into the public myself, but Claire Marris from King’s College London has argued convincingly that we shouldn’t assume that the public will fear new technologies. In this article published earlier this year, she discusses “fear of the public’s fear of synthetic biology” (often found among scientists and engineers), which she calls “synbiophobia-phobia”. She points out that rather than being concerned with particular technologies and particular products, people are more likely to have questions about why the research is being done, who it is likely to benefit, who sets the agenda, and who is funding it. By having a discussion about these issues it becomes possible to have a more productive conversation about the technology and its hoped-for impacts.

4. What kind of methods do you use for your research? I know you conduct interviews as well as ethnographic studies in synbio, but what are some details associated with this?

The methods we use in STS are similar to those used in anthropology and sociology; it’s just that the people we study are scientists and engineers. All the methods we use are driven by an attempt to understand what is going on synthetic biology and what the most important issues are. So as well as interviewing key players and spending time in synthetic biology research centres, we also attend conferences and meetings and try to keep up-to-date with the key scientific literature.

5. Are there any public educational workshops or showcases that you are working on currently?

I’m not a public educator, so the things I do tend to involve scientists and engineers, as well as other types of experts who have an interest in synthetic biology. For example, I’m involved with a ‘Biological Architecture Laboratory’ at Edinburgh. We had a workshop last week and it involved a really broad range of people from biology, chemistry, physics, social science, architecture, art and design. There was even someone there who does hyperbolic crochet. These are the types of events I find very exciting – they’re interdisciplinary so they’re always challenging, but they are more likely to result in something new and unexpected.

6. Synthetic Aesthetics was a great example of the interdisciplinary conversation that can take place between scientists and designers on the subject of synbio. However, a lot of examples in the book are further from reality than where most of synbio research currently is – are there any examples of such conversations on real research done by scientists in the field today? For example, on engineering immune cells for cancer therapies, or engineering bacteria or yeast for commodity biochemicals production?

Synthetic Aesthetics involved several speculative designers, including Daisy Ginsberg, who was central to the project. The aim of speculative design is to imagine how technologies that are currently being developed will be part of our everyday lives in the future, so this type of work is necessarily future-oriented. One of the reasons I like this approach is because speculative designers, like STS researchers, try to ground their work in a good understanding of the technology, which involves having lots of discussions with scientists and engineers. This means that rather than making something wild and disconnected from the research that is being done in the lab, they tend to make things it’s possible to have a useful discussion about.

In my own social scientific work the vast majority of my discussions with synthetic biologists are about the research they are doing today. For example, I’ve just started working with some scientists on the synthetic yeast project (Sc2.0), and I’m very interested in how this encourages us to think in new ways about the engineering of biology. Since yeast is a eukaryote and its genome is much larger and more complicated than a bacterial genome, work on yeast seems to challenge synthetic biologists to pay more attention to the spatial and temporal organisation of the genetic material than in other branches of synthetic biology. This is something I hope to look into in my future research.

I’m also involved in a centre at Edinburgh that has recently been funded called SynthSys Mammalian. The focus here will be on synthetic biology in mammalian systems, so this will allow further exploration of questions about how engineering principles can be applied to these more complex organisms and systems.

We’re hoping to involve artists and designers in this Centre too, to develop speculative prototypes to stimulate discussion within the Centre, and also inform ongoing research and design decisions.

7. On a related note, what sorts of learning or perspectives can scientists gain from such collaborations to help their own research? Can such collaborations help scientists in their own personal research, and how?

You’d have to ask the scientists and engineers who work with social scientists what they think the benefits are, but hopefully their discussions with us encourage them to think in new ways (as they encourage us to think in new ways), and perhaps consider things they might have otherwise overlooked and draw attention to assumptions they might have made. Any cross-disciplinary conversation does this to some extent, but when you are talking across disciplines that have very different methodologies and approaches (like the social and natural sciences), I think you can potentially learn a lot from each other, if you are open to new ideas.

8. Can we learn anything from the history of science and scientific development to understand what the future for synbio may be?

I think that one thing that history shows is that it is very hard to predict the future. This is why I think that the grounded speculations of designers are more useful ways of thinking about possible futures than attempts to predict how things will actually turn out.

But I do think that history is very important. One thing that is striking when you go back to the scientific literature of the 1970s, for example, is how similar the promises are to those that we come across in synthetic biology nowadays. There’s an article by Danielli in the New Scientist from 1971 that could almost have been written about synthetic biology today. I think it’s good to be aware that these discussions have a long history – because there is often a tendency to forget the past and assume that everything is new.

9. Is there anything, that as a social scientist and from a sociological perspective, you’d advise scientists to be cautious of?

Going back to the historical question above, my first reaction would be ‘overpromising’, because it’s very hard to predict how technologies will develop and what benefits they will deliver. To borrow a phrase from STS scholars Alfred Nordmann and Arie Rip, ‘responsible representation’ of the possibilities of new technologies like synthetic biology may be just as important as ‘responsible innovation’.

But I am aware that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on scientist and engineers (and social scientists too) to show that their research will be economically important and have significant social impacts. It can be hard to get funding if you don’t play the overpromising game, which has become a feature of the research funding system. This is not necessarily the fault of the funders either, because they are under pressure to show their governments that they are investing in something that will produce ‘the next industrial revolution’. So I think the real problem here is that we are all being forced to promise economic benefits from our research in shorter and shorter timescales. This both overlooks the broader public benefits of research and may also stifle the foundational work that is needed to get a new field like synthetic biology off the ground.

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