Negotiating relationships and expectations in synthetic biology

Emma Frow | 20 February 2013 | 2 responses

How should expectations and responsibilities be managed when engineers, natural scientists, and social scientists collaborate?

Public funding bodies that invest in new and potentially controversial areas of scientific research in the US and UK increasingly stipulate that a portion of their funding should be devoted to studying the broader implications of the research being done. For the emerging field of synthetic biology, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has promoted active collaboration among engineering, natural science and social science researchers in the research center they set up in 2006 (the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, or SynBERC).

An article by Jennifer Gollan in the 22 October 2011 edition of the San Francisco Bay Area New York Times threw into the media spotlight the sometimes fraught nature of such interdisciplinary collaborations. Entitled ‘Lab fight raises U.S. security issues,’ this article reports on the breakdown of the relationships between senior SynBERC scientists and Paul Rabinow, a distinguished anthropologist and (until earlier that year) the head of the social science research thrust at SynBERC. Gollan frames the piece around potential biosafety implications of synthetic biology, and devotes significant attention to some of the personal conflicts that seem to underlie this breakdown. Individual personalities and relationships are undoubtedly an important dimension of the story, but this development also points to deeper questions about interdisciplinary collaborations, and the distribution of expectations and responsibilities in new fields of science and technology.

Reading this article, it seems that the NSF, the senior scientists and administrators at SynBERC, and Rabinow’s team of anthropologists all had different expectations of the role that social scientists could and should play in the SynBERC center. The NSF seemingly hired Paul Rabinow as a “biosafety expert,” despite the fact that Rabinow’s long career as an anthropologist had not focused on biosafety matters. Furthermore, the scientists and industrial partners seemed to have expectations that Rabinow’s team would produce “practical handbooks” and “advice on how to communicate with the public in case of a disaster” — work that is highly instrumental and not traditionally associated with anthropological scholarship. While Rabinow and his team suggest that they did outline “practical methods to improve security and preparedness,” it looks like their efforts were not understood or championed enough by the scientists within SynBERC to be considered useful.

Rabinow’s team had stated ambitions of developing much more theoretically sophisticated work on synthetic biology than simple biosafety preparedness plans. But in accepting funding from a scientific research organization wanting to promote capacity in biosafety (purportedly $723,000 over 5 years, a large sum for the social sciences), did they implicitly agree to put themselves in a service role? How might their desire to conduct good scholarship (according to the standards of social scientists) be balanced with the wishes of research funders and scientists? The dominant public framing of concerns about synthetic biology in terms of risk, biosafety and biosecurity obscures other issues that merit systematic enquiry, for example questions about the redistribution of power and capital, and the reconfiguration of relationships between states, industries and citizens that might emerge with new technologies like synthetic biology. Do scientists or their federal sponsors always know best what the relevant ‘social’ questions are, or where and how to intervene in the complex terrain of science and democracy? Who should be trusted as having the expertise to set innovative research agendas for the social sciences? These sorts of questions acquire new salience as a result of the way that funding initiatives like SynBERC are being structured.

The SynBERC case is an invitation for both scientists and social scientists to think about what good collaboration across disciplines means. Judging from the Gollan article, it seems as though five years into SynBERC’s activities there has been little progress on the part of all parties involved to move beyond initial expectations of what different academic disciplines might contribute to synthetic biology. At least some of the SynBERC funders and scientists seem to have fundamentally misunderstood what social scientists do, and may have entertained false expectations of what might be achieved through such collaborations. Collaboration with social scientists is not the same as buying an insurance policy against the effects of a biosafety accident or a public backlash against synthetic biology. But rather than placing blame solely on the scientists’ shoulders, I think such developments also pose a direct challenge to those of us STS researchers studying synthetic biology to better articulate what it is we think our research entails and what kinds of contributions we are able — and willing — to make to scientific, policy, and public discussion. If we can’t do this it will be hard to negotiate expectations and develop constructive relationships with the communities we study and with which we engage. As these relationships become increasingly institutionalized by funding agencies, early and open discussion of these issues should be seen as a necessary part of the research process.

Keywords: expectations; interdisciplinarity; synthetic biology

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Rabinow, P. & Bennett, G. 2012. Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Calvert, J. & Martin, P. 2009. “The role of social scientists in synthetic biology.” EMBO reports 10(3): 201-204.

» 2 responses to “Negotiating relationships and expectations in synthetic biology”:

  1. MJ Van M. (Full names available only for logged-in users) says:

    This is a fascinating case, and as you point out, an important moment to think more deeply about these kind of interdisciplinary engagements. And while I certainly appreciate your call for early and open discussion to facilitate collaboration, I wonder if thinking about these relationships more explicitly as “negotiations” rather than “collaborations” might inform a slightly different path forward. My sense is that a complex research project, incorporating disciplines as diverse as anthropology and biology, can not be assumed, even at the start, to be inherently collaborative. There are clear differences between the goals, interests and perspectives these researchers bring to their tasks. So why not make that explicit by asking these grant recipients, perhaps in the presence of the relevant NSF grant officers and facilitated by a professional mediator, to discuss their work-plans and progress on a regular basis? While I would not expect this to take all tension out of a project like this, I do hope it would lead to more productive transformations of these conflicts.

  2. Thanks for this post, Emma. I think you make an important point about needing funders (and the scientists themselves) to better understand what the role is of social scientists, particularly STS scholars, in these types of research environments. Not that there needs to be a codified set of best practices, but surely there should be deeper discussion on the value of including anthropological, STS, or other perspectives in large research programs such as SynBERC.

    Do you know if NSF has had a retrospective on this experiment before they engage in the next ERC?

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