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Laboratory equipment in the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, INRA

How synthetic biology could benefit from the social sciences

How the social sciences can inform synthetic biology research

Social scientists who are collaborating with synthetic biologists want to redefine the role that they currently play. Instead of simply examining the consequences of innovations that have already been developed, social scientists want to carry out their research in tandem with their colleagues in the natural sciences.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 01/16/2015
Published on 10/10/2014

Automated high-throughput pipetting system used by the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility. © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand
Automated high-throughput pipetting system used by the MICALIS quantitative metagenomics (MetaQuant) experimental facility © INRA, NICOLAS Bertrand

Because society can react negatively to innovations, synthetic biologists collaborate with social scientists to clarify the societal implications of their work and organize encounters with the general public.

At present, in France, any research project in the life sciences must dedicate 3–5% of its resources to exploring the ethical, legal, and social implications of its findings. Collaborations between biologists and social scientists are thus becoming more and more common. The research team set up by Claire Marris (1) likely represents one of the more extreme examples of this collaborative approach. She and her research group co-founded the Center for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) with synthetic biologists from Imperial College. It is Marris’ opinion that social scientists must be active participants from the beginning, making a contribution as synthetic biology research is being carried out, rather than only becoming involved in examining its consequences after the fact, which has traditionally been the case. She makes the argument that such an approach “allows the social sciences to play a more positive, creative, or even fun role: it is about producing results in tandem with our scientific collaborators.”

Breaking with tradition

Traditionally, the social sciences have only ever analyzed the consequences of scientific research after the fact; their main purpose was to dictate ethical guidelines and encourage the general public to accept innovations. Claire Marris explains, “This approach is based on several assumptions that I find questionable. The first is that the public is ignorant and fearful, and that our main concern is to use communication to make any risks seem acceptable. This idea is naïve and rather scientifically lazy because it is not supported by the evidence. The second assumption involves the false contrast that is set up between a given innovation’s objective risks, as quantitatively determined by scientific experts, and the subjective and irrational risks that exist in the public mindset, which are supposed to be “corrected.” The idea that such a dichotomy exists is contradicted by decades of social science research, but it has become entrenched. This approach focuses on the risks and fails to address any scientific uncertainties or disagreements within the research community. Finally, a third assumption is that innovations develop along a single, linear track. The only real concern is accelerating the development process. Research in the social sciences has shown that the reality is a lot more complex. We recommend tackling the uncertainties and fostering debate among the different stakeholders, thus giving them the power to influence the path technological development will take. The goal is to show that a given innovation will benefit society and that everyone’s concerns have been addressed rather than to focus on a technological development that is supported by the public.”

Social scientists need to pursue their own research topics

Some collaborations have gone sour. This was the case when Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist, was hired to work with biologists at SynBERC, a multidisciplinary research center focused on synthetic biology established in 2006 by a group of leading synthetic biologists and headquartered at University of California, Berkeley. Rabinow was supposed to help establish new rules related to biosecurity and ethical concerns at the center by observing and interacting with SynBERC researchers. However, he ended up resigning because the researchers felt that he spent his time simply watching what they were doing and failed to make any novel contributions. He, in turn, felt that they viewed him as interfering with their way of doing things and making recommendations that diminished their global competitiveness. Pierre-Benoit Joly (2) feels that this failed collaboration exemplifies the highly asymmetric power dynamics that exist between social scientists and biologists. To render such dynamics more symmetrical, Joly recommends that social scientists pursue their own lines of investigation and produce their own results. He comments, “Several research topics could yield crucial knowledge that could help inform emerging issues. For instance, it could be useful to examine the emergence of synthetic biology from a historical standpoint (see section 3), the factors that frame the way it is carried out (funding, research topics, societal influences), or the idea of a boundary between the living and the inanimate, the natural and the artificial. Coming up with such self-defined research topics is essential if you want biologists to express an interest in what social scientists are doing.”
(1) Claire Marris is a researcher in the social sciences at IFRIS who is currently dispatched to King’s College London
(2) Pierre-Benoit Joly is the research director for the INRA Sciences and Society Unit and head of IFRIS.

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Associated Division(s):
Social Sciences, Agriculture and Food, Rural Development and Environment., Science for Action and Development
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