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ENLIFE Report Summary

Project ID: 616510
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Periodic Report Summary 2 - ENLIFE (Engineering life: ideas, practices and promises)

The Engineering Life project focuses on the emerging field of synthetic biology, which promises to engineer the living world. The project’s two objectives are: to investigate the movement of ideas, practices, policies and promises from engineering into the life sciences; and to examine the ways in which social scientists have been mobilised as part of this endeavour.

The project is divided into three research strands. The ‘ideas’ strand analyses the extent to which ideas from engineering are permeating biology. A conceptual development we have made in this strand is to build new connections between science and technology studies (STS) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS), by showing the importance of engineering to both fields.

In the ‘practices’ strand we are looking at how biology is being engineered in practice, drawing on ethnographic observations of synthetic biology laboratories. Our work points to the growing importance of automation. We are studying how synthetic biology laboratories are being (re)configured in response to such developments, and how the new possibilities afforded by automation change the nature of what an ‘experiment’ is, and what counts as a valuable contribution to the practice of synthetic biology.

Work in the ‘policies and promises’ strand has included analysis of the governance of synthetic biology in the UK, the US and Asia, and focused attention on the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity. An emerging area of research is on the governance of gene editing and gene drives. We also are engaging directly with the notion of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ by exploring agonism as an alternative to deliberative democracy in governing emerging technoscience.

We have carried out three ‘experimental interdisciplinary workshops’, which bring together people from different perspectives with the aim of producing new knowledge across disciplinary divides. The first, ‘Doing Engineering’, used images and live interviews to explore what it means to be an engineer and to practice engineering. In the second workshop, ‘Mapping Synthetic Biology Workflows’, synthetic biologists and social scientists spent a day mapping and ‘debugging’ workflows that are being developed across synthetic biology laboratories. The third workshop, ‘Genetic Resources in the Age of the Nagoya Protocol and Gene/Genome synthesis’, brought together researchers in law, synthetic biology, social science and history to consider the implications of gene synthesis for existing access and benefit sharing agreements.

Interdisciplinarity is central to this project. The project team has expertise in STS, history, philosophy, geography, law and science communication. But the interdisciplinary reach of the project is far broader, because we engage in ongoing collaborations with scientists and engineers. This is central to our ethnographies and workshops, but we also collaborate through active participation in synthetic biology meetings and conferences.

However, because we aspire to be reflexive and critical, it has been crucially important that the Engineering Life project has not been reliant on funding from science and engineering, but has had the freedom to develop autonomously, with its own agenda, directives and staff. The ERC grant has allowed us to engage closely with synthetic biology whilst retaining academic independence.

The project team is made up of five core research staff, two affiliated researchers and two affiliated PhD students. By taking advantage of opportunities to extend the team beyond the core funding provided by the ERC grant, the project has built a cohort of connected researchers from the social sciences and humanities, all of whom are actively contributing to a critical investigation of the engineering of living things.

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United Kingdom
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