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Tales of emergence – synthetic biology as a scientific community in the making Susan Molyneux-Hodgson and Morgan Meyer University of Sheffield 12 Januar.

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Presentation on theme: "Tales of emergence – synthetic biology as a scientific community in the making Susan Molyneux-Hodgson and Morgan Meyer University of Sheffield 12 Januar."— Presentation transcript:

1 Tales of emergence – synthetic biology as a scientific community in the making Susan Molyneux-Hodgson and Morgan Meyer University of Sheffield 12 Januar 2009 Institut für Wissenschaftsforschung, Universität Wien

2 Aims  focus on the ways in which ideas of community are mobilised  telling three tales of community making:  mobilisation of synthetic biology within a European context  the approach to synthetic biology formation in the UK  creation of a local network in synthetic biology

3 Some background  BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) has funded the establishment of seven networks in synthetic biology in the UK  Susan and Morgan a part of one of them: opportunity of analysing an emergent area of scientific practice and tracing the process of community building in actu  Synthetic biology is a ‘promissory science’ (Hedgecoe, 2003)  ELSI included in the UK networks in synthetic biology

4 Theorising scientific communities and their emergence  scientists ‘do things together’  various theoretical approaches (see Dubois 1999 for a review): ‘normative’ units, invisible colleges, thought collectives, paradigmatic units, ‘transactional’ units, assemblage...  multiplicity and disunity of science  communities of promise (Brown 2003, 2006): expectations are performative

5 Theorising scientific communities and their emergence  Gingras’ model (1991) for examining the formation of identifiable communities, a process along three overlapping dimensions: emergence, institutionalisation, and the creation of a clear social identity: 1.the development of a research practice, either through the importation of know-how or through the reconstruction of individual trajectories which have yet to be institutionalised 2.individual and institutional identities are aligned: we see the institutionalisation of research, a crucial step in the formation of a scientific community 3.formation of a social identity, be it disciplinary or professional (e.g. ‘physicist’)

6 Locating an emerging community  We look to a variety of places where community is made and articulated: devices as mundane as a workshop and a grant funding proposal, things as ‘high brow’ as an EU policy document and a UK policy initiative  Symmetrical when considering factors that shape communities, be they local or global, texts or talks, bottom-up or top-down, internal or external  multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1998)

7 Tale one: mobilising synthetic biology in Europe  “Synthetic biology is a nascent field, and there is currently no systematic, global effort to coordinate the developments in this field [...] What is needed [...] is a framework for coordinating the current research, fostering a community of researchers (particularly among young researchers) and creating a forum for the establishment of clear goals, shared tools and agreed standards” (emphasis added).  The report further asserts that what is needed is funding, intellectual and physical infrastructures, education and training activities, conferences, and human resources - “synthetic biology is a young discipline that needs some nurturing to flourish” (Synthetic Biology – Applying Engineering to Biology, European Communities, 2005).

8 Tale one: mobilising synthetic biology in Europe  Synthetic biology, as a strategic policy object and an arena in which it is allegedly important not to ‘fall further behind’ (both for the EU and the UK) has been translated into concrete community building efforts  Vinck has argued (1999) that the creation of scientific networks has now become subject to political drives to organise scientific work

9 Tale two: building capacity in the UK  In the UK, funding bodies are showing an increasing interest in synthetic biology  Synthetic Biology Workshop took place in February 2007 which aimed to “assist in the development of an interdisciplinary synthetic biology research community” (BBSRC, 2007)  Debates over whether synthetic biology is new and how to define it  “Research Councils should be careful to avoid premature ‘professionalisation’ of this area [...] If a thematic programme were launched, it would be important not to be restrictive or prescriptive, since synthetic biology was still developing”

10 Networks in Synthetic Biology  joint call for proposals for Networks in Synthetic Biology issued by 4 research councils  Aims of the networks include: developing and establishing communication and networking, forming partnerships, and building “a cohesive, cross-disciplinary community” in synthetic biology  framed to include ethics, need to handle social and natural issues  requirement of the funding stream was the inclusion of ELSI researchers; additional material was requested from participants as part of the funding decision making process: ELSI workers had to specifically state their objectives for participation in the networks  Seven network projects were eventually successful  Statement in June 2008: networks should “allow UK researchers […] to form a true synthetic biology community”.

11 Tale three: creating a (local) synthetic biology network  Sheffield network: tissue engineering is put forward as a potential key area in which future research might take place  Yet, networks are not focussed on research per se but on creating networks: “This is a network to develop ideas, not a research project”

12 Tale three: creating a (local) synthetic biology network  “The overall objective […] is to build, within 3 years, a Network with the critical mass and skills set necessary to tackle this challenging project in synthetic biology and thereby allow the network to become self-sustaining and contribute to new technologies and materials derived from breakthroughs in the synbio field.”  infrastructural achievements and proposals for future work: “We will know we have succeeded in the network’s overall goal if a significant proposal or set of proposals in applying synthetic biology to biomaterials problems arises, […] and a formal centre has been created” (2 quotes from the network proposal)  “networks [that] organise the exchange of ideas and the constitution of a community of interest. They lead to the emergence of cooperation [...] and to the structuration of a collective problem. The most important intermediary objects here are of a textual nature (invitations, programmes, conference proceedings).” (Vinck 1999)

13 Tale three: creating a (local) synthetic biology network We asked the principal investigators how, when talking to colleagues, friends or family, they describe themselves:  R2 - oh I’m a microbiologist. […] My own research is very much on the interface of biochemistry and microbiology. So a lot of my academic life has been spent in biochemistry departments. […] This is more or less a biochemistry department we’re in now, although it doesn’t quite have that name. But, I was trained as a microbiologist, so that’s how I normally identify myself.  R1 - I think the broadest term that I describe myself is probably a bio-chemical engineer. I probably don’t describe myself as a synthetic biologist and if you ask me the same question in five years time, I might. […] I probably don’t describe myself that way yet, I’m not saying that’s due a lack of confidence in the field, its just that, […] the work I do is not exclusively synthetic biology.

14 Tale three: creating a (local) synthetic biology network  sense of identity that is emergent, that needs to be negotiated and institutionalised. The difference between a synthetic biologist and a microbiologist is that of identity as ‘becoming’ rather than identity as ‘being’  brings us back to our first tale of mobilising synthetic biology on a EU level, where lack of synthetic biologists is seen as follows: “in the long term it would be desirable to create a new breed of researchers who are familiar both with fundamental biology and with the methodology of engineering, as well as having requisite skills in areas such as computational sciences and chemistry” (2005 EC report)  “new breed of researchers”: bringing together of knowledge from various domains; new “breed” is described and positioned as being an identity in-between other, already existing identities. This identity is on a trajectory, that is, the articulation of identity is based on two elements: imagination and alignment - the envisioning of possible futures and the doing what it takes to get there (Wenger 2000).

15 Creating a sense of a global collective  ‘community-making devices’: policy initiatives, workshops, calls for proposals, and networks are devices that help make, or at least articulate the need for, community... ... but also associations and events, conferences, journals, and success stories are, we argue, such markers and makers of community.  These devices help to create a sense of a global collective of people and practices enrolled in the project of synthetic biology.

16 Creating a sense of a global collective  “There are some journals that are starting to emerge though, but obviously they’re quite new so it’s, time will tell as to whether they’re successful and people do support them by publishing directly in there or still go for the, maybe the high impact [journals]” (R1).  “it’s too early to, to say […] the top systems biology and synthetic biology results are not published in those journals, they are published in Nature or Science, Cell, Plant Biology, or you know these high impact factor journals” (R3).  prominent success: the development of a cheap anti-malaria drug through creating a new bacterial strain able to produce amorphadiene.  (re)telling “success stories”: the past becomes enrolled as a sort of guarantor for future developments in synthetic biology; strengthens interconnectedness, becomes part of the shared repertoire; local stories become global

17 Discussion  complexity and multi-faceted nature of the origins of synthetic biology  from ‘interactional expertise’ towards ‘legitimate peripheral participation’  Emerging communities can be conceptualised as a nexus of interrelated ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ moves  ‘community making devices’: emerging communities use these to establish themselves, to create a sense of community, to create a visible, demarcated and powerful niche  In addition to these, discourses of emergence and newness are significant structuring devices, as they enrol and align people, establish links, and create a sense of community  different ontological status between communities in the making and already established communities

18 Talking about changes  If there is such a thing as a shift from mode-1 to mode-2, where and how is socially robust knowledge made?  at policy levels, institutional levels, funding levels, personal levels,...  What is changing?  Discourses, framings,...  But knowledge production? Not yet. Too early to say, as the assemblage we observed was a ´forum´ that might evolve into an infrastructure, which, in turn, might become oriented towards (socially robust) knowledge production


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