Future organisms

synthetic genomics and responsible innovation in the UK, the USA and Japan

Future organisms: synthetic genomics and responsible innovation in the UK, the USA and Japan

The aim of this project is two-fold: to carry out a social scientific investigation into synthetic genomics and to develop new approaches to responsible research and innovation through this investigation.

Synthetic genomics is an emerging scientific field that makes it possible for scientists to design and build larger stretches of DNA than ever before, at the scale of chromosomes and even whole genomes. It could potentially bring new types of organism into the world. Synthetic genomics is attracting funding and building momentum internationally. However, decisions about the direction of the field are being made by small groups of scientists and engineers. Although some are aware that these decisions deserve broader reflection and scrutiny, the field lacks mechanisms to ensure it incorporates diverse perspectives. We aim to address this problem by conducting the first social scientific analysis of synthetic genomics explicitly designed to open up discussion and debate about the field.

Responsible research and innovation (RRI) is an approach to governing new scientific and technological fields that has gained traction in recent years. However, RRI is currently not well equipped to engage with large-scale, international, collaborative scientific work such as that undertaken in synthetic genomics. When RRI is implemented it often involves an individual social scientist being tasked to ‘deliver’ RRI for a single scientific research project, limiting the extent to which they can engage with broader governance structures. In contrast, independent social scientific research conducted on emerging science and technology often remains detached from its object of study, offering little opportunity to shape its development. By developing an approach to synthetic genomics that is engaged but autonomous, our project will extend and enrich RRI by offering an alternative model for social scientific engagement with emerging scientific fields.

Our cross-national investigation of synthetic genomics will encompass the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan – three countries that are investing heavily in the field. We will analyse scientific literature and policy documents, and – taking advantage of our geographic distribution – conduct a multi-sited ethnography of the major sites in which synthetic genomics is being developed and interview key actors in our three countries.

Our research is organised into three workstreams: Countries, Creatures and Capacities. The Countries workstream examines national and international policy and funding strategies for synthetic genomics and the narratives and expectations embedded within them. The Creatures workstream explores the ways in which synthetic genomics alters human relationships with other organisms by positioning humans as designers of other species. The Capacities workstream explores the role of social scientists within the field.

We will build on our existing connections with scientists, engineers, policy makers, artists, designers, and other stakeholders to ‘open-up’ debate about the trajectories and futures of the field by convening a series of experimental workshops. Our final workshop will bring together social scientists from our three countries working in synthetic genomics and related fields to share our experiences, explore new approaches to RRI, and build connections for future work.