Letter to Nature

(Led by Sam Evans from Berkeley, a few of us in the Science and Technology Studies community have written a letter to Nature in response to a recent comment piece on Synthetic Biology. As the paper is paywalled, I have pasted a version of it here). 


Synthetic biology: missing the point

Volker ter Meulen warns that if environmental groups and others exaggerate the risks of synthetic biology it could promote over-regulation, which he says happened for genetically modified organisms (See here). But the point of supporting synthetic biology is not about making sure that science can go wherever it wants: it is about making the type of society people want to live in.

In the United States, for example, the rapid and uncritical introduction of genetically modified organisms prevented debate on issues such as alternative innovation pathways, and the impact on biodiversity and pest resistance. Many believe that these issues would have been better addressed through earlier and broader public discussion of the uncertainties surrounding transgenic organisms (see  for example S. Jasanoff Designs on Nature Princeton Univ. Press; 2005).

In our view, ter Meulen trivializes the role of social scientists in suggesting that they could help the synthetic-biology debate by finding better ways to communicate what scientists think. He also implies that public concern over such technologies and their governance reflects only a failure to understand the science of risk assessment — but this ‘deficit model’ of public concerns has long been discredited (see A. Irwin and B. Wynne Misunderstanding Science? Cambridge Univ. Press;1996).

It is not unknown for scientists themselves to foster exaggeration and uncritical acceptance of claims, or to focus on anticipated benefits rather than on risks. This practice may be at the heart of wider public concerns about responsible innovation (see the report of the Synthetic Biology dialogue (pdf), for instance).


Sam Weiss Evans University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Sheila Jasanoff Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, Masschusetts, USA.
Jane Calvert University of Edinburgh, UK.
Jason Delborne North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA.
Robert Doubleday University of Cambridge, UK.
Emma Frow University of Edinburgh, UK.
Silvio Funtowicz University of Bergen, Norway.
Brian Green Santa Clara University, California, USA.
Dave H. Guston Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA.
Ben Hurlbut Arizona State University, Phoenix, USA.
Alan Irwin Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.
Pierre-Benoit Joly INRA, IFRIS, Paris, France.
Jennifer Kuzma North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA.
Megan Palmer Stanford University, California, USA.
Margaret Race SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, USA.
Jack Stilgoe University College London, UK.
Andy Stirling University of Sussex, UK.
James Wilsdon University of Sussex, UK.
David Winickoff University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Brian Wynne Lancaster University, UK.
Laurie Zoloth Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA.

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UK-Brazil workshop on responsible innovation, 19-21 March 2014

I and some colleagues (Phil Macnaghten from Durham/Unicamp and Brian Wynne from Lancaster) have been given a grant by the British Council and Fapesp to run a workshop on ‘Responsible Innovation and the Governance of Socially Controversial Technologies’ in Brazil on 19-21 March 2014.

If you are based in the UK or Brazil, are an early-career researcher (less than 10 years since PhD), have something interesting to say about responsibility and technology and fancy a trip to Brazil, email me (j.stilgoe@ucl.ac.uk) for an application form.

But you’ll have to be quick. The deadline is 6th December.

Here’s a recent paper that explains some of our thinking. And there’s more info on the workshop below…

Continue reading

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Governing Emerging Technologies, Autum 2012 blog winners

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. Last term I taught a course called ‘Governing emerging technologies’ for UCL 3rd year undergraduates. It had 24 students, half from my own department, Science and Technology Studies, and half from other parts of UCL. As well as the usual essay, I asked them all to put together a course blog, in which they would explore issues to do with emerging technologies. We talked about case studies and literatures in class, but the idea with the blog was that the students would dig into their own examples. I asked the creators of the best ones if they would agree to have theirs aired publicly. In no particular order… 

  1. Beilinda Li’s blog – http://signsandtechmology.wordpress.com/. Beilinda stylishly and brilliantly discusses issues such as transhumanism – from scientific, social science and artistic viewpoints, the demise of technologies and what that tells us about innovation, and the Unabomber’s trouble with technological optimism. 
  2. Kane Shenton’s blog – http://kaneshenton.wordpress.com/. Kane takes, first, the implications for education of advances in computation; second, the unintended consequences of innovation in financial markets; and third, the debate about ‘technological unemployment’. All of these, as well as being academically fascinating, are also cutting-edge policy debates. 
  3. Bella Eacott’s blog – http://bellaeacott.wordpress.com/. Bella’s focus is more on the ideas that might inform better governance of technology. She looks at the trouble with technological fixes, from artificial hearts to geoengineering; screening and over-diagnosis; and technological hype in biomedical research. 

Huge congratulations to them all. Given that this course was brand new, I had no idea what to expect. But I was delighted by these three blogs. Needless to say, there were other highly-commended ones elsewhere in the class.


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A year (and a bit) in responsible innovation

I know it’s too late for one of those retrospective/prospective new year pieces, but here’s mine, prompted by Andrew Maynard’s recent mention of Responsible Innovation. (Apologies that this appears solipsistic. It is as much a diary entry as a blog post).

I’ve spent the last 18 months working on the idea of Responsible Innovation – what it might mean, where it might come from, how to know it when we see it and how to put it into practice. There is a tendency for researchers in any area to see their topic growing in importance as they give it more of their attention. But I am convinced that, over the last year or so, the small world of research policy has started talking about Responsible Innovation. The capital letters are important. As one of the people implicated in developing and selling the (capitalised) idea of Responsible Innovation, this excites and troubles me. I want my research to be used. I want my ideas to travel. But I wonder whether people are using a TED-talk version of the idea. I wonder whether, when people move the idea of Responsible Innovation into their world, they leave behind much of its necessary conceptual baggage and instead just use the banner. After all, who’s in favour of irresponsible stagnation?

I began in the summer of 2011, hired as a senior research fellow to work with a wonderful duo of Richard Owen at Exeter (a professor of Responsible Innovation, no less) and Phil Macnaghten at Durham, who I had worked with on nanotechnology for a few years. This was initially a holiday from my day job at the Royal Society, which I reflected on (again, solipsistically) in this paper. They generously kept my job open for me, but I got too attached to the freedoms of my academic holiday. So I never went back. I immediately spent a month on a holiday from my holiday as a visiting fellow at the Edinburgh Genomics Network, where I did this talk, among other things, looking at the links between Responsible Innovation and my previous work on upstream engagement.

The project that Richard and Phil had been funded for was a short six-month (this became nine months, then fifteen months) burst to develop a framework for Responsible Innovation that the Research Councils could use in their decision-making.  It had been prompted by the EPSRC’s involvement in a public dialogue exercise on Synthetic Biology. Rather than just shelve the report, EPSRC had admitted openly that, in the light of public concerns about the direction of Syn Bio, they needed to consider their own responsibilities as funders. Syn Bio had already been a sort of Responsible Innovation test case. The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation had been set up as an experimental collaboration between scientists, engineers and social scientists.  And while opinions differed about exactly why it was happening, there was a shared interest among all of the participants in ideas of responsible development, whatever that might mean, and a shared willingness to engage constructively, rather than follow their US equivalent’s journey into acrimony.

I began talking to Syn Bio researchers and others funded by EPSRC who were all interested in making sense of responsible innovation in their own domains: Roboticists like Alan Winfield, who is rewriting the laws of robotics to reflect them back on researchers themselves; the FRRIICT team who are looking at responsible innovation in ICTs, bringing together socially-minded technologists with technologically-minded others; Richard Jones at Sheffield – a rare Fellow of the Royal Society that is given to quoting sociologists of science and occasionally delivering brilliant talks on responsibility and nanotechnology.

In May 2011, I chaired a session at this conference, at which the European Commission announced their intention to redirect their science and society efforts to something called ‘responsible research and innovation’. The concept had been elucidated by René Von Schomberg and quickly moved into policy reality. For many of us who had been involved in arguments for public engagement with science for years without much policy purchase, the conference seemed to provide a clarity of purpose. I was asked to join a group at the Commission to develop a policy for Responsible Research and Innovation. We’ve done our bit. Let’s see how that goes. 

(The book that begun with conversations at this conference, containing thoughts from Rene, Arie Rip, us and others, will be released in 2013).

In January 2012, courtesy of the UK Foreign Office, we visited colleagues from Arizona State University at their DC office. ASU people such as Dave Guston, Dan Sarewitz, Erik Fisher and Jamey Wetmore have been thinking about responsible innovation in a US context for almost a decade. And as part of a massive National Science Foundation Centre for Nanotechnology and Society, they have been experimenting with making it happen by injecting social scientists into research labs, holding deliberative exercises and more.

In April 2012, the Danish Government took up the term for the conference on science and dialogue that they set up as part of their EU presidency. I was asked to be the rapporteur. Here’s the report. I was delighted to hear the Danish Science Minister talk about the need to move from creating the ‘best science in the world’ to the ‘best science for the world’. It will be a while before a UK Science Minister is brave enough to agree.

At around the same time, a particular issue arrived at the door of another Research Council. Anti-GM protesters had threatened to tear up an imminent trial of GM Wheat at Rothamsted Research, a large BBSRC facility in Hertfordshire. I was asked to advise them on whether a public dialogue exercise would be a good idea. My conclusion is that it would have been disingenuous. In the end, the protest was a damp squib, but questions of responsibility in innovation remained in the air (for longer, we were assured than GM wheat pollen).

Another major science governance story of late 2011/2012 became the centrepiece for our Responsible Innovation thinking.  The SPICE project – one of the world’s first big research projects in the controversial area of geoengineering – became a test case for Responsible Innovation. The SPICE team have been not just receptive but hugely proactive in helping me work out what a responsible approach to geoengineering research might look like. And the project has become a really important example of why even apparently harmless research projects can raise deep questions about ethics and responsibility. This has no doubt helped our work to get some sort of traction within the Research Councils. The report that we wrote for EPSRC, which we will publish soon, was taken to EPSRC council and will hopefully manifest in some important procedural changes there.

Looking ahead to 2013, I have a new job as a lecturer at UCL. I’ve always thought that you don’t really understand something until you’ve taught it, so I’m seeing whether Responsible Innovation makes sense to students. We’re one of the only places in the country that teaches undergraduate Science and Technology Studies, and we’re creating new MSc programmes from September. Exciting times.

I’m delighted to say that ESRC have agreed to fund more work with SPICE, so I’ll continue to work on geoengineering. Meanwhile, Responsible Innovation is flourishing elsewhere too. The European projects funded from the first wave of proposals will be gearing up. The Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation has become the even larger Flowers consortium, and the social scientists have been asked to “embed the principles of responsible innovation in translating the research into impact”. Good luck to us all. 

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Should there be more scientists in parliament?

Last night, I was part of a panel with Evan Harris, Philip Lee MP and Jenny Rohn, (chaired by labour science spokeswoman Chi Onwurah) on the question of whether we need more scientists in parliament. I was with Evan Harris on the ‘no’ side or rather the ‘let’s focus on the things that matter’ side.

My opening thoughts were along these lines:

I like scientists. Some of my best friends are scientists. And I wouldn’t for a second suggest that we cull those few scientists that we do have in parliament. I just think that this is rather a confused and not hugely important debate. When people demand more scientists in parliament, there is typically a mass of not-very-good motivations. I can think of six:

  1. Representation: Parliament should look like the population it purports to represent. If there were no scientists in parliament, that would be a shame, but there are other areas of diversity that we should worry about more.
  2. Scientists are experts: So are other people. And, as Martin Rees is fond of saying, all experts are depressing lay outside their own discipline.
  3. There is something particularly beneficial about the scientific way of thinking: Scientists may be open-minded, sceptical and evidence-based in some ways, but in other ways they are not. Scientific reductionism may indeed be a hindrance rather than a help in the messy world of politics. (Evan Harris and I agreed later that the tendency for some scientists to assert authority over debates outside their direct expertise is a big problem – Harris accused Lee of doing just this in what we might call Doughnutgate. Lee insisted he was misquoted).
  4. They stick up for science: The assumption here is that scientists understand the public value of science in ways that others do not. No evidence that this is true. Indeed, my experience is that scientists are likely to support funding for particular sorts of science and be relatively unsympathetic when it comes to others sorts, such as strategic, departmental research and development. And there are countless other areas of spending – e.g. investment in the creative industries, that are hugely strategically important and under-appreciated.
  5. They are clever: Yep. Science careers and qualifications are a pretty good signal that you can tie your own shoelaces.
  6. They are nice, progressive and probably left-wing. Sounds trite, but I suspect this reason is behind many people’s arguments.

The major point, however, is that putting pressure on individual scientists in parliament (or even in departments in the case of CSAs) may distract from the big problem, the threadbare policy institutions that are supposed to make sense of science on our behalf. There are big science policy debates to be had. Important quangos such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Sustainable Development C0mmission and the Food Standards Agency have been bonfired or singed. The Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology just escaped potentially-disastrous cuts. And the case for continued investment in public science has still not been won.

Which brings me to my other story.

In his opening remarks, Philip Lee mentioned his admiration for Charles Darwin. He particularly celebrated how, unlike other great Britons such as Churchill and Brunel, he didn’t “spend other people’s money”. So far so Tory. I picked him up on this, unfairly, given that it was a throwaway line, reminding him that Darwin was lucky to be rich enough to support his own research . I expressed my concern that his disdain for public spending pointed towards a bleak vision of a ‘Big Society science policy’. He took the bait and extended his argument. He described the importance of private funding for science is (indeed it is), before rhetorically asking whether great scientists such as Jenner, Fleming, Watson and Crick were funded from the public purse. If you’re going to ask rhetorical questions, you need to know the answers, which are, respectively: no, because he, like Darwin predated the professionalisation of science; yes, as a university professor and by the Medical Research Council; same again.

If I had been in the audience, I would have been more concerned by this poor understanding of the basis for science policy and its potential implications for the spending review than by the number of scientists we have in parliament.

(Incidentally, before the event, there was an online vote. 96% of people agreed that we needed more scientists in parliament. Evan Harris and I were confident that we could dent this rather Zimbabwean level of support. I think we got it down to about 60%, looking at the show of hands. A victory of sorts, certainly if viewed through lib-dem-tinted spectacles).

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Resolving mobile phone health uncertainties

My Dad got a letter asking him to take part in a big epidemiological study on the risks of mobile phone use. I assume his name was randomly selected, rather than the result of a brainstorm that began, “wouldn’t it be fun to have…” . He passed it onto me, remembering that I used to bang on about such things. The study is being run by Paul Elliott at Imperial, who was one of the people I interviewed for my PhD. It’s a cohort study, which means it’s expensive. Cohort studies recruit people and follow them for a period of time during which they get data about their lifestyles (in this case, how they use a mobile phone) and their health (whether they get cancer or other things). Cheaper case-control studies find groups of people with an illness and compare them against a control sample. This study is costing more than £3 million, paid for by the Government and the mobile phone industry.

The letter recruiting participants states that,

“The current position on mobile phones and health is that in the short term (less than ten years) mobile phone use is not associated with an increase in brain cancers. However, there are still significant uncertainties that can only be resolved by the COSMOS study monitoring the health of a large group of mobile phone users over a long period of time.”

My research on the shaping of mobile phone risks found that it didn’t make sense to talk about uncertainties in purely scientific terms. How uncertain we are depends on what we choose to worry about. Interest in the risks of mobile phones waxes and wanes like many other public issues. I’ve written before about the fallacy of assuming uncertainties can be cleared up by science in politicised issues. The idea that this mobile phone study will resolve these uncertainties once and for all is ridiculous.

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Dialogue on GM – Responding to Tracey Brown

The latest issue of People and Science, the British Science Association magazine, has a piece by Tracey Brown, and a response by me, on the place of ‘dialogue’ within and around the recent field trial of GM wheat.

Tracey Brown reflects on the Rothamsted protests.

Researchers working on genetically modified wheat at Rothamsted decided to respond publicly to a threat to destroy their research earlier this year. They faced a crunch point. Readers will know that activists organised an event to uproot their experimental plot in May.

Rothamsted’s approach
You may not know that Rothamsted’s efforts reached further back. Its head, Maurice Moloney, had written an open letter inviting the activists to talk when they announced their plans. Before that, environmental groups, farmers and local residents had been in discussions about the work. And before that, there had been a consultation as part of the trial’s approval by the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which led to alterations in the trial design. And before that, Rothamsted had looked at the research proposals in the light of public opinions about commercial control, benefitting the environment and reducing chemicals, and felt it met these well.

Still facing threats, the researchers then pressed for discussion rather than destruction in every way they could – a letter, video appeal, publicity, discussions in the press and on TV. The public and commentators responded with support. Local people wrote to the protest group called Take the Flour Back. Thousands posted comments on a petition, expressing different views about GM but unanimous support for the research.

Lively tumble
Questions fired in all directions, about insects, the food chain, pollination, open source material, conventional breeding and pesticide sprays, and from all quarters: ‘artist’, ‘farm-hand’, ‘carer’, ‘astrophysics lecturer’, ‘air-traffic controller’. The researchers, helped by people from other institutes, got involved in discussing them. I and many others found ourselves relaying email enquiries, twitter debates, podcasts and other interrogations.

Months later, we are still working through correspondence. The researchers, BBSRC and others are too. It was a lively tumble of public discussion, set by what people wanted to talk about, often enthusiastically, sometimes crossly, and frequently at the weekend. The only polarisation was against vandalism and that’s fair enough.

Rigidity bad
But goodness would you look at the sniping from officials! ‘Why are you doing this?’ BIS officials asked. ‘You risk putting back GM discussion by 10 years’, Sciencewise told Rothamsted. (How far is that? everyone wondered.) Publicity risks building the demonstration. It risks building a counter-demonstration. It could backfire. If the threat of vandalism is public, it could put off international investors. Okay the researchers have handled it well, but keep them away from people on the day!
It was as though official support of public engagement is limited to activities fully planned, and approved by civil servants. Some academic consultancies don’t seem to like things that aren’t in the schedule either. You could be forgiven for thinking that science communication is seen as this potent tool that must be overseen by people whom government has accredited. No room for risky unplanned discussion here.

Messiness good
Discussion – the kind that actual people want to have – is unplanned, messy, contradictory, often inconvenient. But if our aim is to strengthen civil society and engage people then all of that comes too and it’s a sign of success. Yes it does mean taking risks and not being in control. But why would we want a petrified discussion, locked in interminable strategy meetings and so afraid of getting it wrong that nothing is learned or gained? It is daunting enough for researchers to go out and debate their research without also having to contemplate a gang of people on the sidelines waiting to write them up in a patronising case study.

Instead we should welcome the messiness and opportunity to learn what goes on when you risk actual public discussion, rather than the splendid isolation of accredited engagement that disappears up its own correctness.

Not so, argues Jack Stilgoe

I’m glad to be able to respond to Tracey Brown’s article in Brownie points, Engagement: actual or accredited?As with earlier discussions about GM crops, we can learn much from the Rothamsted experience. As a member of the Sciencewise steering group, I was recently asked to chair a review of dialogue exercises that have focussed on GM crops. Our conclusion was that, while we had learnt a lot from the various attempts to engage publics on questions of genetic modification, their collective problem was that they started with the technology rather than the problem of sustainably feeding a growing population. I was subsequently asked to advise Rothamsted on the desirability of a new dialogue exercise on GM.

The work that Sense About Science did with Rothamsted took the debate on GM to a different level, which was both good and bad. Rothamsted scientists were able to proactively talk about the research they were doing and, crucially, why they were doing it. They described how their interest in GM techniques differed from the interests of the big corporations who had come to define the first GM controversy in the 1990s and how advances in the science had brought new opportunities and new uncertainties. Tracey Brown is right that these debates are messy. They are messy because they are inextricably political. Science does not have all the answers.

This is why it was so depressing to see the debate turn, with Sense About Science’s encouragement, into a referendum on whether we are pro- or anti-science. The Twittersphere’s muscular rationalists were enlisted to reinforce the barricades. Stephen Fry labelled the anti-GM protest an “assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”. This sort of tribalism creates false enemies and interrupts attempts at constructive debate before they are allowed to begin.
Brown’s criticisms of what she calls ‘accredited engagement’ are baffling. Public dialogue exercises do not solve political problems but they can, alongside other forms of uninvited engagement, help shed light on them. I worry when the idea of dialogue is invoked without the open-mindedness that is needed to allay the suspicion that the outcome has already been decided in advance.

Another poorly thought-through dialogue on GM would indeed risk taking us back ten years. It would have been starting from the wrong place, with the wrong intentions. This is why Sciencewise advised against a dialogue exercise on the particular wheat trial and instead pointed Rothamsted to the possibility of engaging in a constructive debate about the future of our food supply.

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