"Engineering life is not like engineering concrete or silicon" (Herbert Sauro, Nature, 8th May 2014, p.157).

The emerging field of synthetic biology promises to engineer the living world. Its proponents argue that it will deliver new fuels, medicines and materials that will drive the next industrial revolution. A field of such potentially huge significance requires informed social scientific attention. And because of synthetic biology’s bold ambitions and disruptive potential, scholars from the social sciences and humanities have become enrolled into synthetic biology research projects in a manner that is unprecedented.

The Engineering Life project studies both the engineering of biology and the role of social scientists within this. Its two objectives are:

  • to investigate the movement of ideas, practices and promises from engineering into the life sciences;
  • to examine the ways in which social scientists and other groups are being mobilised as part of this endeavour.

Engineering is an area that has been relatively neglected by Science and Technology Studies, and the engineering of biology even more so. But it is a fascinating topic because biology is notoriously complex and recalcitrant, it responds to its environment and evolves, and it is very different from the kinds of things we routinely engineer.

So what is meant by engineering, and what would it mean to engineer biology? The project aims to provide insights into the engineering imagination, how it is applied to living things, and how it is challenged and expanded in interdisciplinary interactions.

We are tackling these issues by collecting empirical data across three continents. This involves semi-structured qualitative interviews and ethnographic research in synthetic biology laboratories that are attempting to make biology easier to engineer.

We are simultaneously addressing the interdisciplinary entanglements that arise in all these contexts, which involve scientists, engineers, social scientists, philosophers, lawyers and sometimes even artists and designers. We are also running a series of experimental interdisciplinary workshops, where we are exploring the possibility of producing new knowledge together, across disciplinary divides.