Research Themes

The Engineering Life project is divided into three interconnected streams:

  • ‘Ideas’ analyses the extent to which ideas and discourses from engineering are permeating and influencing biology.

Work in this strand explores synthetic biology’s engineering aspirations. We are interested in when and where engineering gets deployed, and what this tells us about the nature of engineering knowledge. Engineering has, of course, been drawn on in other contexts in biology, at different moments in the past, and in parallel fields, such as ecological engineering and medicine. Building on work in science and technology studies (STS) and the history and philosophy of science (HPS), research in the ‘ideas’ strand explores the intersections of engineering and biology, and asks related conceptual questions, such as whether ‘life’ is something that is being engineered.

  • ‘Practices’ investigates how engineering is influencing research practices in the life sciences.

The focus of the practices strand is on how biology is being engineered in practice. This work is grounded in ethnographic observations of engineering and synthetic biology laboratories, and includes analysis of both experimental and communication practices. In our investigation of engineering experimentation we are asking how synthetic biology laboratories are arranging and re-arranging their work (including machines, samples and people) in pursuit of their engineering goals. With respect to communication, we are examining the metaphors and rhetorics used by synthetic biologists (and those who discuss them) as well as the graphic and data visualization practices they are creating and adopting. We are also looking at how interdisciplinarity is being practiced in this field, as well as interrelationships between human and non-human organisms.

  • ‘Policies and promises’ examines the policies and promises surrounding the engineering of biology.

Like other new and emerging technologies, the growth of synthetic biology has been dependent on claims of future value, which help legitimise investment in the field. Our work in the policies and promises strand asks about the implications of this promissory rhetoric for the development of synthetic biology and for how it comes to be supported and valued. We are interested in why it is that the same technologies are often understood and governed differently in different contexts. For example, how are policies for synthetic biology being developed in the UK, the US and Asia? And how is synthetic biology being drawn upon in established international agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity?

Alongside these three strands, we are also pursuing reflexive questions about the ways in which social scientists are being mobilised in attempts to engineer life:

From the outset, scholars from the social sciences, arts, and humanities have helped to constitute synthetic biology. This provides novel opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, but is potentially risky for all those involved. What roles are social scientists, bioethicists, lawyers, artists and designers playing in synthetic biology? To what extent are these roles consistent with these researchers’ theories, methods, values, and goals? And what does the rise of ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ imply for interdisciplinary knowledge production and governance in synthetic biology?

For details of specific projects see Case Studies.

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