Nanotechnology and synthetic biology are emerging technologies with the potential to be both transformative and socially disruptive. Both have involved social scientists from the outset, and this involvement is becoming increasingly important in governance (for example, in thinking through choices about which technologies to develop and how).
This Collaborative Visiting Scholarship has helped to foster longer-term institutional connections between leading centres working on the governance of emerging technologies: the ESRC Genomics Forum and Innogen at the University of Edinburgh, and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at Arizona State University (ASU). The grant supported two early-career researchers from the University of Edinburgh to spend 3 weeks each at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society.
The two core aims of this visit were to learn from the considerable experience of CNS in developing training programmes and working collaboratively with scientists and engineers, and to carry out comparative research on the involvement of social scientists in the emerging fields of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. These goals were achieved through participation in a series of meetings, teaching activities, research seminars, and workshops with CNS researchers and other international visiting scholars at ASU. As a testament to the fruitful exchange and common ground developed through this visit, a number of follow-up collaborative activities have already been undertaken, and further exchanges and activities are planned for the coming year.
Activities carried out during the visit to CNS-ASU involved primarily the university community, targeting a broad cross-section of undergraduate and graduate students (including natural scientists and social scientists), early-career researchers, and faculty members across a number of departments. All activities and events were well-attended, generated lively and productive discussion, and often led to further meetings being planned.
In visiting CNS-ASU, our primary interests were in (i) learning about anticipatory governance concepts and methods being pioneered at ASU, and (ii) carrying out some comparative analysis of the role of social scientists in synthetic biology and nanotechnology. The activities undertaken certainly furthered our objectives on those two fronts, and unexpectedly productive territory of common interest also included very practically focused discussion around pedagogy and the setting up of productive collaborations with practising scientists and engineers. The co-investigators on the grant are continuing to exchange syllabi and to discuss the development of courses and innovative pedagogical methods (particularly geared towards teaching graduate scientists and engineers about the social implications of science and technology). Joint panel sessions at two international conferences provided occasion for further discussion and refinement of our thinking on this topic.
A number of follow-on activities have taken place since the initial visit to ASU. In brief, CNS-ASU researchers Guston, Harsh and Wetmore have all made reciprocal visits to Edinburgh since the initial visit by Calvert and Frow. Calvert and Frow have also partnered with two faculty members from CNS-ASU (Guston and Wiek) to write a paper on synthetic biology and anticipatory governance. Finally, a number of further activities are also planned for the next 12 months (see Impacts section for details).