Intentions, expectations and institutions: Engineering the future of synthetic biology in the USA and the UK

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Synthetic biology is a field in-the-making: a loosely defined amalgamation of diverse disciplines, institutions and practices. Where some practitioners identify as scientists, others consider themselves engineers; while some extol the simplicity of standardised biology, others dismiss it as counterproductive. Three different communities in synthetic biology (epistemics, sceptical constructors and committed engineers) can be distinguished by way of their intentions, practices and promises. Synthetic biologists’ promises shape policy-makers’ expectations, which in turn shape institutional arrangements. These institutional arrangements then influence practitioners’ promises in an iterative fashion. In both the USA and the UK, ‘committed engineers’ have succeeded in gaining support for an engineering-based and industry-centred vision of synthetic biology, which promises applications and economic growth. This group's intentions and promises have influenced policy-makers’ expectations, which, in turn, have driven the major institutional developments in synthetic biology in the two countries. However, while the promises of the economic potential of this vision of the field have been embraced at policy levels, other aspects of this vision, such as the importance of enabling infrastructure, are often overlooked. In a sense, committed engineers’ promises and rhetoric have been too successful, because they have overshadowed the institutional and infrastructural developments needed to make them a reality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)359-383
Number of pages25
JournalScience as Culture
Issue number4
Early online date20 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • synthetic biology
  • promissory rhetoric
  • expectations
  • engineering


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