Centre for Engineering Biology

Crossing kingdoms, disciplines and continents

What can art, STS and synthetic biology do together? 

In the antechamber to an old school hall, a nude woman slides into a fume cupboard. Later, she buries her head in soil flecked-through with green glitter. A familiar Welsh synthetic biologist gives an opening speech to Hyperprometheus, an international exhibition of biological art. A second French synthetic biologist turns the tables and reveals her field notes to a plenary audience, ‘What do you actually mean when you talk about agency, ontological liminality and epistemology?’ We are all asked to ‘listen deeply’ to the words of an indigenous speculative fiction author; the laptops are closed.

These slightly strange situations all happened during a recent visit to Australia by members of the Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology (CMSB) and Engineering Life Project to take part in the Unhallowed Arts Festival and a workshop to explore the relationships between art, social science and synthetic biology. The voyage was driven by a nascent collaboration, Crossing Kingdoms & Disciplines, which involves biological artists — our hosts based in SymbioticA, Perth — synthetic biologists and social scientists and forms part of CMSB’s work on novel forms of Responsible Research and Innovation. This project aims to create cross-kingdom fusion events between mammalian and yeast cells, in the hope of providing technical advancements (for instance to move around large chunks of DNA) and allowing the team to explore the philosophical and cultural significance of engineering biology to create new life forms.

Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is usually pitched as a kind of add-on: by blending in some social science or ethics, otherwise normal science will be made more ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ than would otherwise be the case. This is a consequentialist way of thinking about RRI because it implies that the outputs of science-plus-RRI will somehow be different to science-minus-RRI. Ignore the differing jargon and think of iGEM, where to get a gold medal teams must demonstrate that their ‘Human Practices’ work changed the science in their projects. As suggested by the iGEM example, one of the reasons this mode of RRI is popular is because it is, superficially at least, amenable to evaluation – did the RRI change the science or not?

In our work as social scientists we are interested in what happens to the stuff of wildly interdisciplinary projects, be that knowledge, technologies or disciplines. And specifically, in the Crossing Kingdoms project we are trying to explore modes of RRI that might exist outside the consequentialist logic. Might it be possible – as eloquently put by our Welsh familiar in her opening speech – to do scientific work that is driven by a desire for knowledge, economic goals and artistic aims simultaneously? If it is possible, what would that collaboration look like? And what kind of practices and relationships might be necessary?

Our trip down under embodies one tentative answer: a willingness to follow one another around. The social scientists in our collaboration are used to being in scientific conferences -- as ethnographers, presenters, panellists, or sometimes even as conveners. Indeed, the prelude to this trip was our joint presence at the Mammalian Synthetic Biology Workshop in Boston. It is far rarer, however, for these positions to be reversed and to be followed by scientists into one of 'our' conferences.

As the first sentences of this note hint, it was a particularly unique baptism but one that allowed for forms of interactions, collaboration and thought that would probably not normally be possible -- philosophical explorations of parts and wholes, non-linear narratives, conversations about the nature of gender. Not all of these were comfortable -- in the workshop that we convened, What can art, STS and synthetic biology do together? discussion began to make clear how unique our collaborative practices in Edinburgh could be. And we're not completely sure how we will fill in the evaluation forms; have we changed the science or just created some kind of monster?

Robert Smith is a Research Fellow (Social Dimensions of Synthetic Biology) in the School of Social & Political Science