Centre for Engineering Biology

It's About Time: notes from a workshop on mammalian engineering biology and the many temporalities of research and innovation

The subject of time was explored in a small workshop held on 8 June 2023


July 12, 2023

Time can be an awkward subject.  Discussions of it may lead easily to either philosophical speculation on the nature of existence (‘but what is time’?) or unrealistic advice from ‘time management’ gurus (‘consider writing your paper while bathing the kids, wake up half an hour before going to sleep, and don’t forget take some ‘me time’). Both risk causing the eyes to glaze over. And yet between these poles (the sublime and the annoying) there exists a fat seam worthy of mining for anyone concerned with better understanding some of the key social dimensions shaping the practice of engineering biology today. 

This, in any event, was the contention we set out to explore in a small workshop in June 2023. Hosted by the Centre for Engineering Biology in Edinburgh, the event brought together social scientists and engineering biologists working on a variety of synthetic biology applications in the fields of cell and gene therapy.  Funded through a BBSRC Transition Award (Full title: Engineering Biology for Cell and Gene Therapy Applications) the event formed a part of our broad aim of building capacity for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) around mammalian engineering biology – and, in this, built on previous experiences of research and engagement with the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology.   

Our main goals for the workshop were to facilitate conversation on questions and issues of mutual concern across the different groups associated with the Transition Award, and, more widely, to encourage creative, collaborative ways of thinking about the connections between engineering biology research and the social context that supports it. 

Drawing on preliminary research and consultation with PIs and postdocs connected to the Award, we chose the theme of time and temporality in engineering biology as an organising device for the workshop. We did this because of the way it resonated with both our evolving understanding of RRI and the concerns raised repeatedly by engineering biologists.  

In the context of discussing what can be thought of as their (and our) “epistemic living space” – that is, the “lived experiential realities” of individuals and collectives doing science (Felt and Fochler 2012: 136) – engineering biologists on the award repeatedly return to the temporal dimensions of their lives in science, be this in terms of organisms, experiments, careers, growing old, speeding up, or the management of projects and the administrative time of universities.

Overall, however differently we may all understand and relate to the topic of time, it proved a good topic around which we could gather and, through explicitly centring it in our discussions, bring to the surface a wide range of ways in which scientific practices and goals are connected our social worlds and experiences.

Some of the many topics ventured at the workshop included:

  • The effects – epistemic and personal – of the perception of time scarcity on the goals we set ourselves and the methods we choose to use to pursue them
  • The relationship between time pressure and creativity: under what conditions can time pressure be a ‘good thing’?
  • Difficult judgements about the relationship between ‘time saving’ technologies in the lab and the quality of scientific outputs
  • Differences in the meaning or significance of time in biology and engineering, and whether these matter?
  • The metaphors we use to describe the way we coordinate colliding timeframes in our research lives: is time, for example, a choregraphed dance or an “impossible jigsaw”?
  • The anthropomorphism of time (and the way we speak about it): what does it mean to say time is a “friend” or an “enemy”?
  • How do we adjust, technically and socially, to the timeframes imposed on our research programmes by the biologies of our chosen organism – a relevant question in the context of working with human cells
  • The politics and time, especially the importance of time in processes of social inclusion and exclusion, including the differential effects of institutional timeframes and deadlines on people with different characteristics and backgrounds
  • What might calls to “slow down” the pace of scientific knowledge production actually entail for individuals and mean in practice?
  • What experiments with temporality might we engage in at the local level that would help to encourage collaboration, creativity and flourishing?  
  • What are underpinning temporal assumptions of RRI theory – and how could RRI, as a social demand added to existing obligation, avoid becoming itself source of time pressure for scientists?

By creating the time in which to explicitly address the issue of time and the relations it engenders, we hope to have contributed towards creating the capacity to re-examine the significance of time in our scientific work – to, in a sense, denaturalise it as a taken-for-granted background fact of social and scientific life.  

For us as organisers and social scientists engaged in the social study of engineering biology, the workshop was an early input into our ongoing research on the role of time in RRI theory and practice, in which the specific textures, problems and experiences of engineering in mammalian systems is central. Like space (with which members of the organising team have been thinking for a while, as you can see for yourself in Jane Calvert’s forthcoming book) time and temporality suggest themselves as fruitful dimensions along which to expand our thinking about and capacity for interdisciplinary collaborations in the field of engineering biology more widely.

Indeed, much like everything happens somewhere, everything also happens in time – but time and space are neither simply abstract dimensions of nature nor mere envelopes for social action: they are a part of the stuff of collaboration itself and, as we are learning to think about the spaces in which collaborative thinking occurs, so we may try to understand the different qualities of temporal experience that lead to lasting and creative collaborations across the science-society divide.


By Dr Reuben Message

Research Fellow in Responsible Research and Innovation

Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS), School of Social and Political Sciences

This work is funded by an Engineering Biology Transition Award from UKRI | BBSRC.

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