Centre for Engineering Biology

Responsible Research and Innovation

The engineering of mammalian systems, bringing together research in synthetic biology, epigenetics and stem cells, opens up novel questions for social scientific research and provides a unique opportunity to further the development of the concept of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

Edinburgh has an internationally leading group of social scientists specialising in synthetic biology who have collaborated with SynthSys researchers since 2008. 

Our work in the UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology builds on the EPSRC’s AREA framework (Anticipate, Reflect, Engage and Act) for RRI to:

  • Enhance understanding of the concept of RRI;
  • Support its practical implementation in the engineering of mammalian systems;
  • Develop case studies of excellent implementation of RRI for use in teaching and to support research in synthetic biology 


The Centre’s RRI work is made up of three strands:

Proportionate and adaptive governance of innovative technologies

Prof Joyce Tait and colleagues at Innogen have been exploring the question of where and how RRI fits into the broader innovation support network. Their study proposes a new approach to the responsible development of innovative products, processes and services by companies and organisations operating in the bioeconomy and related industry sectors. It departs from much of the recent and currently available research on responsible research and innovation in that it recognises the very different challenges faced by innovating organisations, compared to conventional approaches with a strong emphasis on upstream engagement. It is designed to be simple and feasible for a company to implement within a commercial environment. Their findings have been published in the journal Engineering Biology.



New approaches to RRI informed by art and design

Jane Calvert and Robert Smith with Ionat Zurr, Oron Catts and Tarsh Bates from SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia and the Rosser and Cachat laboratories at the CMSB have collaborated on the ‘Crossing Kingdoms’ project. This project attempts to fuse mammalian and yeast cells to explore the social, cultural and scientific implications of the hybrids produced. It has created interdisciplinary collaborations that make contributions to artistic, social scientific and natural scientific research agendas simultaneously.

Further information:

Smith, R (2021) Crossing kingdoms, disciplines and continents: What can art, STS and synthetic biology do together? SynthSys Blog.

Szymanski, E, Bates, N, Cachat, E, Calvert, J, Catts, O, Nelson, LJ, Rosser, SJ, Smith, RDJ, Zurr, I (2020) ‘Crossing kingdoms: How can art open up new ways of thinking about science?’ Frontiers in Bioengineering & Biotechnology doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2020.00715


Funding cultures and RRI

As the development of synthetic biology shows, research funders are fundamental to the implementation of RRI and shaping the trajectory of the field more broadly. While the power of research funders is widely acknowledged, there have been few in-depth studies of their day-to-day decision making and even fewer opportunities to inform this decision making with social scientific research. Robert Smith has been leading work with an international network of bioscience funding agencies (ERACoBioTech, which includes the BBSRC) to help them think about designing funding programmes that are themselves shaped by RRI.

Further information:

Smith, R (2020) Responsible research and innovation as social learning: Insights from BBSRC and the ERA CoBioTech programme. Edinburgh Hub for Responsible Innovation Blog.

Smith, R, Scott, D, Kamwendo, Z & Calvert, J (2019) An Agenda for Responsible Research and Innovation in ERA CoBioTech Swindon, UK: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.