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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : RCSS

Postgraduate Course: Social Dimensions of Systems and Synthetic Biology (RCSS11001)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Course typeStandard AvailabilityAvailable to all students
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) Credits20
Home subject areaRCSS Other subject areaNone
Course website None Taught in Gaelic?No
Course descriptionFunding bodies are increasingly demanding that scientists consider the potential impact of their research, field media enquiries, take part in public engagement activities, work through patenting and regulatory issues connected to their research, and participate in interdisciplinary teams. This course will provide time and space to examine some of the philosophical, legal, ethical and social issues surrounding the new and growing disciplines of systems and synthetic biology. Scientists and engineers on the course should gain a broad understanding of key theories and methods in science & technology studies (STS) as applied to their own research interests, and should develop the skills and confidence to contribute productively to broader discussions of their research. Social scientists on the course will have the opportunity to explore two new areas of scientific enquiry in depth, and to apply theory and methods from their disciplinary training to the analysis of these fields.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Additional Costs None
Information for Visiting Students
Displayed in Visiting Students Prospectus?No
Course Delivery Information
Delivery period: 2011/12 Semester 2, Available to all students (SV1) WebCT enabled:  Yes Quota:  None
Location Activity Description Weeks Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
No Classes have been defined for this Course
First Class Week 1, Wednesday, 10:00 - 12:00, Zone: King's Buildings. Darwin 315
No Exam Information
Summary of Intended Learning Outcomes
On successful completion of the course students will have demonstrated through written work, oral presentations and other contributions in class, that they:

& Have substantive knowledge and critical understanding of the broad social and political context surrounding developments in the life sciences, and of the diversity of issues and approaches covered by the 'ethical, social and legal issues' (ELSI) heading.
& Can identify and characterise the key methods, approaches and theories from science and technology studies as they apply to the study of systems and synthetic biology.
& Can critically evaluate the main ethical, legal and social issues arising from systems and synthetic biology, and the contributions to academic and public debates on these issues.
& Have developed their skills in finding and using the resources available (theories, methods, techniques, sources of information, etc.) for pursuing these issues in their future work.
& Can apply these understandings and skills, and deploy these approaches, concepts and techniques in written assignments and seminar presentations.
Assessment Information
This course will be assessed through a number of short assignments designed to test and develop the students& presentation skills, critical analysis, and familiarity with social science methodologies.
& Each student will be required to give a 15 minute tutorial presentation addressing the key readings on a particular topic (25%). Students will choose a topic at the start of the semester based on a list that will be provided. The convenors will mark the presentations on the basis of 6 criteria (delivery, research, content, argument, discussion and submission), but they will take into account peer review marks on 3 of the criteria (delivery, argument, and discussion), where the mark will be a mean of the audience's mark and the convenors'. Standardized mark sheets have been designed. All presenters will be required to make copies of their slides and bibliography available on the course WebCT site.
& All students will be required to produce a short reflective review (1000 words) of a relevant book or an academic seminar/lecture (25%), to be submitted about half-way through the course. A list of possible books and seminars will be provided, but students are free to choose their own topic if approved by the course organiser(s) beforehand.
For the remaining 50% of the evaluation, students will choose one of the following options:
& A 2000-word essay (50%), to be submitted at the end of the course. A list of essay titles will be suggested, but students are free to use their own titles if they clear these with the course organiser(s) beforehand.
& Two short written assignments (1000 words each) oriented around social science methodologies (25% each), to be submitted after the end of the course. Instructions for the assignments will be provided.
Special Arrangements
Additional Information
Academic description Not entered
Syllabus The following lectures are planned for the first year (individual lectures might vary slightly from year to year, depending on who is teaching the course).

1. Defining systems and synthetic biology
The introductory session will explore different definitions of and approaches to systems and synthetic biology, and the relationship of the two fields to each other. We will touch on philosophical underpinnings such as reductionism and emergence, and examine the role of prediction and hypotheses in these emerging fields.
Sample readings:
Morange, M (2009) A new revolution? The place of systems biology and synthetic biology in the history of biology. EMBO reports 10: S50-S53.
Keller, EF (2005) The century beyond the gene. Journal of Biosciences 30: 3-10.

2. Interdisciplinarity
In this session we will explore the differences in methods, assumptions and expectations of researchers from different scientific and engineering disciplines, and discuss some of the challenges associated with interdisciplinary research collaborations in systems and synthetic biology.
Sample readings:
McCarthy, J (2004) Tackling the challenges of interdisciplinary biosciences. Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology 5: 933-937.
Calvert, J (2010) Systems biology, interdisciplinarity and disciplinary identity. In Parker, JN, Vermeulen, N & Penders, B (eds.) Collaboration in the New Life Sciences. Aldershot: Ashgate.

3. Standards
Standards are often viewed as an important part of science and engineering infrastructure. In this session we will examine the technical and social challenges associated with standards development in systems biology (e.g. SBML, SysMO Consortium) and synthetic biology (e.g. BioBrick design standards and RFCs), with reference as appropriate to examples such as Internet standards.
Sample readings:
Arkin, A (2008) Setting the standard in synthetic biology. Nature Biotechnology 26(7): 771-4.
Hanseth, O, Monteiro, E & Hatling, M (1996) Developing information infrastructure: The tension between standardization and flexibility. Science, Technology & Human Values 21(4):407-426.

4. Intellectual property
In this session we will explore different ownership and sharing regimes for biological entities, ranging from open-access to patenting, and think about their implications for systems and synthetic biology research communities. For example, how do you protect $ and should you patent $ DNA, genes, protein networks, and organisms?
Sample readings:
Rai A. & Boyle, J. (2007) Synthetic biology: caught between property rights, the public domain, and the commons. PLoS Biology 5: e58.
Allarakhia, M & Wensley, A (2005) Innovation and intellectual property rights in systems biology. Nature Biotechnology 23(12): 1485-1488.

5. Nature and life
This session will explore some key ethical issues, focusing particularly on questions raised by systems and synthetic biology such as what it is for something to be 'natural', whether you can create life from scratch, and the idea of 'playing God.'
Sample readings:
Cho, MK et al. (1999) Ethical considerations in synthesizing a minimal genome. Science 286: 2087-2090.
Preston, CJ (2008) Synthetic biology: Drawing a line in Darwin's sand. Environmental Values 17: 23-39.

6. Access and security
A number of biosafety and biosecurity concerns have been voiced in relation to synthetic biology. In this session we will talk about expertise, who should have access to information and technologies, and discuss biohacking and the DIY biology movement.
Sample readings:
Bgl, H et al (2007) DNA synthesis and biological security. Nature Biotechnology 25(6): 627-629.
Rappert, B (2008) The benefits, risks, and threats of biotechnology. Science and Public Policy 35: 1-7.

7. Regulation of biotechnologies
In this session we will look at how systems and synthetic biology fit into existing regulatory frameworks for biotechnology products and processes. We will also touch on international differences in regulatory frameworks (e.g. for GM crops), and talk about the challenges of regulation in the context of converging technologies.
Sample readings:
Tait, J (2009) Upstream Engagement and the Governance of Science: the shadow of the GM crops experience in Europe. EMBO reports 10(S1): S18-S22.
Tucker JB & Zilinskas RA (2006) The promise and perils of synthetic biology. New Atlantis 12: 25-45.

8. Public engagement with new technologies
We will trace the history and changing conceptions of public understanding and public engagement with science, drawing on lessons from GM technologies and nanotechnology to inform our discussion of systems and synthetic biology.
Sample readings:
Marris, C (2001) Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths. EMBO reports 2(7): 545-548.
Wilsdon, J & Willis, R (2004) See-through Science: Why public engagement needs to move upstream. London: Demos (
N.B.: The students may also receive some media training this week.

9. Futures and expectations
In this session we will discuss the role of expectations in shaping scientific funding, research and regulation. We will highlight different approaches for thinking about the future, including foresight analyses, scenarios and anticipatory governance of new technologies. As a case study, we will discuss the future of systems and synthetic biology in the context of the 'knowledge-based bioeconomy'.
Sample readings:
Aldrich, S, Newcomb, J &Carlson, R (2008) Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology. Industrial Biotechnology 4(1): 39$49.
Brown, N & Michael, M (2003) A sociology of expectations. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, 15(1): 3-18.

10. Aesthetics
This session will open systems and synthetic biology up to broader ideas in design and aesthetics. We will show and discuss some examples of work where artists and designers have been interacting with the synthetic biology community.
Sample readings:
Jones R (2009) Designs for living. Nature Nanotechnology 4: 471.
Endy, D & Sagmeister, S (2006) The Seed Salon: Endy and Sagmeister SEED, 2(2): 99-103.
N.B. This week may also involve a mini-design project focused on futures and aesthetics.
Transferable skills Not entered
Reading list Not entered
Study Abroad Not entered
Study Pattern Not entered
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Jane Calvert
Tel: (0131 6)50 2843
Course secretaryMiss Vicky Mactaggart
Tel: (0131 6)51 7052
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