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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: 2013/14 Semester 2, Available to all students (SV1) Learn enabled:  Yes Quota:  12
Web Timetable Web Timetable
Course Start Date 13/01/2014
Breakdown of Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 25, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 171 )
Additional Notes
Breakdown of Assessment Methods (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
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.

* A 10- 15 minute peer-assessed presentation on a relevant topic of the presenter's choice (20%).
* One essay maximum length 3000 words (80%), to be submitted on 11th of April 2013. A list of
essay titles will be suggested, but students are free to use their own titles if they agree these
with the course organiser beforehand.
* A reflective review (approx 1500 words) of a relevant policy report, book, film, or academic
lecture (40%), to be submitted on 11th of April 2013. A list of policy reports, books, films and
lectures will be provided, but students are free to choose their own topic if approved by the
course organiser beforehand.
* A written assignment (approx 1500 words) making use of social science methodology (40%), to
be submitted on 11th of April 2013. 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. Natural and artificial
The division between ¿the natural¿ and ¿the artificial¿ informs many of the ethical and legal questions surrounding synthetic biology, along with a whole host of topics relevant to the study and practice of bioengineering more generally. During this session we will explore this dichotomy¿natural and artificial¿and think about how it relates to the field of synthetic biology.

Key readings:
Preston, CJ (2008) ¿Synthetic Biology: Drawing a Line in Darwin¿s Sand¿ Environmental Values 17: 23-39.
Schyfter, P (2011) Technological biology? Things and kinds in synthetic biology. Biology & Philosophy 24: 29-48.
Sperber, D (2007) Seedless grapes: Nature and culture. In Laurence, S & Eric Margolis, E (eds.) Creations of the Mind: Theories of Artifacts and their Representation. Oxford: Oxford UP.

4. 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.

Key readings:
Arkin, A (2008) Setting the standard in synthetic biology. Nature Biotechnology 26(7): 771-4.
Brazma, A, Krestyaninova, M and Sarkans, U (2006) Standards for systems biology. Nature Reviews Genetics 7: 593-605.
Hanseth, O, Monteiro, E & Hatling, M (1996) Developing information infrastructure: The tension between standardization and flexibility. Science, Technology & Human Values 21(4):407-426.

5. 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, networks, and organisms?

Key readings:
Allarakhia, M & Wensley, A (2005) Innovation and intellectual property rights in systems biology. Nature Biotechnology 23(12): 1485-1488.
Henkel J. and Maurer, S.M. (2009) Parts, property and sharing. Nature Biotechnology, 27, 12, 1095-1098
Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2002) The Ethics of Patenting DNA. London: Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Chapters 2 & 3. Online at

6. Access, security and DIYBio
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.

Key readings:
Alper, J (2009) Biotech in the basement. Nature Biotechnology 27, 1077-1078
Ledford, H (2010) Garage biotech: Life hackers. Nature 467, 650-652
Vogel, KM (2008) Framing biosecurity: an alternative to the biotech revolution model? Science and Public Policy, 35 (1): 45-54

7. 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.

Key readings:
Jones, R (2009) Public engagement and nanotechnology: the UK experience. In Stilgoe, J (ed) The Road Ahead: Public Dialogue on Science and Technology Department of Business, Innovation and Skills online at: online at:
Marris, C (2001) Public views on GMOs: deconstructing the myths. EMBO reports 2(7): 545-548.
Stirling, A (2012) ¿Opening up the politics of knowledge and power in bioscience¿ PLOS Biology 10(1) e1001233. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001233

8. Regulation and governance
In this session we will look at how genetic engineering has been regulated in the past. We will then address the challenges of governing emerging technologies, where there is considerable uncertainty surrounding both applications and implications.

Key readings:
Marris, C and Rose, N (2012) ¿Let¿s get real on synthetic biology¿ New Scientist 214 (2868): 28-29 online at:
Rogers, M (1975) ¿The Pandora's Box congress¿ Rolling Stone 189 (19 June 1975): 37-40, 42, 74, 77-78, 82
Zhang, JY, Marris, C, Rose, N (2011) The Transnational Governance of Synthetic Biology: Scientific Uncertainty, Cross-borderness and the 'Art' of Governance BIOS Working Paper No. 4, London: London School of Economics and Political Science, pp. 5-14

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 scenarios, roadmaps and anticipatory governance of new technologies.

Key readings:
Aldrich, S, Newcomb, J and Carlson, R (2008) Scenarios for the future of synthetic biology. Industrial Biotechnology 4(1): 39¿49.
Chedd, G (1971) ¿Danielli the Prophet¿ New Scientist and Science Journal (21 January 1971): 124-125.
Dyson, F (2007) 'Our biotech future' The New York Review of Books, 19 July 2007;
Nordmann , A and Rip, A (2009). Mind the gap revisited. Nature Nanotechnology 4: 273-274.

10. Design and 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.

Key readings:
Ginsberg, AD and Catts, O (2010) ¿The well-oiled machine¿ ICON, February 2010 48-50
Jones R (2009) Designs for living. Nature Nanotechnology 4: 471.
Reardon, S (2011) Visions of synthetic biology. Science 333: 1242-1243
Transferable skills Not entered
Reading list Not entered
Study Abroad Not entered
Study Pattern Not entered
Course organiserDr Jane Calvert
Tel: (0131 6)50 2843
Course secretaryMiss Jade Birkin
Tel: (0131 6)51 1569
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