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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Postgrad (School of Social and Political Studies)

Postgraduate Course: Social Dimensions of Systems and Synthetic Biology (PGSP11476)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryFunding 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.
Course description Outline Content

1. The interdisciplinary life sciences
Both systems biology and synthetic biology are examples of the interdisciplinary life sciences, which bring together researchers from a range of scientific and engineering disciplines, with different methods, assumptions and expectations. In this session we will discuss the definitions of systems and synthetic biology, and the relationship of the two fields to each other. We will also address some of the challenges associated with interdisciplinary research collaborations.

2. From breeding experiments to synthetic biology

The features and potential of synthetic biology arise from a long history of knowledge production about living systems. This session will uncover this history, starting with the first attempts at breeding plants and animals, as well as producing substances of practical interest through fermentation processes.

3. Systems biology and science policy

Science policy is an important driver of scientific advancement, as it plays a key role in decisions about the allocation of funding and the ways in which research is organised and evaluated. In this session we will discuss the development of (inter)national science policies, looking especially at the field of systems biology.

4. Ways of owning

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.

5. Synthetic biology as open science?

Building on the premise of making biology easy and accessible to many, synthetic biology is often presented as a pioneering case of 'open biology'. However, as we will explore in this session, such openness can be practiced in multiple ways, with corresponding social implications.

6. Bioethics
This session will introduce some bioethical perspectives on synbio and explore the role of bioethics in the study of systems and synthetic biology.

7. Governance and regulation

In this session we will analyse attempts to regulate recombinant technologies in the 1970s, and look at how some of these ideas resurface in recent discussions of technologies such as CRISPR.

8. Synthetic biology and the public good

In this session we will explore the relations between synthetic biology and public needs, values and views. Do citizens have a role in contributing to the development of emerging technologies, as consumers, users or stakeholders?

9. Pasts and futures

This session will explore how the history of molecular biology, as told by molecular biologists, shaped the formation of expectations around late 20th century biomedicine.

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 scientists and engineers.

Each week there will be lectures, student presentations and seminar discussion, with a strong emphasis on open discussion. Many sessions will involve in-class exercises around particular case-studies or examples. Each week you will write a short response to the set readings, which will be posted online before the class. You will do one peer-assessed presentation during the course and you will write one assessed essay at the end of the course. The course is open to students with an interest in the social dimensions of developments in the life sciences, from the natural sciences and the social sciences.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2017/18, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  45
Course Start Semester 2
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 196 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 0 %, Coursework 100 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) A combination of class preparation (20%), presentation (20%), and essay (60%) «br /»
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1. Class preparation (20%)«br /»
Every week students should prepare a 200-300 word reflection on the readings for that week, to be posted on the group discussion board on Learn by 6pm the Tuesday before the class. Mid-way through the course a formative assessment will be given of the submissions so far.«br /»
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2. Presentation (20%)«br /»
A 10-15 minute peer-assessed presentation on a relevant topic of the presenter's choice. (Presentations can be done in groups of 2-3.)«br /»
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3. Essay (60%)«br /»
One essay maximum length 3000 words. A list of essay titles will be provided, but students are free to choose their own titles if they agree these with the course organiser beforehand.«br /»
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Feedback Not entered
No Exam Information
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Can apply these understandings and skills, and deploy these approaches, concepts and techniques in written assignments and seminar presentations.
Reading List
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Niki Vermeulen
Tel: (0131 6)51 7112
Course secretaryMiss Morag Wilson
Tel: (0131 6)51 5122
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