ELSA of Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology has the potential to be a major driver of industrial and economic development. As with any new emerging technology, the development of synthetic biology needs to be guided by Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (ELSA) of the field. WISB researchers are engaging with regulatory authorities, industry, academics, the wider public and other stakeholders to address this. Current ELSA research focusses on the legal framework for protecting intellectual property in synthetic biology and the role of art and design in engaging the wider community.

At WISB ELSA is about:

  • Making space to consider who to respond to Entanglement
  • Slowing down the pace of speculation and assumption in the field
  • Connecting skillfully with people and issues form outside ‘the lab’. 

WISB supports a Research Career Development Fellow undertaking ELSA-related research.

WISB is committed to principles of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

The WISB ELSA Lead is Dr Nicholas Lee.


Dr. Achim Rosemann (CES Research Fellow Life Sciences and Education) is working alongside Dr. Nick Lee to consider synthetic biology entanglement. 

We see ethical, legal and social aspects of synthetic biology through the lens of ‘Entanglement’.

As Hillis (2015) suggests, while Enlightenment assumptions about research still hold sway, in reality Entanglement is a better frame. This means that:

  • Social outcomes of research are often unpredictable.
  • Researchers are, nevertheless, held responsible, amongst others, for those outcomes.
  • The opportunity to study life process is increasingly dependent on the conversion of knowledge into innovation.
  • The ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’ of laboratory life are thoroughly mixed.

In consequence three tensions:

  • There is a requirement for synthetic biology to produce tangible benefits and researchers are drawn into controversy over what counts as ‘beneficial’
  • Increased need for researchers to communicate with publics and researchers are drawn into discussion about who should and should not influence the direction of their work
  • An increased need for researchers to develop skills to navigate controversy, but where will they find the time?

Hillis http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/the-coming-entanglement-bill-joy-an-12-02-15/

Societal issues in synthetic biology: why all the fuss about public engagement?

WISB hosted a 2-day workshop exploring how synthetic biology research is connected to the external world and how it can be opened up and shared with the public.

The workshop examined a range of philosophical, ethical, communication, interdisciplinary and societal issues in synthetic biology.

Our researchers gained an understanding of key theories and methods used in a wide variety of science communication, bioart, and speculative design projects that deal with synthetic biology and are intended to ignite thoughtful exchange and debate.

The workshop was facilitated by WISB collaborators from University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Facilitator Britt Wray had asked participants to “imagine a world in which synthetic biology has delivered significantly on its promises”, expounding the contributions of non-scientists in its development. Manish Kushwaha, a WISB Research Fellow, wrote from such an imagined future

Current Theme Members

Dr Nicholas Lee

Associate Professor, Director of Research, Centre for Education Studies

Theme Lead

Cultural implications of, and responsible research and innovation in the field of synthetic biology.

N.M.Lee@warwick.ac.uk Website

Dr Lauren Swiney

WISB Research Career Development Fellow

Public understanding of science and intuitive reasoning about synthetic biology from the perspective of the cognitive and behavioural sciences.


Recent Publications

Cognitive Constraints Shape Public Debate on the Risks of Synthetic Biology
L. Swiney, D. G. Bates, J. D. Coley
Trends in Biotechnology
October 08, 2018
Essentialism, moral reasoning, and evaluations of synthetic biology
L. Swiney
Cognitive Science Society
August 01, 2017
Symposium on Intuitive Biology and Global Challenges
L. Swiney
Convener, Cognitive Science Society Annual Conference
July 29, 2017

Gene drive responses to Zika: A case of the Anthropocene predicament?

N. Lee
4S/EASST Annual Conference
August 31, 2016

Human germline editing: Global governance challenges

A. Rosemann
4S/EASST Annual Conference
August 31, 2016

Session on gene editing in context

N. Lee, A. Rosemann
Conveners, 4S/EASST Annual Conference
August 31, 2016

WISB has been funded by the above bodies