Ethical, Legal and Societal Aspects (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 from 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?

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