School of Social and Political Science

Social studies of biology and medicine


Social Studies of Biology and Medicine is a research cluster that attempts to identify, understand and answer some of the important questions that medicine and biology pose to individuals, groups and wider society. To do this, our research crosses disciplinary genres, uses methods that are applied and innovative, and provides intellectual leadership by using our experience and expertise in science and technology studies, the sociology of health and (bio)medicine, and the philosophy of biology and science.

The diversity of the research we do is not solely based on what is happening in biomedical technology, science and practice but in the ways in which these advances raise issues that challenge the ethical, legal, political, economic and social status quo.

Our research has a strong focus on community engagement, patient advocacy and collaborations with other academic and non-academic disciplines. Some examples of recent projects:

  • Animal, Mechanical and Me: This project is a collaboration between social scientists and a local group of young people to produce a film which aims to explore patient experiences and public reactions to using material from non-human animals or from auto-biotechnologies to repair, replace or regenerate the human body. It asks the question that “If you had to make the choice would you choose to have your organs replaced with animal or mechanical ones?” Does having parts of your body replaced with materials from other sources make you feel any different?
  • BioRoboost is an EU-funded Coordination Support Action (CSA) project that has created a consortium of 25 institutions around the world to investigate, develop and question standardisation in synthetic biology. Our have contributed social science perspectives, theories and methods to BioRoboost, and developed innovative collaborations and experimental methods. We created the BioRoboost Exchange Programme, which enabled synthetic biology students to visit partner laboratories to explore different ways to view and create standards. As part of the project, we trained the students in basic ethnography and gave them the skills to see their work through the lens of social science.
  • Co-Developing Risk Assessment across Disciplines and Borders: Gene Drive Mosquito Field Trials in Uganda. This project examines risk assessment practices for emerging technologies, focusing on gene drive technology in Uganda. Risk assessment is a critical step in technology development, yet very little is known about how to open it up to stakeholders. The unique risks of gene drive technology make it an excellent example of this thorny problem, presenting a ‘constitutional moment’ to rethink international biotechnology governance. The research team aims to address this problem through a case study of gene drive mosquitoes in Uganda to eradicate malaria.
  • Collaboration: Our research investigates the entanglement of epistemic and social transformations, analysing new ways of doing research as well as the political and institutional structures in which research is performed, e.g. in marine biology, systems biology and the Francis Crick Institute.
  • Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology: As part of a large investment from BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC, we are developing new experimental collaborations between social science, artists, policy makers, biologists, and engineers to explore the aesthetic, cultural, social and political dimensions of engineering biology.
  • Engineering Life: This is a research project that looks at how engineering is incorporated into the life sciences and how social scientists and other groups are being mobilised as a part of this endeavour.
  • Everyday Cyborgs: This research examines the situation of medically created ‘everyday cyborgs’ - individuals who live with cybernetic devices implanted in their body in order to maintain or improve their life.
  • Inclusive and International Risk Assessment: Building a Framework for Gene Drive Organisms Through Collaboration: This project's aim is to build an international and inclusive risk assessment framework that reflects the multiple understandings of hazard and risk gathered from academic, professional and lay actors. Through the efforts of a small group of experts, an exclusive risk assessment framework is emerging and likely to be embedded into national contexts within a few years.
  • Responsible innovation in European biotechnology funding: Research funding organisations have been central to defining the disciplinary make-up of synthetic biology. The decisions of these organisations and the building of research programmes are thus central to defining what practices eventually constitute synthetic biology. This research project looks at these understudied sites and aims to ask some of the fundamental questions about their workings.
  • Scientometrics: Our work looks into integrating scientometrics research into qualitative research approaches to understand the dynamics of collaboration (together with CWTS, Leiden University).
  • Synthetic Aesthetics: In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. The book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to 'design nature.'
  • Technology in relation to chronic illness and contemporary healthcare: In these related projects on HIV/AIDS and neurodegenerative disease, we consider patient expertise and experience the ethics of care, illness narratives, and privacy and the internet.
  • The social and cultural dimensions of health and illness: in our project’s specific interest are the experiences of life altering illness, digital technologies, knowledge practices in contemporary biomedicine. Illness narratives and storytelling are key in this project.
  • Uncanny Bodies: This is a collaboration between writers and social scientists to produce an anthology that gets beneath the skin and into the depths of what it means to be human in an age of machines and genes. This book includes chapters by our PhD students.
  • Women and the Engineering of Biology: Our work demonstrates the political workings of biological engineering, such as the role of gender in synthetic biology. Women and the Engineering of Biology collected accounts and reflections by women of their experiences in the field. It demonstrated that building this new field has involved creating its gender politics. We use this kind of research to challenge scientists and technologists to reflect on the social consequences their thinking and their practices. For instance, Women and the Engineering of Biology produced ‘Gender in synthetic biology: Problems and potential’, a commentary piece in a synthetic biology journal.  

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