School of Social and Political Science

Dr Robert Smith

Job Title

Research Fellow, Social Dimensions of Synthetic Biology

Photo
photo of Robert Smith

Room number

G.14

Building (Address)

Chisholm House

Street (Address)

High School Yards

City (Address)

Edinburgh

Country (Address)

UK

Post code (Address)

EH1 1LZ

Background

rdjs.info | rri.ed.ac.uk | bioengcoll.org

I work in the field of Science and Technology Studies. My research examines the social, political and policy dimensions of the life sciences. I focus particularly on how science and technology are made and governed, and how they might be re-made and governed in ways that are more democratic or environmentally beneficial than they are currently.

I have projects examining the role of funding organisations in governing science, the governance and politics of gene drive technologies, and synthetic biologists’ attempts to ‘engineer’ at the organism scale. My research in these areas is often conducted in collaboration with natural scientists and policy makers.

I joined The University of Edinburgh in April 2018 to work with Jane Calvert as part of the Engineering Life Project and Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology. This builds on two years worth of researching, intervening and scheming (sometimes with synthetic biologists) at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, King’s College London. I completed my PhD at the University of Nottingham, during which I was interested in the development of a biofuel controversy in the UK, and particularly the way that groups — policy makers, NGOs, research funders, scientists and consultants — navigated and reacted to this controversy. I originally trained as a biologist and hold a BSc (Hons) in Animal Science.

Publications

Governance and funding of biology and biotechnology
Mammalian Synthetic biology
Gene Drive, Emerging Biotechnologies & Global Health
Biofuels
Working papers

(Email me for a copy)

  • Governing beyond the project: Refocusing innovation governance in science and technology funding. Under review at Minerva with Stefan Schäfer and Michael Bernstein.
  • Distributed Responsible Research and Innovation: Developing a framework for RRI in a multinational funding programme. Under review at Science and Public Policy with Thoko Kamwendo, Deborah Scott and Jane Calvert.

Research interests

Research interests

Science policy, Synthetic biology, Emerging biotechnologies, Public value, Governance of science and technology, Collaborative methods, Research funding, Responsible innovation, Science and technology studies, Biofuels

Research funders and responsible innovation

Research funding organisations are a preeminent site of science policy. They set priorities for their respective fields, provide science advice and contribute to national debate on topics relating to science, technology and innovation. I lead research with Jane CalvertThoko Kamwendo, Deborah Scott, Ros Attenborough that questions the roles and responsibilities of these frequently-overlooked organisations. How are decisions about the scope of a research agenda achieved? How are differing ideas of valuable research negotiated? And with these same staff, we have developed new governance methodologies to shape emerging scientific fields in democratic societies.

We have worked with public funding programmes in biotechnologysustainable food systemsnanosciencematerialsneuroscience and graphene. We collaborate with science administrators in the UK’s BBSRC,  the Norwegian Research Council, the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche, the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, and, in Germany, Project Management Jülich, the Agency for Renewable Raw Materials and the Saxon State Ministry for Knowledge, Culture and Tourism.

Projects:

  • Building Capacity for Responsible Innovation in International Biotechnology Policy Organisations. ESRC Impact Accelerator Award 2019. (PI w/ CoIs Thoko Kamwendo and Jane Calvert)
  • Supporting Best Practice Responsible Research & Innovation in the ERA-Net CoFund on Biotechnology Research Programme. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council 2019 (PI, Co-I’s Jane Calvert, Deborah Scott and Thoko Kamwendo).
  • Developing a framework for Responsible Research and Innovation in ERA CoBioTech. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, 2017 (Co-PI w/ Jane Calvert).
  • UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology. BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre Award (PI: Susan Rosser, Co-I: Jane Calvert).
Gene drive and the governance of emerging technologies

Sometimes new technologies challenge established routines, forcing people and organisations to think about which technologies are developed, how they are governed, and by whom. One such technology is gene drive, a collection of genetic manipulation methodologies able to ‘push’ normally unfavourable traits, such as sterility, through populations of organisms.

In a string of projects led by Sarah Hartley, and with collaborators at the University of Exeter, Makerere University (Uganda), Imperial College London and North Carolina State University (USA), I am examining how people in Uganda and several international governance organisations develop and govern gene drive mosquitoes. Who stands to benefit from the development of this promissory and uncertain technology? How does gene drive challenge established forms of governance — such as risk assessment and risk management — that governments have relied on to regulate genetic modification? And could gene drive be developed in ways that are more inclusive and sensitive to their contexts of use than might otherwise be the case?

Projects:

  • Co-developing risk assessment across disciplines and borders: Gene drive mosquito field trials in Uganda. British Academy Knowledge Frontiers 2018 Award (Co-I; PI - Sarah Hartley).
  • Inclusive and international risk assessment: Building a framework for gene drive organisms through collaboration. British Academy Knowledge Frontiers 2020 Award (Co-I; PI - Sarah Hartley).
  • Strengthening gene drive governance for malaria control in Africa. Research England Global Challenges Research Fund 2021. (Co-I; PI - Sarah Hartley)
Future Organisms

Scientists are now able to make complex genetic interventions into organisms’ genomes, to the point of synthesising whole genomes from scratch. Jane Calvert (PI), Erika SzymanskiKoichi Mikami and I have recently been awarded funding from the UK Economic Social and Research Council and US National Science Foundation to study synthetic biologists’ attempts to engineer biology at the organismal scale.

We’ll be exploring the visions and narratives driving investment in this endeavour, the role of the organism in engineering, and the capacities for social scientists to shape the development of scientific fields. Our main empirical sites will be in the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Japan and we’ll aim to draw together literature on multispecies studies, which examines how different organisms inter-relate, and responsible innovation, which aims to expose the assumptions behind science and technology to improve governance.

Projects:

  • Future Organisms: Synthetic Genomics and Responsible Research and Innovation in the UK, the USA and Japan. ESRC-NSF SBE Lead Agency Award 2021-2024 (PI: Jane Calvert, w/ Co-Is Erika Szymanski and Koichi Mikami).

  • UK Centre for Mammalian Synthetic Biology. BBSRC, EPSRC and MRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre Award (PI: Susan Rosser, Co-I: Jane Calvert).

PhD Topics

I am very happy to supervise anybody with an interest in topics like: biology and how it is made; public and political issues in the life sciences; and the governance of science and technology.

Find out more about the programmes that I am involved with: (opening in new windows)

Current PhD Students

Sophie Stone - Exploring the place of the human in mammalian synthetic biology practices

Publications by user content

Publication Research Explorer link
Smith RDJ, Kamwendo ZT, Berndt A, Parkin J. Taking knowledge production seriously in responsible research and innovation. Journal of Responsible Innovation. 2021 Jun 28. https://doi.org/10.1080/23299460.2021.1935584
Smith RDJ, Hartley S, Middleton P, Jewitt T. Knowing when to talk? Plant genome editing as a site for pre-engagement institutional reflexivity. Public Understanding of Science. 2021 Apr 3. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662521999796
Szymanski EA, Smith RDJ, Calvert J. Responsible research and innovation meets multispecies studies: Why RRI needs to be a more-than-human exercise. Journal of Responsible Innovation. 2021 Apr 1. https://doi.org/10.1080/23299460.2021.1906040
Hartley S, Smith RDJ, Kokotovich A, Opesen C, Habtewold T, Ledingham K et al. Ugandan stakeholder hopes and concerns about gene drive mosquitoes for malaria control: New directions for gene drive risk governance. Malaria Journal. 2021 Mar 16;20(1):1-13. 149. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12936-021-03682-6
Szymanski E, Bates T, Cachat E, Calvert J, Catts O, Nelson LJ et al. Crossing kingdoms: How can art open up new ways of thinking about science? Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. 2020 Jul 3;8. 715. https://doi.org/10.3389/fbioe.2020.00715
Kemp L, Adam L, Boehm CR, Breitling R, Casagrande R, Dando M et al. Bioengineering horizon scan 2020. eLIFE. 2020 May 29;9. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.54489
Smith RDJ, Scott D, Kamwendo ZT, Calvert J. An Agenda for Responsible Research and Innovation in ERA CoBioTech. Swindon: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC, UK), 2019. 32 p.
Smith R, Samuel GN. Who’s talking about non-human Genome Editing? Mapping public discussion in the UK. Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 2018. 31 p.
Smith RDJ, Samuel G. Who's talking about non-human genome editing? Mapping public discussion in the UK. Sciencewise, 2018. 31 p.
Smith R, Marris C, Berry D, Sundaram L, Rose N. Synthetic Biology Biosensors for Global Health Challenges. London: King's College London , 2017. 70 p.
Ribeiro BE, Smith RDJ, Millar K. A mobilising concept? Unpacking academic representations of responsible research and innovation. Science and Engineering Ethics. 2017 Feb;23(1):81–103. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-016-9761-6
Raman S, Mohr A, Helliwell R, Ribeiro B, Shortall O, Smith R et al. Integrating social and value dimensions into sustainability assessment of lignocellulosic biofuels. Biomass and Bioenergy. 2015 Nov;82:49-62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biombioe.2015.04.022
Boucher P, Smith R, Millar K. Biofuels under the spotlight: The state of assessment and potential for integration. Science and Public Policy. 2014 Jun 1;41(3):283–293. https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scu028