The ethical landscape and public trust: identifying the wrong and right ways to think about the ethical and societal aspects of synthetic biology

Steve Yearley (Universidade de Edimburgo)

April 12, 2011, 16h00

Seminar room (2º floor), CES-Coimbra


This presentation focuses on the novel area of synthetic biology, a research trajectory of enormous inherent scientific appeal and of great potential interest for medical, environmental and pharmaceutical purposes. Given that this area focuses on the 'engineering' of novel life forms, there has been wide acknowledgement, even at the earliest stages, of the ethical and societal aspects of synthetic biology, both within and outside the research community. This paper gives an overview of developments and then takes the opportunity to reflect on the key issue of how this ethical and social reflection has been conceived and designed. The paper argues that the particular conception of ethical and social reflection that has been adopted in most mainstream contexts is misleadingly narrow and draws on inappropriate models of the way to organise ethical reviews. The analysis suggests that such narrow methods, far from winning public trust, are likely to lessen it.



Steve Yearley is Director of the ESRC Genomics Policy & Research Forum at the University of Edinburgh. He joined Edinburgh in 2005 as the Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. He is primarily interested in social studies of science and in environmental sociology. Steve is particularly concerned with areas where these specialisms overlap: for example in environmental controversies with a pronounced scientific element (such as with recent disputes over the safety or otherwise of GMOs and the emerging concerns around synthetic biology) or, for example, in attempts to foster public engagement in technical decision-making in environmental areas (for instance, through his work on citizen engagement in urban air-quality issues). In September 2006 he took over as the Director of the Forum on full-time secondment from Sociology and he is now involved in a variety of projects dealing with genomics (broadly understood) and contemporary life science. In 2010 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. For more details, please see: 


Organization: Doctoral Programme "Governance, Knowledge, and Innovation"