The role of social sciences in innovation

18 November 2019

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, the Innogen Institute brought together social science researchers and scientists from the Roslin Institute and the Centre for Synthetic and Systems Biology (SynthSys) at the University of Edinburgh for a free public event exploring the opportunities arising from the latest genetic technologies and the regulatory issues they are facing.

Over forty attendees had the chance to engage with researchers, and through hands-on activities find out more about how gene editing works and decide what research projects they would invest in.

The panel discussion that followed was chaired by Innogen Director and Professor of Politics, Innovation and Development at The Open University, Theo Papaioannou. Roslin Research Fellow Dr Christine Tait-Burkard talked about her work using gene editing to protect pigs from a deadly virus, and Dr Baojun Wang from SynthSys explained how it is possible to harness the arsenic-sensing ability of bacteria to make a smartphone-compatible biosensor that detects the contaminant in drinking water. They both highlighted the need to balance the risks and benefits of genome editing and genetic modification and find ways to improve the acceptance of these technologies.

Innogen co-Directors Professor Joyce Tait and Dr Geoff Banda spoke about their work on understanding the risk of new technologies and determining the best way to regulate them. By working with the Government Office for Science and the Better Regulation Executive (BRE) and the British Standards Institution, Innogen is examining how regulation and standards should be designed to enable innovation and drive safe, inclusive and sustainable economic growth.

At the end, the audience were able to ask the panellists questions, leading to further conversations about the consequences of delaying the deployment of new technologies and flexible regulation.

 “This event gave us the opportunity to highlight the role of social sciences in the deployment of innovation. It enabled us to raise awareness of emerging genetic technologies and their potential uses, encourage engagement with the science underpinning these technologies and stimulate public debate on how they should be regulated,” said Theo Papaioannou, Director of the Innogen Institute.

I found the co-presentation of emerging innovative technologies by scientists and the teasing out of the socio-economic and political framing and understanding of risk very useful,” said Geoff Banda, Lecturer in Global Food Security and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science and Deputy Director of the Innogen Institute.