Why we should care about the language we use in science

Brigitte Nerlich and Carmen McLeod at the Synthetic Biology Research Centre at the University of Nottingham have given ‘Responsible Research and Innovation’ a new twist, by focusing on responsible language use. As everybody knows by now, words matter in politics as well as in science. Here is a brief account of how this new focus came about and how it led up to a new thematic series now fully published in Life Sciences, Society and Policy.

Responsible language use – a brief personal history

From around 2005 onwards synthetic biology was in the air in the natural and social sciences. In 2008 two of Brigitte’s colleagues, Andrew Balmer, now Manchester, and Paul Martin, now Sheffield, wrote a first report on the social and ethical challenges posed by synthetic biology. At the same time, Brigitte became intrigued by the language used to talk about this emerging field. This led to a chapter by Andy Balmer and Camille Herreman which she included in a book co-edited with Richard Elliott and Brendon Larson on Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and metaphorical dimensions, published in 2009.

Around the same time, and together with colleagues in the life and computer sciences (esp. Natalio Krasnogor, now Newcastle), we set up SynBioNT a synthetic biology network that brought scholars from many disciplines together. In 2010 Craig Venter announced one of the major breakthroughs in synthetic biology: the so-called creation of artificial life. A year after that, in 2011, SynBioNT organised a public dialogue event in Nottingham. That was also the year during which the first proposals for a new governance framework for science, namely Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) began to appear.

It was also in 2011 that Iina Hellsten and Brigitte published an article on the metaphors that frame synthetic biology, while other metaphorical friends, like Martin Döring for example, focused more on systems biology.

“Metaphor is a real element of scientific activity, and it is time that it be recognised as such and treated with the seriousness it deserves.” Andrew Reynolds

In 2014 the University of Nottingham became one of a number of Synthetic Biology Research Centres and Brigitte became its social science lead. All centres were supposed to implement RRI, a rather difficult task. In order to put our stamp on things, Carmen McLeod and Brigitte homed in on the issue of responsible language use, a topic that was beginning to gain some traction in metaphor and environment studies circles, but was entirely neglected by mainstream RRI. Some of this work is reviewed in Martin Döring’s article for the thematic series.

In 2016, we wrote a blog post reviewing emerging literature on synthetic biology, metaphors and responsible language use. After that, and inspired by Steven Burgess, then working at the University of Cambridge, we convened a symposium to which we invited some of the most active people in that field, as well as a number of interested social and life scientists.

Synthetic biology: How the use of metaphors impacts on science, policy and responsible research

After the symposium (summarised here), we edited an open access thematic series. The articles in this series deal with synthetic biology, metaphors and responsible language use from a wide variety of perspectives (see list below with links to article and authors).

Carmen and Brigitte set the scene by writing an overview of synthetic biology and metaphor research together with some indications of what this meant for responsible language use and RRI.

An article by Manuel Porcar and Juli Peretó reviewed the historical context in which synthetic biology and its metaphors emerged, while Victor de Lorenzo looked back at some prominent metaphors, such as ‘tinkering’ and ‘engineering’ in order to propose a radical vision of synthetic biology through the lens of the engineering metaphor.

While Porcar and Peretó had analysed how some metaphors faired in the early press coverage of the emerging field of synthetic biology, Martin Döring examined recent press coverage in Germany and submitted it to a novel linguistic analysis that reveals implicit moral assumptions inherent in prominent metaphors (see also his blog post). Joachim Boldt also homed in on ethics, in particular the ethical implications of the machine metaphor that dominates synthetic biology. Leah Ceccarelli in turn asked whether the metaphor of biotechnology as a change agent may actually hinder responsible innovation. She tells us more about her research in this blog post.

A number of contributions reported on social/life science interactions in the lab and the metaphors and responsibilities that emerged there. Erika Szymanski reported on her lab ethnography and explored, through the lens of metaphor analysis, what responsible research means when humans try to be responsible toward and even with creatures across species boundaries. Hub Zwart zoomed in on the cell and efforts to create an artificial one in the lab, an endeavour that is partly shaped by imagining and imaging the cell as a ‘mandala’. Matthew Kearnes, Declan Kuch and Angus Johnston drew on ongoing ethnographic engagement with researchers working in synthetic biology and bionanotechnology in order to collaboratively explore metaphors and the work they perform.

Words count

In his recent book, The Third Lens, Andrew Reynolds examines the way that metaphors shaped the emergence and change of cell theory and points out: “Metaphor is a real element of scientific activity, and it is time that it be recognised as such and treated with the seriousness it deserves.” To this we would add: Metaphor is a real element of responsible research and innovation, and it is time that it be recognised as such and treated it with the seriousness it deserves. We tried to do this for synthetic biology in our symposium and in our thematic series.

We would like to thank all contributors for their fascinating and thought-provoking contributions to this series and to a new sub-field of Responsible Research and Innovation!

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