February 24, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Synthetic Biology, Metaphors and Responsibility

Nottingham Synthetic Biology Research Centre Symposium:

Title: Metaphors, Synthetic Biology and Responsibility

Time: Monday, 22 May 2017

Place: East Midlands Conference Centre, University of Nottingham

Event information and booking


Metaphors are not just decorative rhetorical devices that make speech pretty. They are fundamental linguistic and cognitive tools for thinking about the world and acting on the world. Researchers interested in Responsible Research and Innovation are interested in creating a world in which research and innovation happen responsibly, taking the needs of people from all walks of life into account. The language we use to make a better world matters; words matter; metaphors matter. Words have consequences, even ethical, social and legal, as well as political and economic consequences. They need to be used with care and be studied with care. They need to be used ‘responsibly’.

In the context of synthetic biology, natural and social scientists have become increasingly interested in metaphors, a wave of interest that we want to exploit and amplify in this symposium.  Articles and books on synthetic biology, metaphors of life and the ethical and moral implications of such metaphors is an emerging topic of international interest.  Specific metaphors, from books and editing to programming and machines, have been discussed in other posts. And there are many more out there.

In this symposium we want to stimulate an interdisciplinary and international discussion of the impact that metaphors can have on science, policy and publics in the context of synthetic biology. We may want to ask, for example: Can we distinguish between metaphors that are used unconsciously or lazily and metaphors which are chosen consciously to stimulate hopes, fears, financial investment or emotional reactions; metaphors that inspire, challenge traditional thinking or entrench established prejudices; metaphors that are good for something or some people but detrimental to others; and finally, are there metaphors that travel between groups and connect people and metaphors that create barriers and divide people. What are the implications of these and other metaphors for ‘responsible research and innovation’?

This symposium will be of interest to a wide interdisciplinary audience. It will appeal to people with an interest in synthetic biology, as well as those interested in society, science and language, more generally. We welcome scholars and students from across social sciences and humanities, as well as STEM disciplines.



09.30– 9.45 Welcome and Introduction: Brigitte Nerlich and Carmen McLeod

09.45 – 10.30 Speaker 1 Jon Turney (Bristol)

  • “Metaphors in popular science: unsatisfactory but indispensable”

10.30 – 11.15 Speaker 2 Juli Peretó (University of Valencia, Spain)

  • “Chronicle of a synthetic life foretold”

11.15 – 11.30 REFRESHMENTS

11.30 – 12.15 Speaker 3 Martin Döring (University of Hamburg, Germany)

  • “Synthetic biology in the German press: How metaphors shape representations of ethics, morality and responsibility”

12.15 – 1.00 Speaker 4 Hub Zwart (Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands)

  • “Metaphors, living laboratories and the will to know: the synthetic cell as a techno-scientific mandala of life as such”

1.00 – 1.45 LUNCH

1.45 – 2.30 Speaker 5 Leah Ceccarelli (University of Washington, US)

  • “Biotechnology as change agent: A metaphor that rhetorically inhibits the prospects for responsible research”

2.30 – 3.15 Speaker 6 Joachim Boldt (University of Freiburg, Germany)

  • “Machine metaphors and ethics in synthetic biology”

3.15 – 4.15 REFRESHMENTS

4.15 – 5.45 Panel Discussion: “Synthetic Biology, Language and Social Media”

(Each panellist will present for 5-10 minutes before open discussion)

  • Erika Szymanski (University of Edinburgh):
  • “Metaphors as arguments in the peer-reviewed literature of the Synthetic Yeast Project”
  • Steven Burgess (University of Cambridge)
  • ”Synthetic biology, language and challenges for interdisciplinary working”
  • Brigitte Nerlich (University of Nottingham)
  • “Synthetic biology and Lego: Metaphor, play and reality”
  • Darren Nesbeth (University College London)
  • “Shop talk to shock talk: migrating metaphors and synthetic biology”
  • Andy Balmer (University of Manchester)
  • “Metaphors for interdisciplinary collaboration and Implications for responsibilities”

6.00pm onwards: INFORMAL DRINKS RECEPTION (Orchard Hotel)


Dr Carmen McLeod

t: +44(0) 0115 95 15074

e: carmen.mcleod@nottingham.ac.uk

w: www.sbrc-nottingham.ac.uk


Posted in synthetic biology