January 29, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

‘Pathways’ in science and society

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood; And sorry I could not travel both; And be one traveler, Long I stood, And looked down one as far as I could, To where it bent in the undergrowth.” (Robert Frost, 1916)

I have walked along many paths, even pathways, on my journey through life. Recently, I have come across new pathways, indeed two different types of pathways, which have made me curious and thoughtful.

I was sitting in a meeting on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and synthetic biology the other day and heard a lot about ‘innovation pathways’, ‘commercial pathways’, ‘translational pathways’, ‘pathways to innovation’ and, of course, ‘pathways to impact’. Some weeks beforehand I had been sitting in various synthetic biology meetings surrounded by people who study ‘metabolic pathways’ (or as some call them, ‘paths of life’). In both cases I was puzzled, but in different ways. What are these pathways we are talking about? How do we journey along them or make others embark on them? How do we map what they are and where they go? How are they made and changed?

Of course, these pathways are very different, but as we shall see, they cross over (might even come into conflict) in the life of natural scientists (who explore metabolic pathways and are supposed to find pathways to [industrial] growth) and in the life of social scientists (who are tasked with embedding RRI into this process and “help avoid lock-in to innovation pathways that do not serve individual patient or public benefit”).

It might be useful to look more closely at these pathways, the micro ones and the macro ones, and see how they function in the life of science, technology and (responsible) innovation. I should say that they both perplex me enormously for different reasons. When I started to look at some ‘maps’ of metabolic pathways I was horrified to find how little I knew about this topic. I tweeted one of the maps expressing my anxiety, whereupon Jon Turney helpfully tweeted that this was what scientists now optimistically call systems biology. Maps of innovation pathways are no less confusing!

Both the micro and the macro, the metabolic and the innovation pathways, are parts of systems, systems of life and systems of society, that have come into contact in an age of biological industrialisation as well as responsible innovation.


The word ‘metabolism’ comes from the Greek ‘metabole’, which means change and refers to the total of an organism’s chemical reactions. The metabolism is essential to maintaining the living state of the cells and the organism. These chemical reactions are organised into ‘metabolic pathways’. These pathways convert chemicals derived from nutrition, such as sugars for example, into other (useful) chemicals. This conversion is helped along the way by a sequence of enzymes. Inside cells enzymes (protein molecules) break down or build up other molecules. “These enzymes are similar to traffic lights in that they can slow, speed up, and stop metabolic processes.” So we have traffic going along these pathways – at varying speed!

In the past metabolic pathways were laboriously mapped by biochemists and microbial physiologists. Nowadays, these pathways are not only mapped but also ‘engineered’ using metabolic engineering techniques as part of genomics, systems biology and synthetic biology. To be more precise: “Metabolic engineering is the targeted and purposeful alteration of metabolic pathways found in an organism. […] Metabolic engineering uses organisms such as yeast, plants or bacteria that are genetically modified to make them more useful in biotechnology and aid the production of drugs such as antibiotics or industrial chemicals […]. These modifications are aimed at reducing the amount of energy used to produce the product, increase yields and reduce the production of wastes. Metabolic engineering draws principles from chemical engineering, computational sciences, biochemistry, and molecular biology.  It involves application of engineering principles of design and analysis to the metabolic pathways in order to achieve a particular goal.”

This is essentially what some of our scientists do at the Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) here in Nottingham. As it says on our website about ‘synthetic biology’: “Central to the synthetic biology concept is the development tool kits and interchangeable components which can be combined to construct metabolic pathways and networks.”

The scientists study the ‘behaviour’ of cell ‘systems’ and the role of metabolic pathways and networks within them. But, as the quote above indicates, they do this not only to create more understanding of how things work; the also put their organisms (bacteria) and metabolisms to work in order to produce useful products.

The study of metabolic pathways, although speeding up in an age of mathematical modelling, genome sequencing and so on, can still be quite slow and painstaking. The pathway to products is however, envisaged to be quite fast, and there are expectations, pressures, to scale-up the metabolic engineering processes from the micro level to the industrial level, to move forward quite quickly from blue sky to more directly applied research. This ‘pathway’ from the study of DNA to products through metabolic engineering, is depicted on figure 4 of the Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK published in 2012 (and just being re-drafted as we speak).


And so we get to innovation pathways, pathways to growth, commercial pathways and so on. These too are discussed in the Synthetic Biology Roadmap. On p. 4 we find a use of the pathway metaphor embedded in an extended metaphorical network – we also see a focus on speed. “To accelerate the contribution synthetic biology could make towards a vibrant economy, it will be necessary to build upon the many factors that make the UK an excellent location to progress synthetic biology, whilst identifying and reducing the commonly encountered stumbling-blocks anticipated along the pathway to commercially viable products and services”.

Micro, macro and RRI

What does this mean for RRI? Is RRI there to anticipate and remove stumbling-blocks along the path from metabolic to innovation pathways? To get more clarity, I went to the RRI section of the roadmap. Here the gaze shifts from industry and commerce to the general public: “The direction taken by innovation pathways, and their perceived social consequences, themselves shape public responses. The responses and decisions of many and varied social groups – alongside those of academic researchers and firms – help to determine technological pathways and the realisation of benefits. […] All of these groups need to be actively engaged, throughout the process, in the governance of synthetic biology research and innovation”. This is a great ambition, but how can it be fulfilled, and how can this happen in a context of a speedy pathway from discovery to impact?

When listening into the meeting on RRI and synthetic biology, which set me on the path to reflecting on ‘pathways’, somebody wondered whether RRI had more in common with ‘slow science’ rather than fast innovation and whether there might be a conflict between doing science, doing innovation and doing RRI, or not.

This leads to a question worth thinking about more deeply in the future: What are the pathways for implementing RRI within the science/technology/industry innovation system? Can RRI become part of an innovation process, where, for example, “the organization makes decisions concerning which innovation pathways to support in the context of the organisations’ values, mission and / or business strategy”? Ideally, this would be one of many roles that RRI has in the overall innovation governance process, but practically there might be some ‘stumbling-blocks’… When thinking about the two ‘pathways’, the metabolic one and the innovation to growth and commercial viability one, I began to wonder whether these two pathways can be joined up as smoothly as the roadmap envisaged, helped along by RRI.

In a recent article by Paul Jump for the THE, Helga Nowotny, until 2013 President of the European Research Council, points to  an “inherent tension” between the two pathways, that is, “the demands of policymakers for practical innovation, seen as the undisputed motor of…economic growth” and the scientific process of discovery and the emergence of scientific breakthroughs which can’t be foreseen or targeted. The scientific process is normally slow, meticulous, uncertain and full of unexpected surprises.

As Richard Owen has said on 14 January during a speech to the entire European RRI community: “Scientific freedom, the objective search for truth, is a value held by most scientists. But we know this is a fiction, overshadowed by the tyranny of urgency where there is simply no time for wider reflection; with the rise of the entrepreneurial scientist; by the need for demonstrating impact, for innovation; and for contributing to a strong, competitive knowledge economy.” He ended his speech by quoting Philippe Goujon (Director of the Laboratory for Ethical Governance of Information Technology, University of Namur, Belgium), who had pointed out at the same conference that “we need to change the cognitive frame for innovation” – and, I would add, to do that we need to reflect on, and perhaps, change the language we speak about innovation and responsibility.

[This Making Science Public post also contributes to my social science work on the BBSRC/EPSRC funded Synthetic Biology Research Centre. You can find other posts on synthetic biology here]

Image: Wikimedia Commons – Photographer: Nathan Wert

Posted in responsible innovationsynthetic biology