October 2, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

The Institute for Science and Society: Past, present, future

Many of you will have seen a new video of the brilliant work done at the Faculty of Social Sciences here at the University of Nottingham since about 1948. I was looking at this during my last days as Director of the Making Science Public programme and also through the eyes of a co-founder of the Institute for Science and Society which is briefly featured in this prezi. I became somewhat nostalgic and thought it would be a good idea to record some of the history of the Institute in more detail. However, I will surely have left things out and got things wrong. So, please use the comments to fill in missing bits and to tell us about your memories of working with us over the years.

Tell us your stories!

The past

1998 was an interesting year in the history of science. This was the beginning of many enduring scientific and political debates about cloning, GM, MMR, BSE and much more. At that time the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nottingham, Sir Colin Campbell, became chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, from 1990 to 1994, and the Human Genetics Advisory Commission, from 1996 to 1999. In this context he became interested in science-society issues around genetics and set up the Genetics and Society Unit at the University of Nottingham within the School of Sociology and Social Policy, led by Robert Dingwall and with Paul Martin and Alison Pilnick as colleagues.

Shortly afterwards, Robert Dingwall and the Genetics and Society Unit team (which I joined) led an interdisciplinary consortium which was awarded a £1.2 million Leverhulme Programme grant (2001-06). This produced a major change in operating scale, funding 6.5 new academic posts, mostly seconded to the programme from partner units (English, History, Law, Philosophy, Politics, and Psychology). The Genetic and Society Unit was reconstituted as the Institute for the Study of Genetics, Biorisks and Society (IGBiS), an independent, interdisciplinary, organizational unit, and its mission extended to cover the social, legal, cultural and ethical dimensions of all areas of bioscience and biotechnology.

The programme’s success led to a further reconstitution in 2006 as the Institute for Science and Society (ISS), with a core of 3.5 academic staff (Robert Dingwall, Paul Martin, Sujatha Raman and myself) further extending our mission to cover any area of science, engineering or medicine. This group was supported by 12 research fellows including Alison Mohr (who along with Sujatha became ISS Co-Director for Research in 2015), one Special Professor (Anne Murcott), one Special Lecturer (Sam Hillyard) and an 0.4 professorial secondment from the Business School (Graeme Currie).

Between 2001 and 2008 the Institute became internationally recognised for its innovative interdisciplinary research in key areas, including: the role of metaphor in science communication; the organizational dimensions of knowledge transfer regimes; the dynamics of expectations in innovation; and the politics of science policy. Its early-career team made significant contributions to the renewal of the academic profession. This team drew from sociology, political science, applied linguistics, history and anthropology, with active partnerships in organizational, socio-legal and linguistic studies, linked to schools in business, law and English. Close links were established with many STEM departments, particularly in biosciences, veterinary sciences, microbiology, nanotechnology and regenerative medicine. The Institute submitted its own report to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (on which I have drawn for this historical section).

The Institute was restructured in 2009 and mostly merged into the School of Sociology and Social Policy (with Paul Martin, Sujatha Raman, Alison Mohr and myself becoming members of the School). Led by Paul, we set up the Science, Technology and Society Priority Group (STS Priority Group) with funding from the University. Reiner Grundmann joined us in 2012 after Paul’s departure, working on climate policy and expertise, and became academic champion of the STS Priority Group, which continued to foster cross-disciplinary and cross-faculty work until 2015.

The Institute is now one of four research centres within the School of Sociology and Social Policy but maintains its cross-faculty and cross-disciplinary ethos by working with many colleagues in the biosciences, veterinary medicine and science, the life sciences, the arts and humanities, engineering, physics, chemistry, geography, medicine and so on. Currently, Sujatha Raman and Alison Mohr are research centre, that is to say, Institute for Science and Society, leads for the School.

The present

In 2011 members of the Institute, under the leadership of Paul Martin, Sujatha Raman and myself, and together with other colleagues from Nottingham and the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick, were awarded another 1.6 million five-year Leverhulme programme grant on ‘science and politics’ and the Making Science Public programme and this very blog were born in 2012. I became Director of the programme (after Paul took up a Chair at the University of Sheffield) until my retirement on 30 September. Sujatha Raman, my former Deputy Director is taking over as Director.

If you want to, you can explore our MSciP launch event here. And here you can find the programme of our end of award conference. A nice summary of it, written by Eleanor Hadley Kershaw, can be found here.

In its early days, the Institute’s agenda was dominated by topics in biotechnology, genetics, genomics, cloning, stem cell research, pharmacogenomics, regenerative medicine, vaccination and much more. Over time and through successive generations of researchers, we became increasingly involved with other emerging issues in sustainable energy transitions (especially bioenergy), animals in society, neuroscience, nanotechnology, infectious diseases and epidemics and pandemics (foot and mouth disease, MRSA, avian flu, SARS, swine flu, HIV, Zika), synthetic biology, as well as climate change, fracking, geoengineering and related issues. More recently, research carried out at the Institute has also begun to deal with the urgent issue of antimicrobial resistance, as well as with epigenetics, gene editing and gene drives, RCTs, plant diseases, food security, immigration, Responsible Research and Innovation, and much much more.

Through collaborations with other faculties and external colleagues, Sujatha Raman and Alison Mohr are also extending the scope of our energy research to the interface between the UK and global South settings including Bangladesh, Ghana, India and Kenya.


Since its foundation, the Institute has been variously supported by grants and contracts from the Leverhulme and Wellcome Trusts, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC), the European Science Foundation (ESF), The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the European Research Council, the National Health Service (NHS), the ESRC Nexus Network and many more…. Colleagues have also been commissioned by Sciencewise-ERC for policy think-pieces on public engagement and responsive research.

Alison Mohr and Sujatha Raman (and I) have become members of many of the University’s Research Priority Areas, where, yet again, we try to promote interdisciplinary research and teaching, most recently through a Discipline Bridging Award on responsible research and innovation.

Between 2001 and 2015 we ran an almost weekly interdisciplinary seminar series organised by successive generations of brilliant PhD students. The seminars always attracted large audiences from across our University campuses and led to lively debates and discussions over tea and coffee. They are sorely missed, but we hope to be able to reinstate them in the future, now that a new generation of PhD students is starting work at the Institute.

We have held many successful conferences, most recently our end of award conference in 2016, a Science in Public conference in 2013, which attracted a global delegate list, and the Circling the Square conferences, convened by Professor Reiner Grundmann, in 2014 and 2015, about which you can find out more on multimedia. The next Science in Public conference will take place in Sheffield. Warren Pearce, now working at the University of Sheffield, whose organisational and online skills helped to make Science in Public (and Circling the Square) a success here in Nottingham, will certainly ensure that this will be an enjoyable event.

In 2012 Warren and I launched our Making Science Public blog and over 300 blog posts about a wide range of topics in science and politics have been published. Warren and I wrote many posts on climate change which attracted quite a few comments. The blog was a finalist in the University’s Knowledge Exchange and Impact awards.

During my work as social science lead for the Synthetic Biology Research Centre I have also used our blog to write copiously about synthetic biology and responsible innovation. My role as lead has now be taken over by Alison Mohr, but I’ll still continue collaborating with the SBRC in general and Carmen McLeod in particular on issues around responsible innovation, from an anthropological and linguistic perspective. I’ll also be using the Making Science Public blog to chart progress on a nanoscience project led by Phil Moriarty – so keep your eyes peeled. And of course, I’ll blog about anything that takes my fancy!

The future

We have trained and, most importantly, enthused dozens of MA and PhD students, as well as post-doctoral research fellows, who all have gone out into the world to spread their own knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm and carry forward the Institute’s truly interdisciplinary spirit. Our students have come to ISS from many different countries and explored science, technology and society issues in a variety of settings. To name just a few: China, Djibouti, Ghana, India, Malawi, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mexico, Poland, the UK, Germany, the USA…… Many still work in academia and teach future generations of interdisciplinary researchers; some work for charities or governmental or non-governmental organisations.

All contribute to understanding the intricate relations between science and society or are in fact actively involved in reshaping them.

We hope to be able to continue doing all this within the Faculty of Social Sciences and, of course, beyond in the future and contribute to its thriving research and teaching culture.

Update April 2018

Murray Goulden has joined us as University of Nottingham Research Fellow and is just starting as Co-I on an EPSRC funded grant entitled ‘Dark Artefacts’.

Sujatha Raman is leaving to become Director of Research, Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science (CPAS), The Australian National University, Canberra

Pru Hobson West is leaving the Vet School and joining the Institute for Science and Society and will be working as a Co-I on Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award: The Animal Research Nexus, led by Gail Davies at the University of Exeter

Update April 2019

Dimitris Papadopolous is now Director of the Institute and he has established a fantastic new website where you can find more info about our current activities, new members, news etc etc.

Update June 2022

The ISS baton has now been handed over to Pru Hobson-West. ISS will be in good hands.

Posted in Personal Reflection