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

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​​​​​​​Edited by 
Carmen McLeod, University of Oxford, School of Geography and the Environment
Brigitte Nerlich, Emeritus Professor of Science, Language and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham

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 (RRI) 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 collection. 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.

This special issue presents interdisciplinary and international discussion of the impact that metaphors can have on science, policy and publics in the context of synthetic biology. This will include background on the current RRI agenda and consideration of the increasing pressure on scientists to demonstrate ‘responsibility’ (Nerlich & McLeod 2016).

The collection will introduce questions that are important in this context, such as: 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 RRI?

  1. Research

    Synthetic biology, metaphors and responsibility

    Metaphors are not just decorative rhetorical devices that make speech pretty. They are fundamental tools for thinking about the world and acting on the world. The language we use to make a better world matters...

    Carmen McLeod and Brigitte Nerlich

    Life Sciences, Society and Policy 2017 13:13

    Published on: 29 August 2017