“Biological Futures in a Globalized World” Addresses Challenges Posed by Explosion of Biological Knowledge

Colloquia Speakers Leah Ceccarelli, Gaymon Bennett, and Matthew Sparke

Enormous growth in biological knowledge during the past 100 years or so – and increasing worldwide use of that information to manipulate and build living systems – pose unique opportunities and challenges for the scientific community and humanity at large: Potential risks include engineered biological organisms, proliferations of infectious disease, human manipulation of the biosphere for food and fuel, and of the human genome sequence in reproductive technology.

To help foster better thinking about such issues, the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington is working in partnership with the Center for Biological Futures (CBF) at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to bring together faculty and graduate students in the social sciences and humanities with scientists and to lay the groundwork for a sustained program of interdisciplinary research and training. The joint initiative, Biological Futures in a Globalized World, is hosted and co-organized by the Simpson Center, and is supported for a pilot via primary funding from the Innovation fund of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The founder of the CBF, Roger Brent, a molecular biologist and UW affiliate professor of Genome Sciences, is working with Alison Wylie, UW professor of philosophy and anthropology, the founder of the vigorous cross-campus and inter-institutional Science Studies Network. Biological Futures in a Globalized World activities launched this summer with a multidisciplinary research group bringing together four UW faculty fellows and two CBF postdoctoral fellows. It continues through the 2011-2012 academic year with a public colloquia series.

The first was held at the Simpson Center on October 10, 2011. Moderated by Wylie, the panel included Matthew Sparke, professor of geography and the Jackson School of International Studies, Leah Ceccarelli, professor of communication, and Gaymon Bennett, a CBF fellow at the Hutchinson Center. Their topics ranged from global health and South Lake Union as a hub for biotechnology, to ethics and the practices of synthetic biology, to word use—focusing on the metaphor of “the frontier” in debates about research priorities in the biological sciences.     

Upcoming colloquia discussions will take place on Monday, November 7, 2011, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. at the Simpson Center and Monday, December 5, 2011, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. at the Hutchinson Center.

Biological Futures in a Globalized World will also spearhead a research ethics and integrity initiative to develop an integrated education and training program for biological and non-medical scientists that cultivates an appreciation of the human dimensions and impacts of their work.  Other planned activities include faculty workshops, graduate seminars, and an integrated science, technology, and society studies web portal.

“Our goals are to establish an interdisciplinary network of scholars and scientists who have the expertise to enhance our understanding of complex issues surrounding biological futures, and to lay the foundations for a sustained program of substantial research and education that puts us in a position to address them effectively,” Wylie said.