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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

purposeful dreaming

To continue the thought from the last post a little, it may be that what was hyped as the revolution was actually a sideshow. Just as it was the technologies arising from the EFFORT of the Apollo moon shots rather than the moon shots themselves that ended up changing the world (principally through developments in computing, semi conductors etc etc) it may be that it is the ethos and methods that went into the effort to sequence the human genome rather than the headline sequencing itself that is the real change.

Thomas Kuhn's definition of "paradigm shift" is centred on changes to the daily practice of science, rather than its ideology or "meaning".

Horizon, the BBC's flagship science show had a huge impact on me in the 70s, partly because I'm the right age for the properly childish excitement of the moonshots and Viking and Voyager and all that...to have hit me between the eyes growing up.

Take a look at this recent episode, if you missed it the other night. The excitement has become complicated by unease.


In the show, the rendering of genetic material and the proteins to which genes code...that is, the making of machines out of living material...is surveyed by Adam Rutherford, who, like me, is a bit staggered and disoriented...by putting silk-making genes from spiders into goats in Utah...and then getting silk from the milk...(seriously!)...by feeding sugar to yeast and getting diesel...(no, really) in California. And in a community centre based bio-tech lab with open source access for all...and six year olds transferring luminous genes from jellyfish into E Coli...all at the touch of a mouse...(oh, and the mouse with its brain wired to a light source so that it gets dopamine hits by pushing a button...I couldn't watch that at all)

The shift is in what people DO...every day...what we think about what they do comes after, and not nearly fast enough to keep up.

The hardest shift in my work is to go from research (which feels like work) to purposeful day-dreaming...which is how you actually get to create things, but makes you feel guilty. (or me, anyway)...and maybe a bit of my, and Adam Rutherford's discomfort at what is happening in synthetic biology all the way from the mega-corporations buying up rainforest so they can feed sugar cane to microbes and get a substitute for petrol to the folks in their garages building lego monsters out of biobricks is that it feels like all this has passed me by...and I was looking out for it...

Out of control? World gone wrong? I'm too old? There are times I wake up a Tory.

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