, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 365–392 | Cite as

Revolution versus evolution?: Understanding scientific and technological diffusion in synthetic biology and their implications for biosecurity policies

  • Kathleen M Vogel
Forum Article


Synthetic biology enthusiasts often tout the emerging field for its present and future potential to revolutionize the life sciences. In the biosecurity arena, which has received considerable government and non-government attention, many are concerned that synthetic biology may prove to be an easier and cheaper way to conduct bioterrorism. To evaluate these claims, this article will focus on contrasting two different frameworks that have been used for understanding the development, diffusion and adoption of synthetic biology. In contrasting these frameworks, I will draw on examples from biotechnology and information technology because they are often used as analogies in synthetic biology discussions. I conclude that the critical elements for successful development, transfer, and use of synthetic biology methodologies and tools for harm are not purely material or technical, but involve important social dimensions that underpin technical work, requiring time, teams of experts, appropriate political, legal, and funding structures, and the development of new (still unknown) techno-organizational processes. To date, there have been few studies that have explored these socio-technical mechanisms of synthetic biology diffusion through in-depth examination at a micro and macro level. However, by having a more nuanced understanding of various synthetic biology approaches and how they are (or are not) able to travel easily to new settings, one can create a more refined spectrum of factors shaping threats from state and non-state actors related to synthetic biology. This article ends by outlining new research agendas important to support and pursue in order to improve biosecurity policymaking.


synthetic biology biotechnology revolution information technology revolution tacit knowledge bioterrorism 



The author wishes to thank the organizers of SB 6.0 (and, in particular Jane Calvert and Emma Frow) for stimulating her thinking on an earlier version of this article. In addition, the author appreciates the feedback from Rachel Prentice, Maria Fernandez, Dhurba Ghosh, Wendy Wolford, Marina Welker and Sara Pritchard on an early paper draft. The author also thanks the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments to strengthen the article.


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© The London School of Economics and Political Science 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathleen M Vogel
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political Science and ScienceTechnology and Society Program, North Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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