BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society

The BIOS Centre at the LSE was founded when I moved to LSE in 2002, with the support of the then Director, Professor Anthony Giddens. Tony shared my view that developments in bioscience, biomedicine and biotechnology were having fundamental consequences for many aspects of society – not just for our understanding of health and illness, and our capacity to intervene on ‘life itself’, and not only through the emergence of powerful bioeconomies,  but also for our understandings of ourselves.  The Centre grew out of, and built upon, the network of researchers that had formed part of the bios email list, and so was able to draw upon the strengths of that emerging community of scholars. We were also fortunate in arriving at the LSE at a time where new accommodation had become available, and we were able to secure occupancy of a large open plan space on the top floor of one of the former ‘Mobil’ tower blocks, which was absolutely ideal for the kind of open interactive Centre that I and my colleagues had in mind.  As Head of the Department of Sociology, I was able to mobilise support and resources from the Departments of Social Psychology, Government and Law and the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, with the aim of placing the intellectual resources of the LSE at the heart of debates about the implications of advances in areas of genomics, stem cells, reproductive medicine and neuropsychiatry at the heart of the often heated debates social, ethical and political debates in what we came to think of as ‘the age of biology’ 

We were able to assemble a very powerful Advisory Board, chaired by Sir John Sulston, who was leading the international project to sequence the human genome, to build our core resources by attracting Professor Sarah Franklin who joined LSE to become Associate Director of BIOS, and also persuade Professor Emily Jackson, a medical law specialist from LSE’s law department, and Dr. Ilina Singh, a specialist in research on and with children and young people, to join the Centre directorate.  

We rapidly built a vibrant community of research fellows and doctoral students, whose many discussions and initiatives made BIOS a real laboratory for innovative concepts and approaches, making connections between a multitude of related research projects.  So many brilliant and  collegial people passed through the Centre that it would be invidious to select out individuals here (many are named in the report attached below)  but it has been a pleasure to see many of our alumni, and many of those who spent some time in BIOS through our visiting programme, develop their careers into influential Professorships at universities across the world.  

We also had a committed group of Associates from many related disciplines, and prestigious international visitors including Lene Koch from Copenhagen, Alondra Nelson from Yale, and Paul Rabinow from Berkeley, who fed in ideas, and participated in the research grants we were able to attract.  We were able to create and run an innovative MSc programme and to run many international workshops and events, including the Vital Politics conferences described elsewhere on this website. And, not least, BIOS was the melting pot of ideas that produced the successful proposal to Cambridge University Press to start an interdisciplinary Journal for the social study of the life sciences Journal-  BioSocieties –  whose first edition was in 2006.

You can get some sense of the liveliness and productivity of BIOS from the Report on our first five years which you will find below: for example our work in Asia with BIONET, our work on Synthetic Biology with CSynBI, our work on neuroscience with the Brain, Self and Society programme and the Neuroscience and Society Network, the range of projects on reproductive technologies and stem cells led by Sarah Franklin, the VOICEs project on young children’s experience of psychostimulants led by Ilina Singh, the work of ScoPE on the changing forms of public deliberation on emerging biotechnologies, and the developing work on biosecurity and the risks of misuse of biotechnology under the leadership of Dr. Filippa Lentzos.  Not to mention the regular parties, picnics and Awaydays, at which children and families were usually present, which were an incredibly valuable part of our ethos.  All of this was supported by our truly wonderful Centre Administrator, Sabrina Fernandez, and her very able team of professional service colleagues including Christine Sweed, Sheila Sugavanam and Victoria Dyas,  who built and sustained the infrastructure that made all these things possible.

Personally, BIOS embodied the ethos that I most valued, of conceptually rigorous, empirically rich, open minded interdisciplinary scholarship and collegiality, and it also epitomised my own wish that the social sciences should, indeed must, engage in dialogue with the life sciences if they were to understand the kinds of societies that humans bad built for themselves, and fully grasp the vital consequences of the huge national and international injustices and inequities that cramped the lives of so many in our grotesquely unequal world. I agreed with Tony Giddens that this work was entirely in the tradition of LSE, and was saddened that his commitment was not fully sustained beyond his term as Director: as the Centre developed and expanded and we were unable to find the funds, internally or externally, to support the vital but often hidden infrastructure that made our community possible.  BIOS was a highpoint in my own personal academic career, and I miss the excitement of those ten years and many of the wonderful colleagues, students and visitors  participated in the Centre.  However, perhaps a decade is a healthy lifespan for a Centre if it is to retain its vigour, and transitions can be timely and productive: much of the ethos of BIOS went with us as I, Ilina, Sabrina and many of our students and research fellows moved across the Strand to build the new Department that became Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London.

You can find much more about the work of the BIOS Centre from 2002-2012 here