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Durham University

Research & business

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Strategic Science: Research Intermediaries and the Governance of Innovation

A research project of the Department of Geography.


Investment in scientific research is an important means by which nations are responding to the challenges of globalisation and the rise of new industrial powers. By investing in science, nations have the opportunity to be international leaders in the development of new technology. Current government science policy is focused on the need to streamline the relationship between academic research and the corporate sector utilising a range of methods - for example research funding strategies, knowledge transfer networks, and public engagement programmes - to help research activities match national priorities. However, over recent years scientific and technological developments have become the focus of heated debates, concentrating on safety concerns and possible impacts on society. Current debates - for example, about stem cell research, GM food, and nuclear power - show the potential for new technologies to become the focus of widespread concern and anxiety.

The Strategic Science project will consider how the development of new technologies is shaped by government priorities and by the methods used to support and coordinate research. The project is particularly focused on nanotechnology and synthetic biology - two areas of current research and development which are of strategic importance. Significantly, nanotechnology and synthetic biology promise both ‘control over the structure of matter’ and the ability to ‘create life from scratch’, and therefore could intensify existing public concerns. By considering how research in nanotechnology and synthetic biology is shaped by government policies and priorities, the project will consider the wider societal dimensions of research in these fields, and how it might be made more publicly accountable.


The Strategic Science project has three key objectives:

  • Firstly, it aims to examine the way that government science policy shapes research in nanotechnology and synthetic biology
  • Secondly, the project aims to explore the different methods used to coordinate the development of nanotechnology and synthetic biology, focusing particularly on research funding, knowledge transfer networks and public engagement programmes
  • Lastly, the project aims to explore the wider social consequences of nanotechnology and synthetic biology and to consider how government support for and coordination of research might be more accountable


To achieve these objectives the project will have five phases:

  • The first phase will involve literature reviews and archival research, focusing on understanding contemporary notions of ‘strategic science’, and will culminate in an academic workshop
  • The second phase of the project will involve analysing contemporary policy documents which, combined with interviews with science policy representatives, will enable the project to map the network of organisations involved in coordinating scientific research and innovation
  • The third and fourth phases of the research involve comparative case studies of the institutional mechanisms for the support and coordination of research in synthetic biology and nanotechnology. Each case study will use a mixture of interviews and ethnographic placements in UK research councils
  • In the fifth phase of the research, the results of the project will be analysed and a final report will be produced


The project will commence in January 2009. The main research findings will be published in a final report - agenda-setting account of the governance of science and innovation. Other dissemination activities will take place through collaboration throughout the life of the project.

Advisory Group

1. Professor Christopher Caswill
Visiting Professor, Department of Politics, University of Exeter

2. Dr Robert Doubleday
Department of Geography, Cambridge University

3. Professor Alan Irwin
Dean of Research, Copenhagen Business School

4. Prof Richard A.L. Jones FRS
EPSRC Professorial Fellow and Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology,
Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield

5. Dr James Wilsdon
Head of Science and Innovation, Demos, London


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