Negotiating the dynamics of uncomfortable knowledge: The case of dual use and synthetic biology

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Institutions need to ignore some knowledge in order to function. This is “uncomfortable knowledge” because it undermines the ability of those institutions to pursue their goals (Rayner, 2012). We identify three bodies of knowledge that are relevant to understandings of the dual use threat posed by synthetic biology but are excluded from related policy discussions. We demonstrate how these “unknown knowns” constitute uncomfortable knowledge because they disrupt the simplified worldview that underpins contemporary discourse on the potential misuse of synthetic biology by malign actors. We describe how these inconvenient truths have been systematically ignored and argue that this is because they are perceived as a threat by organisations involved in the promotion of synthetic biology as well as by those involved in managing biosecurity risks. This has led to a situation where concerns about the biosecurity threat posed by synthetic biology are not only exaggerated, but are, more importantly, misplaced. This, in turn, means that related policies are misdirected and unlikely to have much impact. We focus on the dynamics of discussions about synthetic biology and dual use to demonstrate how the same “knowns” that are denied or dismissed as “unknown knowns” in certain circumstances are sometimes mobilised as “known knowns” by the same category of actors in a different context, when this serves to sustain the goals of the individuals and institutions involved. Based on our own experience, we argue that negotiating the dynamics of uncomfortable knowledge is a difficult, but necessary, component of meaningful transdisciplinary collaborations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-420
Number of pages28
Issue number4
Early online date28 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2014


  • strategic ignorance; synthetic biology; dual use; biosecurity; science and technology studies (STS); innovation


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