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USES AND ABUSES OF BIOLOGY
Grants programme and essay competition

GRANT AWARDS

The following grants have been awarded:

Prof Gabriel Abend - New York University, USA
The Neuroscience of Morality, Love and Religion: An International Comparison :  £93,768 [24 months]
 
"The project is an international comparison of neuroscientific research on morality, love and religion in four countries. Specifically, I will examine its production and communication in Britain, France, the US and Argentina. My two research questions are: (1) How do neuroscientists define and conceptualise morality, love and religion? How is biology appealed to for this purpose? How are these concepts rendered amenable to neuroscientific investigation?; (2) Do neuroscientists' conceptualisations of morality, love and religion vary across the four countries? If so, how are experimental measures and stimuli different? How is the public sphere communication of results different? Methodologically, my project has two components: (a) participant observation and interviews in laboratories in the four countries; (b) content analysis of scientific publications and newspaper and magazine articles."
 

Prof Richard Bellon - Michigan State University, USA
The Virtues of Biological Research: Moral Behavior at the Intersection of Science and Religion, 1830-2014 :  £48,424 [12 months]
 
"The history of Victorian science can help us approach 21st century debates over the use and abuse of biology with more sophistication and sympathy. The Victorians insisted that we cannot separate what we believe from how we come to believe it. They emphasised in particular the need to ground our judgement in patience and humility, whether the judgement applied to religion, politics, morality, or physical science. On norms of behaviour, scientific naturalists like Huxley and Tyndall were in complete agreement with scientific theists like Sedgwick and Whewell. The emphasis on virtuous behaviour has largely disappeared from our current conversation, and this is unfortunate. The cultural dilemmas flowing from modern biology are unnecessarily exacerbated by our tendency to define them as the clash of worldviews."
 
 
Dr Berry Billingsley - University of Reading, UK
The Nature-Nurture narrative and other explanatory models of human behaviour in the Humanities curriculum for secondary schools in England : £20,000 [12 months]
 
"The aim of the project is to identify opportunities in Humanities lessons to assess and deepen secondary school students' understanding of what biology says about the nature of human behaviour. In this study our question are: (1) What are the messages given to students in secondary schools through their formal studies of English Literature about the factors underpinning human behaviour?; (2) What can be inferred about young people's perceptions of the factors that underpin human behaviour by analysing their responses to the literature they read?; (3) What opportunities exist in Humanities lessons for pupils to explore and critique the explanations of human behaviour that they perceive to come from science?"
Co-I: Helen Newdick
 
 
Prof Ros Edwards - University of Southampton, UK

Brain science and early intervention: tracing the new biologisation of parenting and child care :  £63,680 [24 months]

"This study aims to investigate how biologised accounts of the formative impact of early experiences on brain development have come to shape politics, key social policy legislation and early intervention initiatives, as well as the consequences for everyday practices among health care providers and early years educators. The research involves detailed discursive analysis of: (a) political and policy literature; (b) interviews with influential proponents seeking to apply neuroscientific concepts to the area of policy and practice; (c) interviews with early intervention professionals, and (d) neuroscientific expert group evaluation. The implications for parenting and social justice, as well as for scientific policy warrants, will be considered."
Project website: http://www.brainscience.soton.ac.uk/
Co-I: Dr Val Gillies. Researcher: Dr Nicola Horsley
 
 
Prof John Evans - University of California at San Diego, USA
An Empirical Study of the Biological Definition of the Human :  £87,220 [24 months]
 
"A centuries old debate in the West concerns what it means to be human. Humanists have argued that humans are defined by a number of particularly human traits, by their being made in the image of God, or by their uniquely human DNA pattern. A related debate is what ordinary people think it means to be human, which is in turn thought to influence how they will interact with each other. In this project I will empirically investigate the beliefs about what it means to be human held by the general population, and see if these beliefs are associated with different behaviour toward our fellow humans. I will also investigate the specific claim that intensive exposure to biological reasoning leads one to adopt a biological view of the human and discard other notions of the human."
 
 
Prof Joan Fujimura - University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Social Psychological Aspects of Societal Resistance to Evolution: An Experimental Investigation :  £69,271 [24 months]
 
"Research in social psychology demonstrates that threats to individuals’ identities and values can alter their reasoning processes and hinder their ability to effectively evaluate new information. Recent studies have shown that this phenomenon applies even when people evaluate scientific information. With this study we will experimentally investigate the extent to which this phenomenon may be at work in the context of societal resistance toward evolution. Our results will contribute to social scientific understanding of science and society, and will speak to both science education and science communication."
Researcher: Jordan Colosi
 
 
Prof Peter Harrison - University of Queensland, Australia
Evolution, Atheism and Mass Persuasion: The Uses and Abuses of Biology in New Atheist Propaganda :  £120,000 [24 months]
 
"This project will examine the way in which evolutionary theory is deployed in the propaganda of the New Atheists. It will move beyond an evaluation of the intrinsic merits of New Atheist arguments, to focus instead on the way in which biology, and evolutionary theory in particular, is being employed for the purposes of mass persuasion. The study will thus focus on sets of cues, or cognitive mental shortcuts, that function in communications as subtle but effective methods of influencing public opinion and behaviour. This analysis will reveal how references to natural selection are integrated into effective persuasive strategies, serve to cultivate 'evolution wars' brands, and fortify popular New Atheist constructions of reality."
Co-I: Dr Thomas Aechtner
 
 
Prof Sheila Jasanoff - Harvard University, USA
Biology and the Law :  £104,588 [24 months]
 
"This project compares interactions between biology and the law around stem cell research and synthetic biology in Britain, Germany and the US. Combining expertise in biology, law and political theory, the project will clarify how biology and the law conceptualise each other's roles in regulating new biological entities that disrupt the boundaries between life and non-life, human and non-human, and persons and property. We will study the evolution of explicit and tacit norms via informal lab practices, formal legal decision, and public discourses. By tracing these pathways in three scientific, legal and political cultures, we will refine our understanding of the ways in which biology and the law condition and constrain each other's forms of creativity. The study will produce a repository of materials and generate a web-based platform for research and teaching."
Co-I: Dr Ben Hurlbut and Dr Krishanu Saha. Researcher: Ingrid Metzler
 
 
Dr Timothy Jenkins - University of Cambridge, UK
Virtue Engineering, Moral Freedom and Christian Salvation :  £91,525 [24 months]
 
"The field of virtue engineering is one which has drawn deeply from recent developments in synthetic biology. These advances have shaped a range of possibilities through which human moral augmentation might proceed, be that through the use of empathogens such as oxytocin, desire reduction, emotional control, or dopamine 'reward' manipulation through direct stimulation of neural circuitry. The goals of this project are to unpack, explore and contextualise the concepts of virtue employed in the virtue engineering discourse to discuss whether these concepts of virtue are adequately sophisticated for purposes of moral augmentation; and, to explore the ramifications of the possibilities for virtue engineering with respect to the the Christian practices of formation and human moral freedom."
Co-I: Dr Harris Wiseman
 
 
Dr Helene Joffe - University College London, UK
The brain in the public sphere: Uses of neuroscience in the media and the consequences for lay thinking :  £79,970 [24 months]
 
"The output of neuroscience has expanded dramatically in recent years, both in the volume of research produced and the range of subjects covered. Public discourse increasingly draws upon it as a point of reference. Since science forms a significant influence on society's conceptual, behavioural and institutional repertoires, it is important to be attuned to how science is mobilised in social contexts beyond the laboratory. As yet, there has been little systematic investigation of how neuroscience manifests in the contemporary public sphere. This project aims to redress this gap. It proposes a mixed-methods approach, involving analysis of manifestations of neuroscience in the mainstream UK media as well as interview-based studies to examine how the public engages with neuroscience. Results will be used to advance understanding of how contemporary biological research instantiates itself in public discourse and lay thinking."
Researcher: Cliodhna O'Conner
 
 
Prof Alexei Kojevnikov - University of British Columbia, Canada
Changing biosocial boundaries in history of science: Cross-cultural encounters and their impact :  £69,520 [24 months]
 
"That uses of biology often extend into abuses is predicated on the contested nature of the boundaries between the biological, on the one hand, and the social, cultural, personal, or political, on the other. Though often presumed as a given, the drawing of such boundaries has been historically contingent, with presently held assumptions depending on past experiences and disagreements. This project combines history of science with cultural anthropology to analyse a series of important biological and ideological controversies that took place during the last century. Our focus on encounters between scientific cultures with contrasting perceptions reveals a much wider than anticipated range of options that have been contested, some of which have been rejected, others simply forgotten, and others which reveal the hidden sources of contemporary views on the biosocial divide."
Co-I: Prof Kirill Rossiianov. Researcher: Eric Michael Johnson, Dmitry Mordvinov
 

Dr Ellie Lee - University of Kent, UK
Biologising parenting: Neuroscience discourse and English social and public health policy :  £37,349 [24 months]
 
"The proposed project is an analysis of claims-making about the foetal and infant brain in English policy documents published from 1997 onwards. The research will explore the relations between claims privileging the import of findings from brain science, understandings of social problems ('poverty', 'educational attainment' and 'social mobility'), and the challenge made by current policy discourses to the normative assumption that parenting style is a 'private matter'. The work will comprise: (a) a literature review of academic work considering the broad theme of the 'scientisation' of the parent-child relationship, and (b) content analysis of policy documents."
Project website: http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/parentingculturestudies/research-themes/early-intervention/current-projects/
Co-I: Dr Pam Lowe and Dr Jan Macvarish
 
NEW! 'Biologising Parenting' Key Findings report (March 2014) [PDF]
 

Prof Daniel McKaughan - Boston College, USA
Voles, Vasopressin and Infidelity: A Molecular Basis for Monogamy, a Platform for Ethics, and More? :  £67,163 [12 months]
 
"Vasopressin and oxytocin research raises questions about how the emerging detailed physical-chemical explanations relate to our ordinary understanding of what it is to be a person. Manipulation of a single gene can make "promiscuous" montane voles start acting like socially monogamous prairie voles. Media reports become stories about the discovery of a gene for "fidelity", convenient excuses for cheating, genetic screening for your fiancé, and pills that could help you fall in love, rekindle a failing marriage, get over the death of your spouse, or serve as pharmacological substitutes for will and character. Some philosophers have attempted to draw upon such research as a way of vindicating reductionism, of proving that we have no free will, or of grounding ethics. My project deflates the hype in search of a reasonable assessment of its implications."
 

Prof Gregory Radick - University of Leeds, UK
Does the teaching of Mendelian concepts promote genetic determinism? The differential effects of Mendelian and non-Mendelian pedagogies :  £119,385 [24 months]
 
"Biologists increasingly reject genetic determinism; but do their teaching methods nevertheless convey it? This project will investigate whether the standard curriculum, organised around concepts originating with Gregor Mendel, promotes genetic determinism by encouraging students to see gene/environment interactions as secondary and only selectively present, rather than as primary and pervasive. The Mendelian system for tracking inheritance of traits has long been the starting point for teaching genetics. Its simple methods and basic concepts give students immediate satisfaction by enabling them to map inheritance with virtually no knowledge of molecular-level causation. Given the dominance of the Mendelian curriculum, it may appear to be the only option for grounding pedagogy. But episodes in the historical rise of Mendelism tell a different story. The writings of W.F.R Weldon, for instance, reveal a criticism of the Mendelian system as overly deterministic. The roots of this lie in a movement to develop a genetics that better captures the variability and diversity found in living systems - a movement very much alive today in molecular biology. If the history of genetics provides alternatives to Mendelism, an important question is whether these are a better ground for genetics teaching. To address the link between genetics pedagogy and genetic determinism, three related questions will be answered: (1) How are Mendelian concepts integrated into genetics pedagogy and what are their effects?; (2) Can a viable alternative pedagogy be developed?; (3) Will a non-Mendelian pedagogy be more effective at inculcating views about determinism consistent with 21st-century genetics?"
Project website: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/homepage/399/the_genetics_pedagogies_project
Co-I: Dr Annie Jamieson and Dr Jenny Lewis
 
 
Prof Antonio Rangel - Caltech, USA
Uses and abuses of neurobiology in economics analysis and policy :  £97,941 [18 months]
 
"There is a rapidly growing demand for applying neurobiology to economics and public policy. The demand is particularly high in domains such as obesity or marketing, where more 'standard' economic approaches have a hard time making sense of observed behaviours. Given the importance of the issues, this has the opportunity to lead to superb uses of biology. Unfortunately, in practice, more often than not this approach is leading to abuses of biology. We will write a monograph that lays the neurobiological foundations of economic choice and policy, and provides ample and detailed examples of good uses of this methodology, as well as many examples of its abuses. This monograph will increase the chances that the ever-growing applications of neurobiology in the economic and policy domains entail the use and not the abuse of biology."
 

Prof Russell Re Manning - University of Aberdeen, UK
Emergence: From Biology to Theology :  £112,737 [24 months]
 
"This project will evaluate the uses and abuses of biological theories of emergence in contemporary theology. The project will consider both the particular understandings of emergence operative within its theological appropriations and the consequence for theology of the 'turn to emergence'. In three phases, the project will conduct theological and philosophical analyses of the uses and abuses of emergence in work of contemporary liberal scientific theologians to develop a constructive theological engagement with biological theories of emergence."
Project website: http://emergentism.wordpress.com/
Co-I: Dr Guy Bennett-Hunter
 

Prof William Struthers - Wheaton College, USA
The Persuasive Power of Brain Scans: How the use of brain images influences decision making :  £6,095 [12 months]
 
"The presence of brain images in media reports can influence opinion on scientific credibility. In this interdisciplinary project we aim to study the effectiveness of brain imaging technologies and images when used to establish scientific credibility and influence opinion of religious and non-religious topics. This study will: (a) survey the prevalence of brain imaging use in media reports, and (b) conduct an empirical study on the persuasiveness of fictional media reports utilising brain images on religious and non-religious topics. The reports will use either brain images, a bar graph, or no visual aids. Topics explored will include religious visions, criminal standing, and spirituality in healthy adults."
 
 
 
Enquiries regarding the grants programme should be sent to the Grants Coordinator at faraday.grants@st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk