Embryo project investigates agents of change in science

TEMPE, Ariz. -- An ambitious group of historians, philosophers, bioethicists, scientists, lawyers and policy experts from ASU will be taking a detailed look at the history of embryo research in order to understand how society, culture and technology have affected the course of science.

ASU professor Jane Maienschein and her colleagues have been awarded a three-year grant of $750,000 by the National Science Foundation for the project as a part of the NSF Human and Social Dynamics program.

Maienschein, director of ASU's Center for Biology and Society, will lead a diverse group of researchers in examining how the study of embryos has developed, especially from the 19th century to the present. Research leaders in the project are all members of ASU's School of Life Sciences and include professors Manfred Laubichler; Gary Marchant, director of the Center for Law, Science and Technology; and Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.

Under the "embryo project," Maienschein and her ASU collaborators have assembled a group of undergraduate and graduate researchers, who will work with two dozen investigators from six countries to examine the different scientific, social, cultural and organizational contexts that have affected the development of embryology as a science.

"Embryo research serves as an ideal candidate to investigate the intersection of biology and society," Maienschein said. Stem cell research, a recent development in the study of embryos, provides a good example of how ethical, legal, political and religious factors can affect science and its role in society.

Goals for the project include providing a rich description of embryo research over key periods of its history, analyzing and comparing each period for agents of change and "developing materials for scholars and the general public to address any questions related to embryo research," Maienschein said.

In the project, researchers will develop a "collaboratory" where a database of documents and interpretive materials will be compiled and linked together, according to Maienschein. Research articles developed through the project will then link to the database to produce an interpretive encyclopedia. The tools are being developed in conjunction with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science's Virtual Laboratory, which Laubichler has helped organize.

Investigating the legal, religious, political and technical factors involved in the development of embryo research requires the expertise of a wide range of researchers. "The project is interdisciplinary and multi-disciplined, in that it is establishing the best available scholarly study of a variety of different factors at different intervals of time," Maienschein said.

She added that the project brings together "researchers who would normally be working in their separate fields," in an effort to break down the boundaries that separate different academic disciplines. "Often the best work comes when researchers have to speak to an audience that doesn't share their assumptions," she said.

Funding for the grant will begin in January 2007, but Maienschein and her colleagues have already gotten a head start on the research and scheduled a workshop for this October. The workshop will examine embryo research from 1940 to 1970 in an effort to interpret patterns of change in that scientific discipline.

Workshops will continue twice a year for the duration of the project. Each time, experts from their respective fields will come together to work on an interpretation of what factors are driving change in embryo research during a certain period of time.

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Source: Jane Maienschein, (480) 965-6105

Media contacts: Dan Jenk (480) 965-9690


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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