PhD Social, Ethical and Communication Aspects of Gene Drives

Published on
June 14, 2018
Location Wageningen
Scientific field Behavior and Society
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We are looking for

We are looking for an enthusiastic and highly motivated PhD student to work on a multidisciplinary research project on the social, ethical and communication aspects of gene drives. Working at the interface of three chair groups, and their associated disciplinary competences, you will contribute to new understanding on an emerging technology that promises significant societal challenges.
Modern biotechnology is characterised by rapid developments, including most recently through the application of the genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. Recent breakthroughs have demonstrated the potential of so-called gene drives to cause traits to be inherited preferentially, from one generation to the next, and in principle, throughout the population. Gene drive techniques may offer new possibilities for combatting infectious diseases, such as malaria, pests and (invasive) exotics through so-called ecological engineering or population control. However, the ability to instigate the intentional spread of a genetic trait throughout a population, and for these effects on ecosystems to be potentially irreversible, has also generated intense debate and some dialogue within the scientific community, alongside ethicists and civil society actors (many of whom have called for a moratorium). Gene drives also pose significant challenges for governance, requiring international coordination, given that the scope of both hard-law and soft-law governance may be limited.
The PhD project Social, Ethical and Communication Aspects of Gene Drives addresses these challenges by looking at the following questions:

  1. What are the dominant framing assumptions in terms of what gene drives are, and the benefits and risks they pose, in the scientific, regulatory, and media domain?
  2. What is the scope and nature of current real-life discourses on gene drives among scientific and wider publics, and how do they negotiate values, norms and responsibilities?
  3. How to evaluate these discourses and framings from an ethical and responsible innovation perspective, e.g. in the light of values at stake and their implications for ecological conservation and restoration?
The candidate will perform qualitative case study research in the field of gene drive technologies, in close collaboration with (life) science groups at Wageningen University. Case studies will be selected in consultation with the candidate and the supervisory team.

We ask

We are searching for a highly motivated and enthusiastic PhD student who should have:

  • Completed academic/research master in Social Sciences (e.g. Science and Technology Studies, Communication Sciences, Development Studies) and/or Ethics or Philosophy
  • Knowledge of and experience in qualitative research methods, preferably including Framing and/or Discourse or Conversation Analysis
  • Proven affinity with multidisciplinary research and (possibly) with the domain of genetic modification
  • Organisational skills to establish and maintain collaborations with and among different stakeholders
  • Good command of English language
  • Academic writing skills
Your tasks consist of:
  • Analysing real-life online and offline discussions on gene drives among the scientific and relevant wider social community
  • Analysing framing assumptions of relevant policy documents, and in focus group/individual interviews with policy makers and civil society actors
  • Evaluating the findings from an ethical perspective, in the light of values at stake and their implications for ecological conservation and restoration
  • Formulating how these insights can contribute to a more inclusive dialogue on, and responsible innovation of gene drive technologies
  • Writing scientific papers for peer-reviewed journals resulting in a dissertation
  • Presenting at national and international scientific conferences
  • Limited teaching tasks
  • Organising multi-stakeholder meetings to valorise and broaden the acquired insights

We offer

We offer you fulltime employment (38 hours a week) for 18 months with a possible extension of 30 months after positive evaluation. The gross salary is € 2.222 per month in the first year and increases to € 2.840 per month in the fourth year (based on fulltime employment). In addition, we offer a holiday allowance of 8% and an end-of-the-year bonus of 8.3% of your annual salary.


More information

Starting Date
September 1st, 2018. Interview rounds for the position are planned for July 9th.
Additional information and a short background paper on the topic can be obtained from Vera Mentzel (

How to apply
You can apply up to and including June 28th, 2018 (23.59 hours CET). Use the website to apply and upload a motivation letter, references and your CV (including course grades).

We are

This project is a collaboration between the three chair groups of the section Communication, Philosophy and Technology: Centre for Integrative Development is part of the Department of Social Sciences.

The Chair Group Philosophy studies the normative dimensions of societal and scientific challenges in relation to food production, public health and the living environment. We aim to clarify the (often collective) nature of values such as quality of life, solidarity, animal welfare and environmental integrity, we explore possibilities for responsible innovation in collective (e.g. corporate) contexts, and we aim to understand how moral ambivalence may fuel deliberation. These aims constitute three sets of philosophical themes that cross the boundaries of our broader domains of expertise in public health ethics, animal and environmental ethics, and philosophy of science and technology.

The Chair Group Knowledge Technology and Innovation studies processes of socio-technical innovation and transformation. We focus on communicative and socio-political dynamics involved in the production, exchange, integration and use of scientific and other knowledge. This involves studying technology’s impact on society and the social shaping of technology as two sides of a co-production process, and the analysis of interactions, interventions, design approaches and institutional set-ups relevant to supporting innovation. Insights generated serve eventually to address global challenges such as food security, poverty, health hazards, inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, conflicts and scarcity of resources.
The Chair Group Strategic Communication at Wageningen University studies the dynamics and consequences of strategic communication by organizations and citizens. It focusses on the interactional processes through which public images, discourses, opinions and practices come about, and on how these may be influenced by communication professionals. Our research focuses on four themes: Communication and self-organization for planned and unplanned change; Strategic communication and behaviour change; Conflict, contestation and cooperation in pluralist constellations; Expertise in action.

Wageningen University and Research Centre
Delivering a substantial contribution to the quality of life. That's our focus – each and every day. Within our domain, healthy food and living environment, we search for answers to issues affecting society – such as sustainable food production, climate change and alternative energy. Of course, we don’t do this alone. Every day, 6,500 people work on ‘the quality of life’, turning ideas into reality, on a global scale.