Skip to content

PFGS news 2005

















Welcome to this first issue of PFGS newsletter!

To mark the occasion, we are running a prize draw. One lucky entrant will win a copy of John Dupré’s Darwin’s Legacy: What Evolution Means To- day (Oxford University Press, 2003; see page 7 for details). The highlight of this issue is Michael Hopkins’ enjoyable look into the past to remind us of the origins of the PFGS (page 2). After a period of dormancy following last year’s colloquium at Egenis in Exeter, the PFGS has sprung back into life this spring. This year’s colloquium has been organised within a matter of weeks (see the ‘call for papers’ on page 8), a new PFGS Committee has assembled, and various new initiatives are in the works (page 5). The aim of this newsletter is to provide the PFGS with a regular outlet of informa- tion and opinion – naturally all articles will reflect the opinion of the au- thor and not of the PFGS or the editor. Both Kean Birch (page 6) and Ingrid Holme (page 7) raise topical questions for the research of PFGS members. I also want to invite contributions for future issues of PFGS News, as well as job and conference announcements, profiles of new PFGS members, and news from PFGS-related organisation. So get in touch! My aim will be to make this newsletter lively and interesting.

Adam Bostanci

Egenis, University of Exeter



The PFGS: A (partial) Social History

This is a review of the growth, and organisational evolution of the Postgraduate Forum on Genetics and Society, the PFGS. It should of course be remem- bered that histories are always for someone, and never for themselves. This account is no different and is self-consciously somewhere in between an intro- duction to the PFGS and the manifesto of the outgo- ing party faithful. Its purpose is to provide an oppor- tunity for the members of an ever-changing group to continue established traditions, or learn enough about them to decide that they need changing.

The idea for a Postgraduate Forum on Genetics and Society came about as the result of a conversation at the “Genetic Information: Acquisition, Access, and Control” conference in December 1997 between Adam Hedgecoe, then a PhD student at UCL, Sarah Franklin of Lancaster University, and her PhD student Richard Tutton. They discussed the lack of opportuni- ties for PhD students to present their work and Rich- ard and Adam organised a meeting held at Lancaster University on the 17 April 1998. This informal gath- ering of just ten people already held many of the characteristics now enshrined in the PFGS. In particu- lar Adam and Richard saw the boundaries between disciplines and departmental structures as being an obstacle to work in the area of genetics and society. They noted in a review written for the EASST Re- view1 immediately after the meeting that a key aim of the PFGS was to form linkages between groups as well as provide a ‘safe harbour’ for postgrads:

‘For this new generation of researchers, we wanted to overcome these intellectual and practi- cal obstacles, to create a forum for the exchange of ideas, resources, and approaches, to create a space, an informal and supportive environment, to present our work in progress.’ (Tutton and Hedgecoe, 1998)

On 18 -19 December of the same year, Adam hosted a ‘return match’ at UCL, with the focus of this second colloquium being firmly established as being for stu- dents, thus making the PFGS distinct – “rather than being another platform for established academics to show off” as Adam recalls.

Spurred by the EASST write-up, the reputation of the PFGS began to spread. By the third meeting students from institutions in the Netherlands, Germany and Finland had joined. The internationalism of the PFGS

1 Hedgecoe & Tutton in The EASST Review, Vol.17(2), June 1998, pp.20-24, also published in Network, Newsletter of the Brit- ish Sociological Association, October 1998, p.25

can therefore be seen as a long standing characteristic and an important element in boosting its intellectual strength.

As the PFGS grew the organisation of meetings be- came more complex and the need for formal funding more pressing. But the time required to apply for and secure funding led to annual meetings rather than the more frequent get-togethers that might have been desirable.

The first PFGS meeting to have research council funding was the 3rd Colloquium organised by Sandra Parsons and Wan Ching Yee 6-7 September 1999 at University of the West of England.2 Attendees’ travel was funded by the event being piggy-backed onto an ESRC seminar in the New Genetics Seminar Series run by Peter Glasner and Harry Rothman from the Sci-Tech Unit at the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences. There were eleven attendees.

Also in 1999, the Wellcome Trust programme on Biomedical Ethics began. This boosted the number of PhD students studying themes related to genetics so- ciety and also creating a new annual event, the Bio- ethics Summer School. The PFGS founders broadly saw these summer schools and the PFGS meetings as complimentary events. The target audiences only par- tially overlapped and the Wellcome events focused much less on student presentations and more on other forms of training. The Wellcome events also provided a rich hunting ground for new potential PFGS re- cruits. Indeed in lieu of any form of budget, PFGS was entirely reliant on word of mouth to perpetuate itself, thus finding and enrolling new members at con- ferences became a vital duty of PFGS members!

Partly as a result of the Wellcome Trust’s initiatives and partly due to the snowballing effect of word-of mouth recommendations, the 4th Annual Colloquium, in 2000, saw a significant jump in attendance with 28 postgrads attending the meeting at Sheffield Univer- sity on 26 –27 June. The forth colloquium was a milestone because in common with every meeting since, its size necessitated formal funding that could only be raised through a bid to a funding body. This was duly prepared by Mark Taylor, Shaun Pattinson and Richard Tutton, who succeeded in raising funding from the Wellcome Trust, and brought a degree of professionalism to the meeting that has been carried through to later colloquia.

The following year in 2003, with no option to return to the Wellcome Trust, and following two failed at- tempts for EU money, the announcement of the multi- million pound ESRC Genomics programme appeared to come at just the right time for the PFGS. However, the formal establishment of the three ESRC Genom- ics Centres (Innogen, Cesagen, and Egenis) came slightly too late for the PFGS’s needs. However the PFGS was able to persuade the ESRC that the PFGS would play a key role in building research capability in the area of genetics and society. As such a special arrangement was negotiated and Michael Hopkins prepared a bid that took into account an ESRC ‘wish list’ of features they would like to see to make the meeting of maximum value for attendees. This 7th Annual Colloquium took place over 20-22 of August 2003, at SPRU, Science and Technology Policy Re- search, at the University of Sussex. The ESRC-PFGS collaboration resulted in generous funding, including an explicit mandate to invite and pay for students, not just from the EU but also from developing countries. More training and guest speakers were added to the programme, but although 55 attended the opening session, access to the student sessions was strictly limited to preserve the PFGS ‘safe harbour’, for the 32 postgraduates who attended.

With the founding generation of the PFGS now reso- lute in staying out of future organisational decision- making, the newer PFGS members attempted to fol- low a more participative approach to planning – with only limited success. A discussion document (enti- tled PFGS: the future) was prepared by Sebastian Sethe ahead of the 7th Colloquium, setting out the manifesto of the PFGS, an invitation for volunteers to administer the website, mailing list (now consisting of hundreds addresses), and the issues immediately fac- ing the PFGS. However due to time pressure and the wish to preserve space for student presentations, the debate was unfortunately relegated to an informal discussion over fish and chips. Nonetheless the result of this meeting was the expansion of the number of people directly engaged in the organisation of the PFGS, with John Sung appointed webmaster, Sebas- tian Sethe and Sarah Smith running the mailing list, Kean Birch editing another special issue of Science as Culture (due out in 2006), and Adam Bostanci and later Sara Melendro-Oliver taking over responsibility for arranging the next meeting at the ESRC’s new research centre at Exeter, Egenis.

The 8th Annual Colloquium in Exeter, funded by the ESRC Genomics Forum, took place from 1-3 Sep- tember 2004 and was attended by 30 PFGS members, some from the continent and one from Canada. Al- though the fire alarms kept going off repeatedly in the small hours of the morning at the conference centre (unbelievably some slept through this!), the meeting provided for good discussions, which often focused on PhD methodology. The Colloquium ended on the first day of the annual BA Festival of Science, also in Exeter that year, which provided added incentives for PFGS members and invited speakers to make their way to Exeter.

Some parting thoughts…

The PFGS has grown from a small informal group of UK postgrads to a large international community. In organic terms, it has grown up, left its parents and found its own way in the world. It has had to adapt and mould itself to the funding environment, and con- tinuously strive to prove its relevance and distinctive- ness. In doing so the PFGS has relied on the belief by its members that it is educationally important, and that it provides them with valuable opportunities. Its future will always depend on the membership making this clear to others.

The PFGS itself remains an ethereal being – sum- moned into tangible existence once a year for the col- loquium. Such an existence has benefits – it is mobile and those keen to participate in its organisation are able to do so. It is what they make of it. This should be an empowering message for the attendees of the meetings and especially the organisers, whose tradi- tional duty is to oversee the succession to the planners of the next meeting. However the lack of institutional ‘ownership’ has led to some difficulties – generally relating to the mundane duties such as record keeping and administrating the mailing list. Furthermore the traditional last minute funding uncertainties have in some years delayed plans for the meeting itself, pos- sibly lowering attendance. Nonetheless there is cause to be optimist for the future: the PFGS has benefited tremendously from its funding relationship with the ESRC Genomics Forum, which continues in 2005; a new committee has self-assembled this year, bringing participatory input to an all time high; and the pool grateful of alumni continues to grow.

Michael M. Hopkins

SPRU, University of Sussex



PFGS is coming to the regions!

In the past, the PFGS has ceased to be a virtual community only once a year on the occasion of the annual collo- quium. Now Alison Harvey, the only PFGS member at the University of East Anglia, has proposed that PFGS in- crease its grip on reality by holding one-day regional meetings throughout the year. Above all, this will provide postgraduate students with more opportunities for networking and for meeting others with similar interests. Alison hopes regional get-togethers will be useful for students in departments where there is not a strong focus on social aspects of genomics. Regional meetings will also raise the profile of the PFGS as an organisation with a year round programme of events. She envisages that the regional meetings will take place at centres that have a number of students working on social aspects of genomics, and we hope funding will be available for students to visit the regional centre for the day. Says Alison: “The meeting itself could be organised to coincide with a seminar already taking place at the hosting centre, rounded off by opportunities for postgrads to present their work, a reading group, as well as a meal or session in the local pub.”

For details contact: Alison Harvey, UEA


The ‘Committee’

The PFGS is a network run by students, for students. The vision is to keep things this way. This year a number of us took on some of the tasks that are essential to keep the Forum running. We believe the PFGS needs such a committee. But participation should be open to all, and we propose that a new committee will be formed at this year’s colloquium in Cardiff. Here are some of the objectives we have identified.

– – –

The new committee should further broaden our membership in the UK and make more links in Europe and the rest of the world. This is ambitious but given the online nature of the PFGS, it is realistic.

After two colloquia at ESRC genomics centres – Exeter 2004 and Cardiff 2005 – the 2006 Colloquium might take place at a University not directly associated with the ESRC Genomics Network.

It has also been suggested that one meeting in the next five years should be held on the continent.

Other initiatives are already in the works, like the re- gional meetings and this, hopefully regular newsletter. We’re also hoping to have a PFGS presence at the Cesagen meeting in Amsterdam 2006. And in 2006 a special issue of Science as Culture will feature PFGS papers from the 2003 colloquium at SPRU at the Uni- versity of Sussex.

One further area where we are looking for input is the 2006 colloquium: We imagine there might be several centres and Universities that are interested in hosting the PFGS. So those interested in hosting the next col- loquium should get in touch with Ingrid Holme ( in order to put together a short ‘proposal’. We hope that proposals will be presented in a plenary session in Cardiff to determine where we want to convene in 2006. If we pull this off, we would be really breaking new ground.

Conor Douglas

SATSU, University of York

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: