Dr Neil Stephens

Dr Neil Stephens

Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology
Senior Lecturer in Technology and Society

Contact details

Address
School of Social Policy
Muirhead Tower
University of Birmingham
Edgbaston
Birmingham
B15 2TT, United Kingdom

Neil (he/him) is a sociologist and Science and Technology Studies scholar. A key focus has been innovation in biotechnology, and he has conducted research about the politics of stem cell science, mitochondrial donation, and cultured meat, among others.

Neil has conducted a diversity of public and policy engagement activities. This includes multiple appearances in newspapers and broadcasts across the world, as well as speaking at events such as the Edinburgh Book Festival and New Scientist Live.

He has an interest in qualitative methods, having published multiple papers on this topic, and is an editorial board member for the journal Qualitative Research.

ORC Profile

Qualifications

PhD in Sociology 2005 (Cardiff University)

Biography

Neil completed his PhD in 2005 at Cardiff University School of Social Sciences. He then continued to work within that department as a researcher within the ESRC Centre for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (Cesagen), where he stayed for the next ten years. Following this, he moved to Brunel University London, where he was awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship to pursue his research on ‘Big Tissue and Society’. Neil moved to Birmingham in 2021 to take up a Senior Lectureship in Technology and Society.

Teaching

Neil teaches on the Sociological Imagination module, among others.

He has previously taught qualitative research methods at MSc, Professional Doctorate, and undergraduate levels, Science and Technology Studies at MSc and undergraduate level, and Medical Sociology, Cultural Sociology and Social Theory at undergraduate level. He has also convened an MSc Tissue Engineering module on social aspects of tissue engineering.

Research

Research interests

  • Innovation in biotechnology
  • Political and cultural aspects of science and technology
  • Qualitative methods

Current projects:

Neil’s current project, Big Tissue and Society (funded by the Wellcome Trust), is an analysis of ‘Big Tissue’: the promise and accomplishment of significant upscale in human and animal tissue production. It recognises Big Tissue as a novel socio-technical practice that crosses multiple sectors (e.g. biomedicine, agriculture, conservation) and has a distinct economics, politics and ethics. The project involves interviewing and engaging with scientists, entrepreneurs, and activists in three case-studies: tissue engineered skin, blood, and meat. The aim is to map and analyse the socio-political context of each case-study in turn, and an accumulative analysis of Big Tissue as a novel overarching category.

Neil has worked on multiple other research projects, many in the sociology of biomedicine. Key interests include:

Robotic Surgery: Neil’s previous project at Brunel University London was a laboratory ethnography of a team developing tools for application in surgical robotics, with a particular focus upon cochlear implant surgery. This work has explored three key themes: (i) the robotics surgery lab as a sensory space in which knowledge production is an embodied practice, (ii) the development of a sociological understanding of robot autonomy in the surgical setting, and (iii) the representation of futures and politics of robotic surgery as found in both surgical robotics conferences and popular cinema.

Mitochondrial Donation: While at Cardiff University in 2015-16, Neil worked with Dr Rebecca Dimond (Cardiff University) to conduct interviews with organisations and individuals active in the policy debate that led to the 2015 legalisation of the mitochondrial donation technique in the UK. The technique uses a form of IVF to remove faulty mitochondria from the germline and prevent subsequent generations of a family inheriting mitochondrial disease. The project mapped the policy activity of key actors in the debate, and resulted in a book published in 2018 titled ‘Legalising Mitochondrial Donation: Enacting ethical futures in UK biomedical politics’.

Stem Cell Science: Neil has conducted multiple projects on stem cell science. During 2005-09 Neil worked with Prof Paul Atkinson and Prof Peter Glasner (Cardiff University) to conduct an ethnography of the UK Stem Cell Bank: an institution that holds all human embryonic stem cell lines that are legal for use in the UK and decides who can use them for what purposes. His work explored the standardisation of both technical and ethical aspects of regulatory practice. During 2011-2014 Neil conducted an ethnography of an interdisciplinary group of stem cell scientists, engineers, physicians, and chemists to understand how interdisciplinary groups operate in practice. In 2014-15 Neil conducted an ethnography with a team of bioinformaticians, biologists, and musicians to explore how sound can be added to bioinformatics software to better facilitate the capturing of cell culturing knowledge.

Cultured Meat: Taking the stem cell work in a novel direction, since 2008 Neil has worked on an ongoing project exploring the social world of meat grown in the laboratory, known as in vitro, cultured, or clean meat. He conducted over 40 interviews with people active in the field and attended key meetings. His work from this time explored how accounts of what cultured meat ‘is’, and what it could accomplish, emerge in parallel with the social worlds it occupies. This programme of work is currently being continued and expanded in Neil’s current Big Tissue and Society project.

Biobanking: In addition to the ethnography of the UK Stem Cell Bank, Neil conducted an interview study with an anonymous biobank during the two year period that the bank closed. This allowed him to produce a distinct analysis of what happens as biobanks close and how the tissue holdings are dispersed. 

Other STS projects Neil has engaged in include an ethnographic study of the March for Science through London in 2017, the accomplishment of Big Data science (specifically in biology), and his PhD (Cardiff University) that explored the social construction of macroeconomic knowledge, specifically the ‘Phillips Curve’ relationship between unemployment and inflation between the 1950s and 1980s.

Outside of STS, Neil has contributed to a major piece of research conducted with Dr Sara Delamont (Cardiff University) on the African-Brazilian martial art/game/fight Capoeira, in an ongoing project since 2004. The team uses UK based Capoeira classes to explore issues of embodiment, teaching, and globalised culture. During this work Neil adopted the role of the embodied ethnographer – doing the basic steps, kicks, and cartwheels, and playing the musical instruments - of Capoeira while Sara Delamont recorded observational fieldnotes. The project was published as a book in 2017 titled ‘Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira’. 

Finally, Neil also has multiple publications on qualitative methods related to his studies in STS, the sociology of biomedicine, and capoeira.

Publications

Recent publications

Book

Stephens, N 2018, Legalising Mitochondrial Donation: Enacting Ethical Futures in UK Biomedical Politics .

Article

Stephens, N & Stephens, P 2021, 'Interdisciplinary projects as an expert-network: analysing team work across biological and physical sciences', Science & Technology Studies. https://doi.org/10.23987/sts.87339

Stephens, N, Vrikki, P, Riesch, H & Martin, O 2021, 'Protesting populist knowledge practices: collective effervescence at the March for Science London', Cultural Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/17499755211033556

Stephens, N, Morrison, M, Martin, P & Hogle, L 2021, 'Spatiotemporal readiness is key to preparing regenerative medicine for the clinic.', Regenerative medicine, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 229-235. https://doi.org/10.2217/rme-2020-0164

Delamont, S & Stephens, N 2021, 'The belts are set out: the batizado as a symbolic welcome to capoeira culture', Ethnography. https://doi.org/10.1177/14661381211035762

Stephens, N & Ellis, M 2020, 'Cellular agriculture in the UK: a review [version 2; peer review: 4 approved]', Wellcome Open Research. https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.15685.2

Stephens, N 2018, 'Acts of omission and commission in the embodied learning of diasporic capoeira and swimming', Qualitative Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794118778614

Stephens, N 2018, 'Analysing the role of virtualisation and visualisation on interdisciplinary knowledge exchange in stem cell research processes', Palgrave Communications. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0126-4

Stephens, N, King, E & Lyall, C 2018, 'Blood, meat, and upscaling tissue engineering: promises, anticipated markets, and performativity in the biomedical and agri-food sectors', BioSocieties, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 368–388. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-017-0072-1

Stephens, N 2018, 'Narrating the First “Three-Parent Baby”: The Initial Press Reactions From the United Kingdom, the United States, and Mexico', Science Communication. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547018772312

Bartlett, A, Lewis, J, Reyes-Galindo, L & Stephens, N 2018, 'The locus of legitimate interpretation in Big Data sciences: Lessons for computational social science from -omic biology and high-energy physics', Big Data & Society, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951718768831

O'Riordan, K, Fotopoulou, A & Stephens, N 2017, 'The first bite: Imaginaries, promotional publics and the laboratory grown burger', Public Understanding of Science, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 148-163. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662516639001

Stephens, N 2010, 'In Vitro Meat: Zombies on the Menu?', SCRITPed: A Journal of Law, Technology & Society. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.2966/scrip.070210.394

Review article

Stephens, N, Di Silvio, L, Dunsford, I, Ellis, M, Glencross, A & Sexton, A 2018, 'Bringing cultured meat to market: technical, socio-political, and regulatory challenges in cellular agriculture', Trends in Food Science & Technology, vol. 78, pp. 155-166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2018.04.010

View all publications in research portal