Human Practices/FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

On this page you will find frequently asked questions about: integrated Human Practices, what counts as Human Practices, and how to do Human Practices

Judges asking questions at the 2018 Giant Jamboree.

On Integrated Human Practices

What does it mean for Human Practices to be "integrated"?

Your team’s Human Practices work is “integrated” when you go beyond just considering whether your project is responsible and good for the world, but also demonstrate how you respond to your Human Practices reflections, research, and/or engagement. Use the design/build/test/learn cycle of engineering as a model and show us how social feedback or investigation has informed your process.

There are many ways you could respond to your Human Practices, such as:

  • planning a different application than what you’d originally intended (e.g. Calgary 2019 realizing that synthetic biology could impact every stage of canola production, not just oil processing after stakeholder interviews)
  • updating how end users would interact with your project (e.g. TU Delft 2017 ensuring their diagnostic product could be interpreted with the naked eye)
  • using alternative methods (e.g. deciding to use gene editing techniques rather than recombinant DNA after learning about local regulations on GMOs)
  • choosing a new way to communicate your results (e.g. Marburg 2018 finding ways to express their results for visually-impaired listeners)
  • proposing a regulation or other framework to improve your project’s impact (e.g. suggesting changes to biosecurity DNA screening based on what you learn about non-canonical amino acids)

Any of these responses could be considered “integrating” Human Practices into your project. You can find many more examples on the Exemplary Projects page. If you’re wondering about the difference between the Human Practices criteria for the Gold and Silver medals, you’ll find related guidance on the Medals page.

How important is Integrated Human Practices compared to regular Human Practices?

Integrated Human Practices is just taking your Human Practices work to its logical conclusion, and completing a loop between feedback and project design. When you investigate Human Practices issues related to your project, you should also be asking: what does this mean for how you’re implementing your project? Were you right about who would benefit from your project? Did you discover any concerns about your approach? If you take those questions seriously, and act upon the answers you find, then you will be doing Integrated Human Practices.

Do we have to find a stakeholder to tell us what’s wrong with our project?

No. Changing your project based on stakeholder feedback is one way to show you took your Human Practices work seriously, but there are many kinds of Human Practices work that your team could respond to and integrate into your project. In addition to stakeholder engagement, the Exemplary Projects page includes examples of market assessment, policy analysis, ethical explorations, and many other forms of Integrated Human Practices.

Types of work that count as Human Practices

Does outreach or educational work count as Human Practices?

Not usually. There are many ways for teams to engage with the public that do not count towards the Human Practices medal requirements, and one of the most common mistakes made by iGEM teams is to classify their public outreach or education activities as Human Practices.

This mistake occurs because outreach activities involve exchanges between your team and the public. However, they do not usually lead to an interchange of ideas between your project and society. To be “integrated, your Human Practices work must impact your project’s purpose, design and/or execution.

Although they do not always qualify as Human Practices, education and outreach are important contributions to science in general. To that end, there are special prizes, like the Education prize or the Inclusivity Award, through which your team’s outreach work might be rewarded. These prizes recognize excellent work to establish dialogue with new communities and to engage and involve new people in synthetic biology. You can learn more about these other prizes on the Awards page.

My team got advice from a professor at our university about our project– does this count as Human Practices?

We encourage teams to draw from as much expertise as possible in developing their projects. However, part of the goal of Human Practices at iGEM is to encourage teams to engage with issues that extend beyond the lab and even beyond their institution. While seeking expertise from professors may make up a part of your team’s Human Practices effort, we strongly recommend you also seek out input from more diverse communities.

If we get feedback on our public engagement work, will that count as Integrated Human Practices?

If the feedback from public engagement affects the purpose, design and/or execution of your project, then it counts as Integrated Human Practices. As one example, the public response to an art exhibit run by your team might raise new ethical or societal issues, causing you to refocus your project. As another example, user feedback on an educational hardware or software tool could cause your team to develop a new way to report your synthetic biology work.

If the feedback does not impact the design or execution of your main project idea, it probably won't count as Integrated Human Practices.However, gathering feedback is still important! It will let you develop better public engagement, will allow you to provide good documentation of your Human Practices methods, and could help your team win special prizes such as Best Education, Best Software Tool, or Best Presentation. You can learn more about these other prizes on the Awards page.

My team has an idea for something creative. How do we know if it counts as Human Practices?

Exploring and testing new and creative ideas is something we strongly encourage. We suggest that you take a look at past projects that may have tried similar ideas. If your creative work ties into the design and development of other aspects of your project, it may be considered Integrated Human Practices. If you’re not sure about how to integrate your creative ideas into your project, feel free to contact the Human Practices committee for guidance.

How to do Human Practices

Do we need institutional research ethics approval for our Human Practices work?

That depends on your institution. Only your university’s research ethics board (or equivalent research ethics body) has the authority to decide what counts as human subjects research and what requires a human subjects protocol.

Low-risk activities like some direct stakeholder engagements may be exempt from institutional review. Many institutions don’t count informal conversations as “research” unless they are part of a systematic study (such as a survey) or are intended to create publishable, generalized knowledge.

We expect your team to determine which rules apply, to comply with local regulations on research involving human subjects, and to follow valid scientific survey design. You should review the iGEM policy on Human Subjects Research and the sections of the resources page on informed consent and writing valid surveys.

How can my team connect with people or communities related to our project? Where do we start?

You don’t necessarily need to start by connecting with individual people. You can do a background literature review on the societal aspects of your project, just as you will have done for its scientific aspects. Which research teams, especially in the social sciences, have investigated the problem your team is working on?

If you do want to speak with individuals, you might want to start by contacting local businesses or nonprofits that do work related to your project or with experts whose work you’ve come across in your research. Many people will be happy to speak directly to passionate iGEM team members.

When contacting someone, describe who you are and why you’re reaching out to them. Leave short emails or messages with specific questions, so it’s easy for them to respond if they have a tight schedule. Even if they don’t have time to talk, you can ask them to recommend other people for you to contact.

If you’re struggling, you can write to the Human Practices committee for further advice.

Is my team allowed to work on a controversial project? What kind of Human Practices should we do?

A project might be called controversial for many reasons— maybe you think you’re likely to see sensationalist media coverage of your work, maybe your project is connected to hotly-debated ethical issues. These may be the sort of issues that iGEM teams investigate through their Human Practices work. Whether or not your project idea is controversial doesn’t say much about its value.

However, your team will not be rewarded for seeking out controversy, and you should not pursue an idea simply because it’s controversial. Ask yourself whether you’ve found the best approach: are there other ways to solve the same problems? Teams are expected to document the rationale and process by which they select their project. A decision not to use certain methods or pursue certain ideas is a perfectly valid outcome of your Human Practices work, which you can document on your wiki.

If your team decides to go ahead with a controversial project, ensure you treat high-stakes issues with respect. Remember that iGEM students are ambassadors for the global synthetic biology community; what your team does this year may have a large impact beyond the competition. We also recognize that iGEM is an international community, and issues that are contentious and polarizing in one country or culture may already be settled in another.

How can my team integrate Human Practices into our Foundational Advance project?

Even projects which aim to develop the technical aspects of synthetic biology, rather than apply them to a real-world problem, can have important societal implications. Some examples of Integrated Human Practices in Foundational Advance projects include Marburg 2018, who integrated what they learned from their engagement with visually-impaired high school students to make both their wiki and presentation accessible, and Heidelberg 2017, who developed software to screen DNA sequences produced by their directed evolution algorithms for any potential safety concerns. Your team could also look into issues of intellectual property, or do stakeholder consultations, with members of the scientific community as stakeholders.

What if we want to patent our work?

One of iGEM’s core values is cooperation, which is expressed through the "Get, Give, & Share" philosophy of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, the open documentation of team wikis, and many other aspects of the competition.

That said, we recognize that your team may wish to secure intellectual property protection for your work, perhaps because, like many iGEM teams before you, you intend to start a company based on your work. Intellectual property law varies greatly between countries, and we would encourage you to contact your institution for support in navigating it. Many universities have a Technology Transfer Office- if you have access to one, that's likely a good place to start. You may find the resources offered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, such as country profiles, helpful.

Some previous iGEM teams have documented their thinking about intellectual property, You can read about the TUDelft 2017 and Stockholm 2018 teams applying for EU patents, and the Manchester 2017 team’s write-up on intellectual property and synthetic biology, which also covers their decision to decide not to pursue a patent.