Human Practices Beyond The Competition
Human Practices Beyond The Competition
Human Practices in iGEM is at the forefront of an effort to incentivize active reflection among the next generation of biological engineers about what they are doing, why they are doing it, how the world might affect their work, and how their work might affect the world. This effort is an experiment. Each year the iGEM Human Practices committee assesses the program and adapts its approach.
The history of Human Practices in iGEM
Human Practices is a term that may be unfamiliar to you. It was developed by anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett to describe the critical reflection and societal engagement efforts by the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc), a 2006 US government program to kickstart the field of synthetic biology. iGEM was starting around the same time and adopted the term. Since then, iGEM has become the global hub for examining and evolving Human Practices as an approach.
Human Practices (HP) was formally integrated into iGEM in 2008, when it was introduced as a gold medal criterion and special prize. In 2013, a silver medal element of Human Practices was introduced to further recognize the importance of these efforts across all teams. In 2015, the Human Practices special prize was separated into two distinct but related prizes: Best Integrated Human Practices and Best Education & Public Engagement. In 2020, these prizes were further refined with the creation of a separate Best Education Prize and Inclusivity Award.
A broader history of Human Practices
Human Practices is a term not widely used outside iGEM today, but it is closely related to concepts like ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI). We continue to use the term because we think it captures the essence of the reflective, engaged synthetic biologist that we aspire to cultivate at iGEM. To understand why iGEM has embraced this term, it’s useful to survey the recent history of approaches to societal issues within the biosciences.
At the advent of modern molecular biology in the 1970s, researchers recognized that their work was politically and ethically sensitive, and might have unintended biological and environmental effects. In response, they developed the concept of ‘biosafety levels’ to ensure that experiments were conducted in facilities with appropriate safeguards. They also agreed to primarily work with a strain of E.coli with enhanced safety features: K-12.
These researchers changed their practices in response to concerns about their work. Yet developing physical and biological containment systems reinforced the idea that concerns revolved primarily around safety and that risks would be mitigated by creating boundaries between the lab and the world. These early conversations imagined that other political, ethical, and economic considerations would be addressed outside the lab, and at some later point.
In 1990, the Human Genome Project (HGP) provided an opportunity to rethink an approach to broader societal issues in biological research. The project engaged ethicists, legal scholars, and social scientists to address Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications (ELSI) of understanding our human genetic makeup. Their work, however, was organized as a largely separate activity focused on issues downstream of scientific work. In essence, they asked what needed to change in society as a result of new science.
By the time synthetic biology was being conceived in the 2000s, there was a deeper understanding of how decisions in science and engineering shape, and are shaped by, the societies we create. Human Practices within Synberc was designed with the idea that social, political, economic, and ethical aspects of synthetic biology should not be an afterthought of research. Rather, they should be considered from project conception all the way through the innovation process. Synthetic biology is not just science or engineering. It is a practice of building life and the societies and environments that support that life. It is a practice that is intimately human, with all our flaws and virtues. The more we recognize that, the more likely we are to build the lives and the societies we want.
Human Practices in the real world
The iGEM Human Practices community is part of a global effort to chart a course for synthetic biology that is safe, responsible and good for the world. Here are just a few examples of groups outside of iGEM doing Human Practices-related work:
Gene drive researchers are thinking about how to advance their work in ways that are safe and ethical, including working closely with social scientists. They have established technical standards and documented their public engagement efforts, including sharing reflections on on difficulties and failures in engagement.
Initially started as an iGEM project, researchers are developing biosensors to test well water in places like Bangladesh, and have have been working with local communities to understand their needs. As a result, their device has undergone several significant revisions. They are working with regulatory agencies in the US and EU to seek approval.
Groups are examining how synthetic biology relates to international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Researchers have played roles in gathering and interpreting scientific information related to the United Nations convention, engaging with public stakeholders, and serving on expert advisory groups.
Synthetic biology companies are considering their roles and responsibilities to society. They have been taking steps to better understand public concerns through engaging with stakeholders, and articulating and reformulating the rationale for their business decisions. Ginkgo Bioworks (originally a 2004 iGEM team) has even adopted an artist-in-residence program to help broaden their vision.
Researchers are collaborating with artists to develop new types of laboratory environments and practices. Their work is encouraging better understanding and articulation of cultural ideas around scientific knowledge and informed critique of the ethical and cultural issues of the manipulation of life.
Working with people normally well outside your lab can create more responsible science. This happens through collaborations like a bioethicist embedded in a synthetic biology lab, the FBI learning to do outreach to Do-It-Yourself biologists, or researchers working with their counterparts in other countries to co-develop biotechnology investment agendas that respond to local needs.