What is Human Practices?
"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your
— Peter Carr, Director of Judging
Using synthetic biology to address real-world problems requires thoughtful engagement with the world. In iGEM, we call this engagement Human Practices. We ask every team to think deeply and creatively about whether their project is responsible and good for the world.
Human Practices is not any specific activity or set of activities. While the most successful iGEM teams (see Exemplary Projects) will engage with Human Practices issues throughout their project lifecycle, this engagement can take many shapes, reflecting the diverse contexts and intentions of iGEM projects.
Connecting your project to the wider world
Your team should aim to to interrogate and demonstrate how your iGEM project connects to the wider world. Creating feedback loops between your synthetic biology project and the world in which it exists involves Reflection, Responsibility and Responsiveness. Below are some questions to help you get started.
Think carefully about your inspirations and goals. Remember to reflect throughout your project and not just at the start or the end!
- What values—environmental, social, moral, scientific, or other—inspired your project?
- How did you decide which needs or values to prioritize in your design? What compromises did you choose to make and why?
- Did you reach your initial goals or did you have to adjust them?
- How does your approach compare to alternative solutions to the same or similar problems, including approaches outside of synthetic biology and biotechnology?
Do your work in a way that reflects iGEM values like respect, honesty, fairness, accountability, community, safety and security. Know the limits of your abilities and realize where, when, and how other people’s knowledge or values should be considered.
- Could your project be misused? Could your team’s solution to one problem create other problems?
- How does the iGEM community expect your team to be safe and responsible, both inside and outside of the lab?
- Which communities will be most interested in or most affected by your project?
- Which communities will be left out or negatively impacted if your project succeeds?
Create and seize opportunities to learn about the world outside the lab, then use that knowledge to re-imagine your innovations to do good. Responsiveness requires ongoing iteration and interaction to continuously improve your approach.
- Which resources or communities should you consult to ensure you are prioritizing appropriate values in the context of your project?
- How might you get feedback on the feasibility and desirability of your approach?
- How can your team “close the loop” between your design and what is desired?
- How can you use your Human Practices work to inform your team’s ethical, technical, safety and/or communication decisions?
The Human Practices Cycle
Before you pick up your first pipette, you should think about Human Practices. Human Practices can be integrated into every step of the iGEM cycle.
These Human Practices activities take many shapes and forms. In addition to the Integrated Human Practices work described here, many teams conduct education and public engagement activities that are not directly related to their iGEM project. You can read more about the difference between Integrated Human Practices and Public Engagement in the Frequently Asked Questions.
Forming a team and choosing your project
Build a diverse team
Get multidisciplinary: consider bringing ethicists, social scientists, designers, law students, and business students onto your team. The 2018 Grand Prize winners, Valencia UPV, were able to develop an advanced bio-printer product in part because of the designers on their team.
Look for real problems to solve. Then explore the communities, institutions, or individuals affected by the problems that you want to work on. Who might benefit from your project? Who might be opposed to it? Begin contacting them to understand your project’s context.
Human Practices is a natural part of the project brainstorming. Think about what impacts you want to have on the world. What activities can you plan to gather evidence about how your work will affect the world? Who has worked on similar ideas before?
Developing your project
Track the results of your Human Practices research in addition to your scientific or mathematical results. If you are collecting feedback from stakeholders, consider how to ensure your results are not biased and document your chosen methods. Consider looking for insights from social science research related to your project.
You may find that other people have concerns about or objections to your project’s goals or the way you plan to achieve them. Take this feedback seriously— it may highlight important technical and social issues that you have missed. For example, when the 2019 Calgary team spoke to stakeholders, they learned that their initial plan to remove chlorophyll from canola oil only addressed a small set of the problems faced by the industry, and expanded their project to impact every stage of canola production.
Close the Loop
How will you close the loop between what is designed and what is desired? Many Exemplary Projects were redesigned after the team considered Human Practices issues. Remember that engaging with stakeholders doesn’t happen in just one event! As you develop your project, and respond to your Human Practices work, you will need to seek clarification and discuss new details.
Presenting your project
What evidence do you have to show that your project is responsible and good for the world? Reflect upon and respond to what you learn outside the lab. Construct evidence-based arguments in support of your team’s safety, ethical, and technical decisions. You can find many well-documented Human Practices efforts linked on the Exemplary Projects page.
Connect and Share
Think about the issues raised by your Human Practices work. What happened to those viewpoints after your first conversation? What about after your project is concluded? As you finish your project, consider not only re-connecting with those that you planned to help in the start, but expanding to new individuals, institutions or communities that may be interested in your work.
Carry It Forward
Carry forward what you’ve learned into new synthetic biology projects! Consult your own experiences as well as iGEMers’ past accomplishments and experiences (hint: you can search all past team wikis!). Document the setbacks you encountered so others can build on all your efforts. Help Human Practices progress in the iGEM community and beyond.
Human Practices involves working with humans
Successful Human Practices work will typically involve interacting with people outside of your team. This could include:
- Informal conversations with professors or other people at your institution
- Structured consultations with communities that might be affected by your work
- Visiting or touring places (industrial, governmental, or otherwise) where your work might have an impact
- Collecting information using a survey and presenting the data before judges
- Public engagement with people who want to know more about synthetic biology
- and much more!
Often, these activities are a form of human subjects research. In doing your research, you should be mindful of how you interact with people outside of your team.
There are two iGEM policies that are directly relevant for human subjects research. One is the No Human Experimentation policy, which prohibits teams from testing their products on humans. The other is the policy on Human Subjects Research, which includes requirements for surveys, interviews and other types of engagements.
Your team must comply with all iGEM policies. Please review the policies closely as you design and conduct your HP work. Check out the Resources page for information on getting started with informed consent, conducting focus groups, writing valid surveys, and more.
We’ve put together this Human Practices hub to help you with your work. You can:
- Read the answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Human Practices.
- Check out exemplary projects from previous years.
- Explore resources that can help guide your thinking.
- Learn about the history of Human Practices in synthetic biology and iGEM.
- Contact the Human Practices committee with any remaining questions!
If you have questions or suggestions please check out the FAQ or email us at humanpractices [AT] igem [DOT] org
We love hearing from teams as they explore the Human Practices issues that arise during their iGEM season. Best of luck with your projects!