As well spending a few weeks at Arizona State University, my State-side travels this autumn included a trip to Boston for the 2010 iGEM Jamboree. iGEM is a global undergraduate competition in synthetic biology that culminates with a ‘Jamboree’ at MIT every November. The goal for teams entering this competition is to design, build and characterize new genetic circuits that carry out specified functions. To do this, teams must use ‘BioBricks’ from MIT’s Registry of Standard Biological Parts, and must in turn contribute new, characterized biological parts to this open-source community repository.
In 2009 I attended the Jamboree as an observer, interested in what types of projects the students were tackling and how the competition unfolds. This time around, I participated as a judge, which was a very different experience. My job was not to scrutinize the scientific work undertaken by the teams, but to evaluate their contributions to ‘Human Practices’ — one of several types of work a team can undertake in order to qualify for a Gold Medal.
What does ‘Human Practices’ mean, you ask? Good question. This was a topic of constant and at times heated discussion among the ten of us assigned to judge this work. The competition guidelines offer the following description:
“Issues? We've got issues! How will you sell your project if you have to give away the parts? What does your family think about your genetic engineering dreams? Will the world be a safe place if we make biology easy to engineer? How do the lessons of the past inform everybody's discussion going forward? Find a new way to help human civilization consider, guide, and address the impacts of ongoing advances in biotechnology.”
Basically, Human Practices seems to encompass anything that relates to sociological, legal, ethical, economic, or philosophical dimensions of synthetic biology…a huge possible terrain. So, armed with clipboards and snazzy red Judges’ vests, we set out to listen to team presentations, scrutinize their posters, talk to the team members, and evaluate the contents of their wikis for Human Practices contributions. Human Practices is not a mandatory component of iGEM projects, so it was encouraging to see the large number of teams who reported having undertaken such work this year (about 70 out of 128 teams). Broadly speaking, their activities fell into a few main categories:
- Surveys (of widely varying quality!) designed to solicit views about different aspects of synthetic biology (see e.g Penn State, UT-Tokyo);
- Outreach or educational activities, typically designed to promote synthetic biology to different target audiences (e.g. TU Delft’s work);
- User engagement or involvement in the team’s project, to help refine the scientific design process (e.g. Imperial, BCCS-Bristol);
- Speculative design work, to create possible synthetic biology products of the future (e.g. Harvard, Weimar-Heidelberg-Arts);
- Team reflections and exercises to stimulate thinking about issues like the process of project selection, how interdisciplinary teams negotiate language barriers, and what it means to be a synthetic biologist (e.g. Sheffield).
In principle, several of these approaches align well with some of the key research themes of science & technology studies (or STS, one of the cornerstone disciplines across the ESRC Genomics Network) — for example, many STS researchers work on topics such as public engagement with science; the role of users in shaping innovation; and how visions of the future are used to mobilize support and resources for pursuing particular technological trajectories. We are now starting to develop quite deep and subtle understandings of such issues — but I’m not sure how good a job we’re doing at sharing these ideas outside of our own research community. Looking around iGEM, STS ideas about how we might understand the relationship between science and society were largely invisible. At times, it felt as though the great enthusiasm for the cutting-edge science of synthetic biology that pervades iGEM left little scope to ask some of the slightly different, and perhaps sometimes critical, questions that STS researchers are often concerned with.
When talking with iGEM teams during the Jamboree, my questions as a judge tended to focus on issues like why they had chosen their particular Human Practices activity, what they learned from it, and whether they thought it helped them to develop a better project. The answers were often (but not always!) a bit dismaying — it’s as though this part of their work was a box to be ticked, rather than something that they felt could contribute substantively to their technical project or deepen their understanding of the place synthetic biology might have in society. This isn’t to be negative about the idea of having Human Practices as part of iGEM projects — far from it, and some of the teams did truly excellent Human Practices work — but what I’ve come away thinking about is how we can encourage teams to integrate Human Practices into their teams and the projects they choose, rather than treating it as an accessory to their work.
Now, onto to the judges’ verdict: selecting Human Practices winners out of such a diversity of project proved quite a challenge — to give you a sense of how deliberations unfolded, the main judging meeting on Sunday night lasted nearly 5 hours! I can’t disclose details of the judges’ discussions, but it’s safe to say that the UK teams fared very well in the Human Practices rankings. And in fact the UK contingent put in a strong showing more generally, with 3 British teams out of the 6 finalists for the Grand BioBrick trophy. This might be pushing it too far, but I wonder whether the involvement of social scientists with the UK synthetic biology community (through, for example, the UK Synthetic Biology Networks) has some part to play. Can these interactions, which have been developing over at least two years now, lead to more robust Human Practices activities? Might they in fact lead to ‘better’ synthetic biology all-around? This is an empirical question that at this point is difficult to answer with more than anecdotal evidence.
Finally, I’m pleased to report that the Edinburgh iGEM team did very well in this year’s competition, bringing home a Gold Medal as well as a sparkly trophy for the ‘Best Model’ at the competition — well done!