Human Practices History
Human Practices at iGEM
Understanding synthetic biology as a human practice, not just a product of science, is at the heart of iGEM. 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, and how the world might affect, and be affected by, their work. This effort is an experiment, and each year the iGEM Human Practices committee assesses the program and adapts its approach.
Human Practices (HP) was formally integrated into iGEM in 2008, when it was introduced as a gold medal criteria 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. These prizes celebrate how Human Practices shapes the coupled technical and social elements of synthetic biology respectively. The Best Education & Public Engagement prize evolved in part based on the 2014 Marburg team in which they explored how to make science “visible for the visually impaired”. This prize enables teams to develop new and innovative education and engagement activities that do not directly integrate back into their own projects. The term Human Practices was first introduced by investigators of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc). Since then, iGEM has become the global hub for examining and evolving this approach. You can read more about the evolution of Human Practices below.
The Evolution of Human Practices
Conducting experiments often involves trying to isolate variables behind phenomena that we want to understand or create in the world. This isolation is never fully realized in practice. There are always unknown variables. There are also social, political, and economic factors that shape what questions are asked, how the results are shared, and who has money and resources to pursue work. We are continually learning how to respond to these kinds of considerations. Human Practices is iGEM’s effort to integrate them into the practice of synthetic biology.
Human Practices is a term that may be unfamiliar to you. The term was developed by anthropologists Paul Rabinow and Gaymon Bennett to describe societal engagement efforts developed within a major US government program to kickstart the field of synthetic biology - the National Science Foundation-supported Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Consortium (Synberc). 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 developed a strain of E.coli with enhanced safety features.
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.
The term ‘human practice’ is not used widely 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.