A guiding theme which we returned to again and again was the awareness that science does not happen in a vacuum. Science and technology exist within social frameworks – public policy, economics, public opinion, and public acceptance of a new innovation are crucial factors to consider when developing or applying any technology. Even a well researched, well tested product may fail the essential test of “usefulness” if external social factors are disregarded. A product that the public will not accept and use is a poorly designed product.
For a simple example, let us consider the case of a fishing pole. A fishing pole is useful in some cases – at a lake or stream – but useless in other cases – such as in a desert or in a fancy restaurant. Furthermore, a fishing pole will be useless to a vegetarian person who does not believe that it is ethical to catch and eat fish. Additionally, a fishing pole may be used to capture and eat an endangered species of fish, causing harm to the environment. It is important to note that although the minimal set of conditions necessary for which a fishing pole could be successfully used (e.g. presence of fish in an adequately sized body of water) are met in some circumstances, this is no guarantee that it would be appropriate to use the fishing pole in those circumstances. If you pull out a fishing pole at the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium – even if that pole is the best conceived and constructed pole ever – you will be asked to never come back. In none of these cases does the “goodness” or “usefulness” of the fishing pole depend directly on the physical design and composition of the device, or even whether the device functions as intended. Rather, the “goodness” or “usefulness” depends entirely on the context in which the device is used.
In the field of biotechnology, examples abound of intended design features for new products or services that, when implemented, were revealed to be in conflict with the design principles of “goodness” or “usefulness”. One famous example is the design and patenting of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT), better known as “Terminator Genes.” This feature was designed by a seed biotechnology company to prevent transgenic plants from producing fertile offspring in normal agricultural use. This sterility was intended in part to prevent unwanted hybridization between transgenic crops with related, unaltered species in the local environment. This technology had the side-effect, however, of preventing farmers from reusing seeds from previous generations, which is a common practice in many countries. Because this technology was developed without regard to how it would fit into the context of the traditional practices of farmers, it was poorly received. Many accused agricultural biotechnology companies of intentionally taking power away from farmers and pursuing greater profits at any cost. Due to public outcry, this technology was banned in many countries and never commercialized. Despite the ban, the development of this technology contributed to the erosion of public trust in agricultural biotechnology .
Due in part to the previous example, other technologies like it used in different products, and incomplete understanding of the technologies themselves public trust of agricultural biotechnology is very low. According to Pew Research Center, 39% of Americans say that genetically modified (GM) foods are worse for their health, compared to non-GM foods despite any concrete evidence to support this view . Pharmaceutical biotechnology, if anything, has even less public trust. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 51% of Americans have a negative view of pharmaceutical companies, making it one of the least popular industries in the economy . “Big Pharma” and “Big Ag” are boogeymen that roll off the tongues of many Americans. And the stigma is even worse in other parts of the world.
The United States and Europe have very different regulatory frameworks concerning GMO foods. While GM crops have been used widely in the US for many years, they are rare in Europe, where laws are much more restrictive. This legal disparity is also indicative of a cultural disparity. If GM seeds are unpopular in America, they are not tolerated at all in many countries in Europe . Even within western culture, there are very different contexts to be aware of when developing a new tool using biotechnology, and this holds doubly true when considering other cultural contexts.
In the course of our project, we had the opportunity to interact with the Yurok People, a Native American tribe in northern California who had concerns about biotechnology. We found it a fascinating challenge to learn how to navigate a complex web of biological, environmental, cultural, and legal factors in order to create a tool which could potentially be used to help this community using synthetic biology.
We hope that this guide can serve as a human practices case study to aid future iGEM teams in respectful engagement and collaboration with indigenous groups and other communities who may have concerns about biotechnology.
We will first provide an overview of the scientific aspect of our project, so that the reader is aware of our design and so we can refer back to it throughout the case study. Then we will examine the environmental overview of the Klamath River region, where the Yurok Tribe lives, and examine their problem with environmental pollution.
We will then take a closer look at the cultural context of the Yurok Tribe in particular, as well as the overall relationship between indigenous groups and biotechnology. From there we will dive into the political and legislative context, before explaining how we proceeded in light of this information. Lastly, we summarize the lessons that we learned and ways that future iGEM teams can apply these lessons in other communities and contexts.
To read our full case study, please download the PDF above.