Human Practices: going beyond the lab
Using synthetic biology to address real-world problems requires thoughtful engagement with the world. In iGEM, we call this engagement Human Practices: thinking deeply and creatively about whether a synthetic biology project is responsible and good for the world.
An introduction to Human Practices, by members of the iGEM Human Practices Committee.
Reflection, Responsibility, and Responsiveness
Creating feedback loops between a synthetic biology project and the world in which it exists involves Reflection, Responsibility and Responsiveness. What do we mean by these?
Reflection invites you to carefully think through your inspirations and your goals. What values—environmental, social, moral, scientific, or other—inspired your project? Did you reach your initial goals or did you have to adjust them? Remember to reflect throughout your project and not just at the start or the end!
Responsibility is about doing your work in a way that reflects iGEM values like respect, honesty, fairness, accountability, community, safety and security. It is also about knowing the limits of your powers and realizing where, when, and how others’ knowledge or values should be considered. 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?
Responsiveness is about creating and seizing opportunities to learn about the world outside the lab and using that knowledge to re-imagine your innovations to do good. It is the ongoing process of iteration and interaction to continuously improve your approach. How can you use your Human Practices work to inform your team’s ethical, technical, safety and/or communication decisions?
The latest examples and detailed team instructions can be found on the 2020 Human Practices Hub.
Human Practices take many shapes
Human Practices is not any specific activity or set of activities. While the most successful iGEM teams will deeply engage with Human Practices issues throughout their project lifecycle, this engagement takes many shapes, reflecting the diverse contexts and intentions of iGEM projects.
To respond to this diverse work, iGEM includes judges and committee members from the humanities and social sciences. Teams, too, work with students and advisors from beyond STEM to explore topics concerning ethical, legal, social, economic, biosafety, or biosecurity factors related to their work.
Below are a few recent examples of Human Practices work:
Engaging with stakeholders, users, and other experts
The 2018 RuiaMumbai team continually developed and strengthened their approach through consultation with many experts and stakeholders. For example, they approached paan vendors to identify and target the colour-producing ingredient in paan and also approached concerned agencies and industry to understand preferred product criteria.
Developing new philosophical and ethical insights
The 2019 Wageningen UR team’s ethics investigation addressed concerns about their project’s impact from farm economics to overproliferation of synthetic biology technology. They worked with ethicists to break down the areas of ethics applicable to their project, ultimately acknowledging that their agricultural bacteriophage could not be developed without changes to its design.
Assessing the impact and feasibility of potential products
The Tec-Chihuahua 2019 team carefully delineated every part of the cotton value chain, from the fields to the textile and paper pulp industries, and interviewed large- and small-scale farmers, agricultural workers, government agents and industry experts to map out stakeholders at each link in the chain. The team showed how Human Practices methods can support entrepreneurship.
Researching policies and practices
The SCUT FSE 2017 team collaborated with NPU China 2017 to analyze biosafety laws, regulations and practices in industrial settings across China, the EU and the US. The teams also analyzed the safety concerns identified by 2016 iGEM gold medal winners. SCUT FSE summarized their research and findings in a report on their wiki.
Designing or documenting new frameworks and tools
The Heidelberg 2017 team not only recognized and flagged safety issues associated with the methods of directed evolution in their project but also went further, developing a software tool in consultation with experts in data processing and data safety, that would scan input sequences for potential hazards.
Enabling equal opportunity in scientific practice
The Georgia State University 2017 team interacted with hearing impaired students and professionals, seeking greater understanding of how such students experience the laboratory and communicate. The team then integrated these lessons into their lab practice, exploring and implementing protocols to make their lab more accessible to all students.
Human Practices are always evolving
With each passing year, iGEMers consistently push the boundaries of synthetic biology, which in turn presents new Human Practices challenges. Teams must develop new skills and methods to understand how evolving technical capabilities will fit into the world. As Human Practices advances, so does our ability to solve societal problems with the help of synthetic biology.