Designing reflection at the iGEM Jamboree

Emma Frow

Well, it has been about a month since I returned from the iGEM Jamboree in Boston. Since its humble beginnings in 2004, the Jamboree has outgrown its original venue at MIT and for the past two years has been hosted at the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston. I’ve been involved with iGEM since 2008, when I first helped to advise the University of Edinburgh team. This is my third time attending the iGEM Jamboree as a Judge, and I’m always blown away by the enthusiasm of the students and how polished their presentations are.

igem 2015

iGEM from above at the 2015 Jamboree

The core reason for my involvement with the competition is because it encourages students to tackle issues outside the laboratory. ‘Human Practices’ has been an explicit part of iGEM since 2008. It is broadly defined as “the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work.” Teams are encouraged to consider any broader social, legal, ethical, philosophical, environmental, safety, justice, etc, aspects of their specific project or of synthetic biology more broadly. The Human Practices work pursued by teams often falls into one of the following categories:

  • surveys designed to elicit views about synthetic biology and/or a proposed application,
  • education and outreach activities designed to introduce iGEM and synthetic biology to broader audiences,
  • engagement with stakeholders to help shape the design of their proposed product and the system it is intended to be used in.

Judges have typically rewarded the last approach more frequently than the former two – it’s easier to see what the students themselves are learning with this approach, and in the end there is greater possibility of designing a viable product that may actually benefit its intended user.

As with much of iGEM, the specific Human Practices requirements change over time – and have seen significant flux in the past couple of years. This year the Human Practices prize was split in two, with one prize available for ‘Best Integrated Design’ and another for ‘Best Education and Public Engagement’ project. One possible consequence of these more clearly defined prizes may be to narrow the types of projects teams pursue under Human Practices. Time will tell whether the ambition of winning a prize steers teams more towards integrated design and outreach than broader philosophical or legal investigations.

From an STS perspective, Human Practices could be seen as an experiment in whether and how reflexivity might be introduced into the biological engineering design process. I’m certainly not speaking on iGEM’s behalf with this statement – indeed, I’m not sure this is a core motivation driving their promotion of Human Practices. But from an STS vantage point it is an interesting case study to observe. Building reflexive practitioners in science and engineering seems to be a growing priority for funding councils, as seen for example with the rise of ‘responsible research and innovation’ (RRI) as a funding theme in European synthetic biology (and science & engineering more broadly).

So, does Human Practices work lead to the development of more reflexive iGEMers? This question clearly demands much more structured and systematic investigation than a weekend at iGEM. But I do have a couple of observations – and a question – that I’d like to advance in this blog post. A trend I noticed this year among teams competing for ‘Best Integrated Design’ was that their work was often geared towards seeking affirmation of their existing project or idea, rather than being a more open-ended investigation designed to make their projects stronger. Please note I’m not saying that all teams did this! But, for example, a common approach seemed to be to come up with an idea, and then to approach ‘the public’ (or a sub-section of the public with relevant interests) and ask in very broad terms whether they would like a solution to the general problem identified. Not surprisingly, the typical response to this was “yes, it would be great to have a solution to this problem.” Which was often interpreted by teams as a license to forge ahead with their project, and used during the team’s presentation as evidence of having consulted with stakeholders about their design.

The problem is, the devil is often in the detail. These broad questions can obscure the real challenges in engineering design. Sure, we’d all love to have solutions to problems we face in our daily lives and communities. But, what form these solutions take, how they work, who owns them, who pays for them, and how responsibilities and benefits are distributed, are far trickier questions – and ones with much deeper implications for the design of engineering solutions. Integrated design should be a more iterative and open-ended process. Asking whether there is general support for investing in solving a particular problem is fine, but it represents the very first step – the tip of the iceberg – in terms of actually designing a product and a system that might productively contribute to addressing the problem or need identified. It is not a validation of whatever device might then be developed.

What does all this mean in terms of promoting reflexivity? Reflexivity is not about searching for straightforward validation of one’s ideas. It is about cultivating a mindset of openness and inquiry about how to relate to the world. For iGEM teams, ideally it would be less about promoting a particular solution than about applying one’s talents in response to others’ needs – a mental shift that puts people first, not the technology. The competition format of iGEM encourages teams to present ‘successful’ designs, which doesn’t necessarily facilitate reflexivity. As was visible this year, integrated design was often equated with finding broad support for fixing a general problem. The authority and right to determine what form the solution would take rested firmly in the hands of the students, with little iteration or discussion with stakeholder groups about the specifics. A real practice of integrated design would likely involve students frequently discovering that their initial idea for a device will not work / not be taken up by their intended users / not find a viable market. How do we make this discovery ok to talk about and even celebrate – a step on the road to success, rather than failure in the compressed cycle of iGEM? And then how do we provide them with tools to creatively re-think and re-imagine what could work given their findings? These seem to me to be key challenges for the development of reflexive synthetic biologists.

So my parting question is this: is it a realistic ambition to think that a competition like iGEM can encourage the development of reflexive biological engineers? If so, how might this be fostered within the current competition framework? – acknowledging that it is already very structured and makes huge demands of its student teams. I’d welcome your thoughts on this!


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