All for Science, Science for All
Guest post by Lauren Ramilo @dimisitque
Biotechnology has advanced rapidly in the past decade. New discoveries and technological advances have made it easier to manipulate living organisms to make new antibiotics or improve agricultural production. The equipment and materials needed for rigorous biological engineering are more affordable than ever, giving rise to publicly-accessible distributed biotechnology.
Some of this distributed biotechnology has found a home in classrooms. High schools offer courses like CRISPR gene editing where students experiment by inserting a gene for fluorescent protein that glows bright green. Science labs are no longer unreplicated and boring experiments that mimic discovery of what is already known, but authentic and kinesthetic experiences. These experiments can also produce real scientific data, especially with partnerships between educators and citizen science projects.
Accessible biotechnology has also started a new revolution in which people refuse to wait for institutions to prioritize and fund the research they seek. People are using biotechnologies to answer their own questions, supported by community DIY labs. These organizations provide safe and educational spaces for individuals to explore biology. This new way of doing science is illustrated by the story of Elodie, who developed a new treatment for her brother’s painful lung condition, pneumothoraxes, in her local DIY lab.
Unease with Biotechnology
Distributing biotechnology was first described in the early 2000s as “outlaw biology” used to criticize corporate biotechnology. Artists used biotech tools and practices to criticize the heavy use of intellectual property rights, lack of transparency, and unmitigated environmental impacts.
Nowadays, the DIY community uses distributed biotechnology to conduct research outside of privatized research and corporate monopolies. The 2010 Biopunk Manifesto tactfully articulates these concerns and calls for open science practices,
“We reject the popular perception that science is only done in million-dollar university, government, or corporate labs; we assert that the right of freedom of inquiry, to do research and pursue understanding under one’s own direction, is as fundamental a right as that of free speech or freedom of religion.”
Institutional biotechnology is also criticized for lacking ethical literacy. Scientists fail to recognize the societal contexts of their research, separating their “technical” work from public opinion. Scientific reflexivity, defined by Cronin (2009) is “the ability of scientists to see themselves and their activities in the social context in which they work, to recognize that their science both affects society and is affected by social processes and to alter their possible course of research in the light of this awareness”. Distributed biotechnology could help remoralize the biotechnology industry by providing the common ground needed for a dialogue between informed scientific citizens and ethical citizen scientists.
Defining New Territory
These new and unprecedented practices call for re-evaluation of how we view and regulate citizen science. Establishing support and regulatory frameworks for safe participation are needed, otherwise these new communities of biotech citizen scientists will dissolve. We must seek out interdisciplinary, educational, and accessible workflows that involve citizen scientists in authentic biotech research. We must call for scientific reflexivity and demand public discourse on science and technology. Science must be democratized if it is to act in society’s best interests.
I believe it is crucial to (1) identify and recognize what has been achieved through the application of citizen science in the field of biotechnology and (2) highlight questions or concerns, especially those related to JEDI, that have been raised by these new practices.
To explore this more, I will be hosting a Twitter event called #CitSciChat. This Q&A-style discussion will invite voices from DIY Biology Labs and Biotech Citizen Science projects to respond to the thoughts and concerns raised by new type of citizen sciences.
Join me on November 12th from 3 P.M to 4 P.M (EST). See the conversation on Twitter with the tag #CitSciChat.
Q1: Would you consider yourself a “citizen scientist” as described in Cronin’s paper? Do you practice scientific reflexivity? Paper: rb.gy/jrlwpx
Q2: What barriers prevent #citsci projects and community labs from acquiring materials/equipment? Do you have any ideas for a solution?
Q3: Does microbial #citsci pose unnecessary risks for participants? How should we mitigate risk? What framework is needed to ensure safety/accountability?
Q4: Does “distributed biotechnology”, defined by Delfanti, welcome the opportunity for malicious misuse? Is this concern warranted? Paper: rb.gy/cmeudd
Q5: Do you view distributed biotechnology as a response to address the historic lack of transparency in industrial biotechnology?
Q6: How do your specific projects contribute to the movement of democratizing science?
Q7: Does your project aim to serve or include groups that have been marginalized in the scientific community? How have you achieved inclusivity/diversity?
Q8: What educational outcomes does your project serve to achieve? How do you value informal participant knowledge?
Q9: What are the “next steps” for microbial #CitSci, in your opinion? What concerns do you have, and what would you like to see?
Q10: Do you have a “success story” you would like to share? What are best practices for involving citizen scientists in #biotech and #microbiology?