Integrated Human Practices
Science does not and should not exist in isolation. In the process of realizing our project, we had numerous conversations with both beta- and social scientists. These influences helped us reflect on the impact our project may have on society and made us more aware of the thoughts people might have on our project. We implemented every piece of advice both in our project design and our human practices work. Here, you can see what influenced us and to what these different influences led.
In collaboration with Synenergene, we created a futuristic magazine depicting what the world could look like in 2030 if our project is followed up on. Synenergene is a four year program to promote the dialogue about the future of synthetic biology between relevant stakeholders, contributing to responsible research and innovation. Synenergene partners, including the Rathenau institute, are in close collaboration with several iGEM teams from all over the world.
Our collaboration with Synenergene consisted of two assessments: an application scenario and a techno-moral vignette. The assessments were intended to help us evaluate the viability as well as the societal impact of our envisioned product. We chose to combine both in a “Resource from the future”. The Resource is the magazine and news website of students and employees of Wageningen UR, and by writing a Resource from the year 2030, when BeeT will be available on the market, we aimed to bring up ethical issues around synthetic biology in a way that is fun and accessible for the public. At the same time, the magazine served to spread the word in Wageningen about our iGEM project.
Together with the RIVM, we made a movie depicting the safety issues linked to our project. In the Netherlands, the RIVM (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu) is a governmental institute that is concerned with public health and a safe living environment. Part of their work is encouraging discussions about the development of synthetic biology from a policymaker’s perspective, which includes a collaboration with all Dutch iGEM teams since 2014.
For this collaboration, the teams were asked to depict their thoughts and concepts about safe by design in a video, podcast or other representation. We decided to make a movie that shows how safe by design is implemented in our project.
Since the video is in Dutch, we will give you an impression of what we deal with and what we resolve in the video: In contrast to many other synthetic biology applications, BeeT is intended to be used outside the lab: In beehives. Even commercial Beehives are in close contact with nature. To get a better idea of the viability of our idea, and what it is like to request permission to use an engineered microorganism outside of the lab. We looked at the questions that are asked in such a request. After that, we discuss some of these questions that peaked our interest in the movie. Some interesting questions we had not thought about, such as “How can a genetically modified microorganism be recognized among natural relatives?”. Some questions we did not expect, for example, here are a number of questions about how the genetic modification was established. We would expect these questions when talking about the ethics of genetically modified microorganisms, and not necessarily when determining the risks of using it.
Another interesting aspect of the application of synthetic biology is responsibility: If our engineered bacterium would be commercialized, who would be responsible for any adverse effects? In our opinion, scientists are responsible for thoroughly and objectively investigating and reporting possible risks. Companies in turn should monitor whether the technology is sufficiently researched. Companies should also make sure that user manuals are correct and clear to understand, even to people with little experience with comparable technology. Users of the product, the beekeepers in our case, are responsible for using the product in the intended way only and following the user manual provided with the product. Our movie ends with some open questions regarding safe by design, both in general and within our project. Examples are “what should be done to actually realize the insights that are gained by safe by design?” and “should there be more focus on the positive aspects of using a genetically modified microorganism when judging a permission request?”. We don’t know the answer to these questions, but think they are important nevertheless.
Concluding our collaboration with the RIVM, some members of our team, as well as the other dutch iGEM teams attended a meeting organized by the RIVM and the Rathenau institute, with the theme: “Veilig verder met synthetische biologie”, or “Making safe progress in synthetic biology”. During this meeting, researchers, policymakers and policy advisers brainstormed, discussed, and presented their ideas about how synthetic biology should be handled in the future. We gave a short presentation about the topic of our project and how we integrated “safe by design” through toxin specificity, controlled expression of the toxin and confinement of our product to the beehive. During a short information market, we:
- Got to talk more in depth with people who were interested.
- Presented the movie we made for the RIVM.
- Made the "Resource from the future" in collaboration with Synenergene.
We learned a lot from the talks about further handling safety in synthetic biology both from a political and a societal point of view. An interesting point that comes to mind was made by a speaker about how feelings of the public concerning synthetic biology can be a useful source of questions on the ethical aspects of our work. She also mentioned how art can be used to connect people to synthetic biology and how in return art can give the emotional concerns a voice, as scientists might oppress these. In our project, we tried to achieve this through collaborating with the Design Academy Eindhoven. Besides, it was nice to get to know more about how the other dutch iGEM teams handled the RIVM assignment. We thank the RIVM and the Rathenau institute for inviting us, it was an inspiring day!
In short, we learned a lot from collaborating both with the RIVM and the Rathenau institute/Synenergene. When starting iGEM, safety and containment of our engineered bacterium were just “Things that need to be considered in order to perform well in the iGEM competition”. The RIVM and Synenergene assignments helped us to think more in depth about different safety aspects and our own opinions about it. Biosafety of BeeT was always a major part of our project, with over half of the team members working on some safety aspect, but these meetings really showed us a different side of it.
Design Academy Eindhoven
As noted above, on one conference, a speaker stated that in order to make science accessible for everyone, art is essential. We integrated this piece of advice very thoroughly during our iGEM project.
After getting to know students from the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) on a sunbio conference, we met several times with some design students and talked both about science and art in general, but also about our iGEM project and their design projects. Doing this, one of the students gave us the opportunity to have a “real life bee experience”. The aim of this project was to study group dynamics, stress, and teamwork. The task was to prepare a dish (Baklava) like bees would do it.
The outcome can be seen here. During this project, we learned a lot about how our team works together. It primed us to think about our own group dynamics and also how a competition like iGEM affects us as a team. Moreover, by exchanging with the design students, a lot of issues concerning our project – such as perception in the society and communication issues – came up. We noticed that the depth of our project is not easily accessible to everyone. Therefore, to improve that, we tried to incorporate a lot of art and graphics in our project. This can be seen in our general approach towards presenting our project on our wiki. Not only do we have a graphical overview. We also present each topic’s main points in a short comic. In this way, everyone who is interested can grasp the essence of our project without having to understand the in depth explanations given on the project pages. To have a look at an example, see our overview.
One of the first steps we took apart from scientific work, was approaching the university’s communication strategy expert Bob Mulder. As our project aims at developing a product that is applied outside of the lab and that is crucial for saving honey bees and therefore affecting the whole world, we wanted to make sure there is no miscommunication and no room for misinterpretations in our project. Bob Mulder advised us on how to best approach sensitive topics such as GMOs. We used his advice and constantly kept in touch with him about our public appearance. His advice was also needed when talking to the Dutch beekeepers’ association.
Dutch Beekeeper’s Association
For a successful design of our project, the input of real beekeepers was crucial. Yet, as a lot of beekeepers are hobbyists and non scientific, approaching them was rather challenging. Like a lot of people, the beekeepers showed to be wary when hearing about our plan to design a product to be applied inside of hives containing GMOs. Nevertheless, using Bob Mulders' strategic advice, we got the beekeepers to listen to us and give us advice on our project.
To wrap it up, here is in short who and what influenced us and the process during our project and how we implemented this.
- Synenergene gave us the opportunity to explore the impact our project might have on society. They also assisted us in thinking about responsibility in science.
- The RIVM made us think about the importance of safety in synbio. This led to a change in our mindset. From “safety is demanded” to “safety is important”.
- Bob Mulder, strategic communication adviser pointed out how we and our statements can be perceived by the public. This helped us adapt our communication strategies based on our partners.
- Students from the DAE had a crucial role in sharing their thoughts on synbio with us. They inspired us to think about our project in a broader sense than just scientific.
- The Dutch Beekeeper’s Association did not like our project in the beginning, due to fear of ecological changes. This led us to work on the way we present and explain our project.