Choosing an iGEM Project

iGEM is promoted to undergraduate students as an exciting and playful competition in which you get to create a cool new organism. The jamboree, for example, is organised as a way of performing this enthusiasm, through the way in which trophies and medals are awarded, but also through the parties, and workshops and all the photo opportunities.

Lots of the concepts embedded in the idea of iGEM are borrowed from the world of software engineering and computer gadgetry. Take ‘biohacking’, for example. This set of concepts, ways of thinking, images and so on also relate to certain values of judgement and decision making. Trying to make something ‘cool’ or ‘exciting’ pushes thinking and design in some directions and not others. It influences the choices we make and how we evaluate our work.

Which is cooler? Designing an organism that uses bioluminescence to signal air quality, whilst also removing pollutants from the atmosphere; or making an organism that produces an enzyme involved in the industrial production of paint for ship hulls. They both sound reasonably helpful and there might be a commercial market for each one, but I think most people would say bioluminescence is a bit cooler than ship hulls. But why should science be designing things on the basis of them being cool, or fun, or exciting?

The way the iGEM competition tends to work is to prioritise and celebrate projects not only for their scientific success but for their fun spirit. I am not trying to make a case for or against the notion of fun and excitement as a relevant factor in the judging process or indeed in science more generally. It is just to begin to point out that there are dimensions to the choices that iGEM teams make and the decisions that judges make that are not simply objective. Instead, making choices of this kind involves a range of values and emotions that we tend not to see, and that we often erase from our descriptions of why we chose certain projects over others.

In this regard, I want to remind iGEM teams that the ways in which they choose their projects are laden with values and social features of everyday life that aren’t captured by the usual assumptions about how science and innovation progress.

Indeed, iGEM isn’t all about fun and playfulness. In fact, the fun and playfulness are part of a larger issue: iGEM is often more about demonstrating that synthetic biology as a field is useful itself.

Being useful, being industrially-relevant, solving a problem and so on: these are some of the values that engineers often prize in their work and they have become central to synthetic biology. And perhaps these seem obvious and uncontested.

But in order for synthetic biology to be funded and to distinguish itself from previous forms of genetic engineering, it has had to organise itself directly in relation to making stuff that’s useful to industrial partners.

And hopefully here we can see that there are certain ethical implications. If we just focus on the ideas of being useful and industrially-relevant there are a number of questions we can pose. To whom will the work be useful? To what uses will they put it? Will it be used solely in the ways intended? Why should we make something that is industry relevant in the first place? And which industries do we prioritise? What are the values of those industries? What do they do in the world and with what implications? How do the values of these industries and companies align with your own values?

In this regard it becomes important to think about the specifics of the project you’re considering working on and whether the context of the industry in which you plan to work makes a difference to how the object you produce will be used. Is making something useful for the pharmaceutical industry just the same as making something useful for the agricultural industry, or for the weapons industry, or the space industry?

The common assumption that iGEM teams should make something that is useful is generally attached to making something industrially-relevant. But this embeds a certain relationship between science and industry into the process of choosing a project. Generally, it puts science in the service of industry.

That relationship is not necessary and doesn’t have to be part of how science and engineering work. However, it has become a background assumption in iGEM. It has been embedded into iGEM’s emphasis on demonstrating the relevance and usefulness of synthetic biology. And this plays out in team’s choices.

UCSF’s Sponsors in 2009.

So when you’re thinking about what to focus on for your project, consider why you want to make something for industrial use. What kinds of industry do you want to create things for? Think about how they might use it. Who will gain from this technology and who will lose?

It can be easy to get lost in making your iGEM choices, particularly if there are lots of options and you’re excited about a lot of different ideas. It is of course part of iGEM that you should have fun, but choosing your iGEM project has to be an ethical choice and it is one that you should make explicitly, that you should think about carefully, and that you should talk about with a range of different people before settling on an idea.