Synthetic Biology’s Second World

Synthetic Biology’s Second World

Secrecy has long been a part of scientific and innovation practices. Being an ethnographer of laboratories, one occasionally comes up against a barrier of entry to a secret lab or space within a building, protected by intellectual property agreements, military or government contracts. Of course, military science is often conducted in secret, on nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, amongst other things. In his excellent book on ‘Secrecy and Science’, Brian Balmer describes how the Manhattan Project epitomised the way in which scientific secrecy operates at various levels of social organisation:

It was, in fact, an almost unprecedented organisation of not only scientists, but also industry and military. Moreover, a significant feature that accounts for the success of the Manhattan Project is the preoccupation with secrecy at the various sites involved in creating the atomic bomb. Compartmentalisation, telling people information on a strict need-to-know basis, meant only a few people had a complete overview of the project. […] In this manner, efficiency, security, bureaucracy and secrecy all came together at once. (Balmer, 2013: 8)

A poster from the Manhattan Project reminding scientists about the importance of secrecy.

By their nature, it is often the most controversial, risky and ethically dubious research programmes that are conducted in secret, curtained-off from society in order to protect knowledge and technology not only from public scrutiny but also espionage or corporate theft. Thus when we find out that science has been conducted in secret we are generally right to be suspicious, and it should be no surprise that a meeting convened earlier this week, behind closed doors at Harvard, on the prospect of synthesising the human genome, has caused a stir.

Human DNA base pairs

The meeting was convened to discuss the prospects of coordinating a large collaborative venture to follow-up on the Human Genome Project (HGP), that would, over the next decade, seek to construct an entire human genome in a cell line. Currently unfunded but to be prospectively titled ‘HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells’, it is backed by some of the biggest names in the field.

As the New York Times reports the meeting was invite-only and “The nearly 150 attendees were told not to contact the news media or to post on Twitter during the meeting.” In this regard, it would seem that scientists hosting the meeting wanted for the event to be part of what we could conceptualise – following the sociologist, Georg Simmels’ well-known work on secrecy – as synthetic biology’s ‘second world’. As Simmel argued:

Secrecy secures, so to speak, the possibility of a second world alongside of the obvious world, and the latter is most strenuously affected by the former. Every relationship between two individuals or two groups will be characterized by the ratio of secrecy that is involved in it. Even when one of the parties does not notice the secret factor, yet the attitude of the concealer, and consequently the whole relationship, will be modified by it. (Simmel, 1906: 462)

Synbiophobia phobia poster

A second world for synthetic biology is probably quite appealing to scientists working in the field, a space in which they could run-wild with their ideas without the worry of what a supposedly fearful public might think. Synthetic biologists, for the large part, expect the public will be inappropriately scared of developments in the field. This has led to what Claire Marris (2015) calls ‘synbiophobia phobia’ – the fear that scientists have that the public will fear their work.

Synbiophobia phobia might be at the root of the decision to hold the meeting in private, as the organisers likely anticipated public fear at the potential of creating a human genome from scratch. But, as Simmel’s notion reminds us, no matter whether parties kept in the dark find out about the secrets being kept or not, the effect of secrecy is to change the attitude of the concealer and consequently the whole relationship between scientists and civil society.

DARPA Vector Logo.epsContrary to some scientist’s reactions to the media response to the closed meeting, secrecy in synthetic biology isn’t just a fiction created by newspapers and magazines to whip-up a story. The field does have at least the beginnings of a second world, divorced from public scrutiny, then it is almost certainly going to be tied to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has had a keen interest in the field since its fledgling years and has invested tens of millions into synthetic biology under the remit of the Biological Technologies Office.

However, speaking to the NYT, George Church, one of the most prominent advocates of synthetic biology and co-organiser of the Harvard meeting, argued that the event had been misconstrued and that the secrecy was actually about protecting a paper currently under review that, if published, would make the ideas for the project publicly-available and thus transparent. But as the invite read, “We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve.” Whatever the motivation for the closed-doors, invite-only meeting, the effect of concealment might well be the same: it implies that something suspicious is going on.

In this regard, the scientists have shot themselves in the foot. The meeting will worry people, even those who support synthetic biology in general. In fact, one of the most well-known advocates for synthetic biology, Drew Endy, refused to attend and co-authored an open letter criticising the closed meeting. It is only a matter of time until those more critical voices and outright enemies of synthetic biology seize on the secrecy of the meeting as further evidence of untoward ambitions for the field. It would be a mistake, though, to see this as unwarranted fear and ignorance. It has much more to do with the facts of synthetic biology and how it is being developed in relation to corporate interests. As Endy and Zoloth’s (2016: 2) letter argued:

The creation of new human life is one of the last human-associated processes that has not yet been industrialized or fully commodified. It remains an act of faith, joy, and hope. Discussions to synthesize, for the first time, a human genome should not occur in closed rooms.

Two of the common tenets of the emerging frameworks for responsible research and innovation, which has been closely tied to the development of synthetic biology, are the importance of scientific transparency and of deliberative governance processes. The UK Synthetic Biology Roadmap, for example, includes a commitment that the Synthetic Biology Leadership Council should “should provide an exemplar of openness and transparency with two-way stakeholder engagement as a core principle.” (SBRCG, 2012: 32)

Transparancey: More than a window into the lab

But transparency is easier invoked than it is implemented. If scientists are going to take responsible research and innovation seriously, then actually implementing transparency and deliberation is going to be crucial, especially when the choices about such things are immediately within their control, as was the case this week. A second world for synthetic biology might be appealing in principle, but in practice it risks bringing about exactly the kinds of public fears that scientists and engineers worry about.


Balmer, B. (2013) Secrecy and science: A historical sociology of biological and chemical warfare. Surrey: Ashgate.

Marris, C. (2015). The construction of imaginaries of the public as a threat to synthetic biology. Science as Culture24(1), 83-98.

Simmel, G. (1906) The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies. The American Journal of Sociology11(4), 441-498.

SBRCG (2012) A Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK,

Public Perceptions, Knowledge Deficit and Expertise.

This is the third in a series of posts I’m writing about human practices. They are specifically targeted at undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) teams currently working on summer projects to create novel microorganisms.


During past scientific controversies, natural scientists have often sought to convince people from ‘the public’ to trust that they know what they’re doing with science because they’re the experts. They also often seemed to feel that ‘the public’ and the government should just let scientists make decisions on their own because they are the most qualified to judge the science on its own terms. This was a common response, for example, to questions that were asked of scientists about the emergence and use of genetically modified foods, which forms an important background to the contemporary development of synthetic biology. Researchers largely seemed to think that people were frightened of GM foods because they didn’t understand the science. A related idea was that this ‘public ignorance’ of the science could be somehow cured if we educated people about GM technologies. In this regard, scientists assumed the main problem was a ‘knowledge deficit’ in public understanding of science, which meant that public perceptions of science were skewed and inappropriate but could be changed by better education and ‘outreach’.  So scientists set about telling people about the GM work they were doing, hoping to calm ‘the public’ fears by providing knowledge.

In iGEM much of the work that teams do in human practices still follows this model. Most teams go out into public spaces like schools, community centres and so forth, to tell people about the work they’re doing. Mostly it is a one way thing, where teams tell people the science and hope that this interests them or at least that it allays some of their fears. One reason for this is that there is a major constraint on human practices work in iGEM. You have very little time to read or explore HP scholarship, and – for the most part – having only studied a single subject at university, most of you will be unfamiliar with the methods and conceptual apparatus used in humanities and social sciences. So it is much easier to adopt these kinds of one-off outreach activities, talk to the public and then get back to the lab, to updating your wiki pages and preparing for the jamboree. After all, there’s no hope of a medal or an award if you haven’t actually got an engineered microbe to present no matter how many people you’ve talked to about your project or how much you’ve learned about social science. So the priorities of iGEM teams are set-up in part by the medal criteria.

So what’s the point of engaging with ‘the public’ in iGEM human practices or in synthetic biology more generally? Before I approach that question I first want to dwell on this phrase for a paragraph or two. ‘The public’ is usually invoked by scientists and iGEM team members alike to indicate the mass of people who are not familiar with the scientific knowledge that they themselves have developed. It implies a uniform group, made of non-scientists. But of course, ‘the public’ isn’t a unitary group. There are all kinds of differences in people’s lives, like gender, race, religion, class, age, education, profession, and so on, that change their experience of the world in ways that have nothing at all to do with whether they have studied genetic engineering or not. This is why social science researchers tend to talk about ‘publics’, in order to imply all those differences and complexities that make up the worlds of human life.

Moreover, scientists themselves are part of publics, since they also have lives that extend beyond the lab, they have concerns outside of academia, and most will have relationships and intimacies that are not part of their professional work. In this regard, scientific developments, innovations, knowledge-making practices and so on are just as important to different individual scientists as they might be to non-scientists. One chemical engineer who has a child with a genetic disease might think quite differently about how we begin to use epigenetics in our organisation of society than might another chemical engineer who doesn’t have children.

Importantly, scientists also comprise a number of different publics because they also have values and perspectives as part of their work. Scientific values and perspectives are part of the practices of different kinds of scientific education and research. So – as I’ve tried to describe in previous posts – these values and ways of thinking are going to be difficult to disentangle or even to see or describe by the scientists who are competent in those practices. Some of these values, for example, consist in a commitment to certain forms of evidence and argument, to certain ways of doing knowledge-making, to ethical principles about life, its meanings and what human beings are about and how we should relate to each other. Scientists also often have beliefs about the roles of science in governance of social life and how expertise should be used. And, much like riding a bike, these assumptions, values and perspectives are just part of how you do it – they’re embodied in how you do the work and how the practices are organised.

In this way, we can begin to see that scientists are also just humans doing a specific kind of practice, namely, synthetic biology in the case of iGEM.

Why talk to publics then? Well, because it will help to explore what it is that you have assumed about your work, its purposes and how the technologies you’re making might be used. Importantly, though, this involves more than just asking people what they think. It means trying to see the significance of practices that you’ve invoked in your iGEM project work and to think critically about how you are intending to change those practices. It also means accepting that there are other forms of expertise that are relevant to changing practices with scientific innovations. The contexts in which innovations are imagined to be used in the future – like how we currently envisage the use of synthetic artemisinin – will involve a number of different people from different publics who will be competent experts in the practices involved in those contexts.

So, for example, imagine you’re designing an organism that will make a kind of sustainable cooking oil. Brilliant – there are lots of ways in which a sustainable cooking oil could be good for the world. But you should also use your human practices to explore how cooking oil is currently used. In what practices does it play a role? Of course, there’s home cooking, there is also restaurant and take-away cooking, there’s military and hospital and other public service cooking. Then there are various practices involved in the manufacture, distribution, marketing and selling of cooking oils that differ according to the practices in which the cooking oil is intended for use. All of these practices may differ across different regions of the world. In home cooking in the UK, for example, the use of oil is loaded with a range of different values and meanings by virtue of how cooking is connected to other practices, including eating, caring for one’s family, being healthy, getting sick, growing older, being in a rush, going to work, and so on and so forth. Your iGEM project might produce a cooking oil that disrupts some of the values and meanings that are embedded in these practices or that implies the adoption of new values and meanings that weren’t a part of these practices previously.

Imagine something as small and seemingly inconsequential as the cooking oil being a slightly different colour. The meanings of the colour might be quite important as part of these practices of cooking, eating and so on. For example in how the colour yellow of most oils has been connected to sunshine, blooming fields and farms, good and bad health, and so forth in their marketing or contestation.

Or imagine if it tastes a bit different. Practices of cooking and eating embed practices of taste. What tastes good and why is complex and not simply a biological phenomenon. In the UK at least there is also the phenomenon of ‘good’ and ‘bad taste’, having to do not only with the flavour of the food but also with what kinds of flavours that different groups of society associate with their lifestyles. So to have good taste is part of being seen as a competent member of the social group and forms a part of one’s expertise as a member of that group. Good taste is very much affected by class, ethnicity, and age. What counts as good taste in a working class, white household in urban London might be quite different to a middle class, Afro-Caribbean household in rural Kent. So what might be acceptable as a change in the colour or taste of cooking oil for these families might be quite different because the kinds of flavours and ways of cooking that the oil is involved in might differ. Moreover, cooking for one’s family is rife with important values that are embedded in how we live and organise our relationships with each other. How we use food might be different in the context of being a new father tasked with taking care of a child’s health, or in working at a hospital canteen trying to keep people happy and letting them still have their own choices, or in a mother appeasing a bossy teenager going through adolescence. People might have a problem with a GM cooking oil for reasons that have nothing to do with not ‘understanding the science’ and everything to do with their very detailed, situated and embodied understandings of health, taste, family, care and so on. Publics are multifarious and complex because practices are multifarious and complex. How we make sense of people’s reactions to scientific developments has to take into consideration the expertise that these people use in their practices and how this shapes the values and meanings placed on scientific change.

Much of the time, scientists of most varieties spend their time developing more and more specialised knowledge about a number of topics and so becoming far more expert in a smaller number of practices. Just like most professionals. Good lawyers, chefs, teachers, pilots, mothers, fathers, hairdressers, doctors, painters and decorators all become experts in sets of practices that affect the way that they think about the world. Our values and perspectives are tied to the practices in which we live and in which we have become expert. And when scientists seek to change something about our practices, like introducing a new product into the practice, there are many features to how we make sense of this proposed change that have very little to do with a knowledge deficit in molecular biology and more to do with our differences in expertise.

Talking to publics, then, has to be about understanding the human practices that are involved with the kinds of products that you’re envisioning in your iGEM work. Although you’re experts in science and in iGEM you might well be novices in growing crops, selling farm produce, distribution, marketing, managing a retail chain, cooking, being a parent, feeding a family, being a Buddhist, and so on and so forth. You’ll need lots of methods and concepts that don’t exist in synthetic biology in order to be able to understand these forms of expertise and relate them to your work. Human practices is about exploring these worlds and practices and trying to make sense of how your products and envisaged changes to the world will be made sense of. Investigating the human practices bound up with your proposed innovations should help you to critically think about and so possibly change how you design and construct those innovations. In this regard, human practices should be about your knowledge deficit, and not that of ‘the public’.


In a future post I’ll begin to discuss some of the methods that you might use to do human practices in a way that is more conducive to this kind of analysis and that goes beyond outreach and public understanding.