5 October, 2012
On 25th September, the UCL iGEM team organised an event that was dedicated to demonstrating their work with the Biohacking enthusiasts at the London Hackspace, on the rights and risks on public participation in developing a biobrick. The event raised some fundamental questions about ethics and limits of citizen science, but first, some jargon entanglement is required.
Biobricks are segments of DNA that perform a specific function, been identified and submitted to a repository so other researchers can use them. They are being used in synthetic biology (synthbio) where an engineering approach is being used to construct genetically modified organisms. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is encouraging undergraduate students to develop biobricks and learn about synthbio. This year, the UCL iGEM team is focusing on finding ways to clean the oceans .
The London Hackspace is a place where people with various technical interests come to explore a wide range of technological experimentation through making them and trying them in different ways. This ranges from carpentry and laser cutting of metal and plastic, to computing and electronics. The members decide for themselves what topic they want to explore and how to go about doing that. A subgroup of the hackspace decided to focus on biohacking – the DIY version of synthbio. And this is where things get interesting from citizen science perspective. The group decided that they will focus on creating a biobrick which will act as ‘antifreeze’ for bacteria so it can survive in lower temperature environment, and started experimenting.
The link between UCL students and the hackspace members developed by sharing expertise of how to handle genetic experiments and the goal of creating an official biobrick that was created with significant public input. Generally, there are restrictions on who is allowed to submit them and they are not open to the public.
By attending the event and talking to people that were involved in the project, it transpires that this is a challenging example of citizen science. It opens up many ethical, practical and theoretical challenges and questions.
First, unlike the use of electronics or smartphones, interacting with a ‘wet laboratory’ involved many tacit skills and knowledge which are not easily recorded in the literature and are passed from one experienced user of the lab to another. How should these skills taught and should it be opened to amateur or hobbyists? Is it better to ensure that people are competent or is it better to have it as a barrier to entry?
Second, because a lot of the risks are not always visible to the naked eye and other senses, accidents with material that can be dangerous can happen. At the same time, the biohackers are concerned about these aspects and reported to be more attuned then some of the students, although accidents can happen out of lack of knowledge. Is it just an issue that they are taking a risk or should strong regulations apply?
Thirdly, synthbio is fairly much in the forefront of science – so side effects, risks, applications and policy decisions are open. Should that be a space where citizen scientists experiment and try in their kitchens?
There are many more questions and queries that this case is opening – but it was also an enjoyable and fascinating evening.
The London Citizen Cyberscience Summit ran in the middle of February, from 16th (Thursday) to 18th (Saturday). It marked the launch of the UCL Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group, while providing an opportunity for people who are interested in different aspects of citizen science to come together, discuss, share ideas, consider joint projects and learn from other people. The original idea for the summit, when the first organisational meeting took place in October last year, was to set a programme that would include academics who research citizen science or develop citizen science projects; practitioners and enthusiasts who are developing technologies for citizen science activities; and people who are actively engaged in citizen science.Therefore, we included a mix of talks, workshops and hack days and started approaching speakers who would cover the range of interests, backgrounds and knowledge.
The announcement about the summit came out only in late December, so it was somewhat surprising to see the level of interest in the topic of citizen science. Considering that the previous summit, in 2010, attracted about 60 or 70 participants, it was pleasing to see that the second summit attracted more than 170 people.
To read about what happened in the summit there is plenty of material online. Nature news reported it as ‘Citizen science goes extreme‘. The New Scientist blog post discussed the ‘Intelligent Maps’ project of ExCiteS in ‘Interactive maps help pygmy tribes fight back‘, which was also covered by the BBC World Service Newshour programme (around 50 minutes in) and the Canadian CBC Science Shift programme. Le Monde also reported on ‘Un laboratoire de l’extrême‘.
Another report in New Scientist focused on the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) development of a thermal flashlight in ‘Thermal flashlight “paints” cold rooms with colour‘. The China Dialogue ‘Scientists and Citizens‘ provided a broader review of the summit.
In terms of blogs, there are summaries on the GridCast blog (including some video interviews), and a summary by one of the speakers, Andrea Wiggins, of day 1, day 2 and day 3. Nicola Triscott from the Arts Catalyst provides another account of the summit and her Arctic Perspective Initiative linkage. Another participant, Célya Gruson-Daniel, discussed the summit in French at MyScienceWork, which also provided a collection of social media from the first day at http://storify.com/mysciencework/london-citizen-cyberscience-summit-16-18th-februar.
The talks are available to view again on the LiveStream account of ExCiteS at http://www.livestream.com/excites and there are also summaries on the ExCiteS blog http://uclexcites.wordpress.com/ and on the conference site http://cybersciencesummit.org/blog/ . Flickr photos from MyScienceWork and UCL Engineering (where the image on the right is from) are also available.
For me, several highlights of the conference included the impromptu integration of different projects during the summit. Ellie D’Hondt and Matthias Stevens from BrusSense and NoiseTube used the opportunity of the PLOTS balloon mapping demonstration to extend it to noise mapping; Darlene Cavalier from SciStarter discussed with the Open Knowledge Foundation people how to use data about citizen science projects; and the people behind Xtribe at the University of Rome considered how their application can be used for Intelligent Maps – all these are synergies, new connections and new experimentation that the summit enabled. The enthusiasm of people who came to the summit contributed significantly to its success (as well as the hard work of the ExCiteS team).
Especially interesting, because of the wide-ranging overview of examples and case studies, is how the activity is conceptualised in different ways across the spectrum of DIY citizen science to structured observations that are managed by professional scientists. This is also apparent in the reports about the summit. I have commented in earlier blog posts about the need to understand citizen science as a different way of producing scientific knowledge. What might be helpful is a clear ‘code of ethics’ or ‘code of conduct’ for scientists who are involved in such projects. As Francois Taddei highlighted in his talk at the summit, there is a need to value the shared learning among all the participants, and not to keep the rigid hierarchies of university academics/public in place. There is also a need to allow for the creativity, exploration and development of ideas that we have seen during the summit to blossom – but only happen when all the sides that are involved in the process are open to such a process.