Goodbye Azodye UCL iGEM 2014

Sociological Imaginations - Reconciling Environmental Discourses

In this section we will look at our project and synthetic biology from a very different perspective. As students of the emerging field of synthetic biology we feel very much drawn towards the science and technology that makes our project possible. However, as scientists in the making we are part of a society which means that this project also provides us with the opportunity to reflect on how our work affects and is affected by the social and ecological environment in which we work. We therefore have to imagine how our current and future societies would go about dealing with the implications of synthetic biology. This kind of reflection has been termed by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills as sociological imagination in order to describe our awareness of how individual experience and the wider society relate to one another (Mills 1959).

Here we will use our sociological imagination to look at how our project can help to conceive a sustainable governance model for synthetic biology. The Goodbye AzoDye Project is instrumental in achieving this because it enables us to explore and examine the dual nature of the technology as synthetic biology promises to be highly beneficial to society while at the same time creating increasing uncertainty in terms of incalculable risks and issues of biosecurity. There are signs that the community of synthetic biologists is prone to be confronted with a potential public controversy revolving around the environmental hazards that their dual-use technology can be perceived to bring to society. At the same time, however, by taking part in the Environment Track of the Giant Jamboree, UCL iGEM 2014 is also engaged with the idea of solving an ecological problem. Hence, a paradox emerges within the team in which discourses of environmental decline - in relation to the misuse of synthetic biology and the problem of azo dye effluents - are forced to coexist with discourses of environmental innovation to solve these problems.

Considering the complex and novel nature of scientific practices in synthetic biology there is a need to look at adapted forms of governance that deal with processes of innovation in a reflexive manner. This is seen as necessary in order to devise policies that can accommodate a sustainable development of the emerging technology within society. Considering the environmental risks to which they are ascribed, policy frameworks ought to engender effective governance that seeks to foster good science, not to hamper it. It also recognises that good science goes hand in hand with open, clear, transparent regulation to ensure both trust and accountability. Another prominent feature of synthetic biology is its ‘cross-borderness’, in addition to the embedded scientific uncertainty. It simultaneously crosses the borders of scientific disciplines, industrial sectors, and geopolitical areas. Considering the transboundary and uncertain nature of this emerging technology it might be interesting to look at how policies are being developed within the framework of transnational governance. Some views support the idea that synthetic biology policies should not only be regulated from a top down perspective through governments, but that non-governmental stakeholders and organisations should be able to engage in self-regulation. The transboundary – and transnational nature of synthetic biology practices makes it pertinent to examine biosecurity and sustainable innovation discourses at the level of transnational governance structures such as iGEM. The latter holds a series of promising characteristics with regard to innovative regulatory frameworks.

Key words: dual-use governance - environmental discourse - ecological modernisation - risk society - UCL iGEM 2014 - sustainability - uncertainty - reflexive modernisation


Facing Duality in Synthetic Biology

Biology is said to bring the greatest innovation in the twenty-first century. With the promise of synthetic biology to design and build biological systems, this innovation appears to not only change science and technology, but even have considerable transformational potential for societies that continue to seek progress. A high-level expert group on new and emerging science and technology within the European Commission specified a total of six domains where biotechnology as a discipline could be strongly affected due to the emergence of synthetic biology: "biomedicine, synthesis of biopharmaceuticals, sustainable chemical industry, environment and energy, and the production of smart materials and biomaterials and counter-bioterrorism measures" (Calvert 2010; European Commission and Directorate General for Research 2005: 13-17; Kelle 2013, 2012). And as these processes of innovation expand, synthetic biology becomes functional in creating highly beneficial applications to society. However, as with many emerging technologies, synthetic biology has the potential to cognate with issues of misuse and risk. Considering that in synthetic biology principles of engineering are brought to biology, safety and security thus come to the fore as relevant topics in designing an appropriate governance structure for emerging technologies (Kelle 2012).

Resulting from this duality between beneficial innovation and harmful outcome surrounding synthetic biology, is therefore a socially constructed dilemma that such a dual-use technology seems to imply (Tucker 2011). This dilemma thus pertains to practices and discourses conveying this dual nature through portrayals that can be both negative and positive depending on the social dispositions held by members of society. Moreover, the dual-use nature of synthetic biology becomes even more salient in instances when its use is set against an environmental backdrop where the technology is perceived as a strategic tool in bioremediation efforts and the development of biofuels, while the inherent characteristics of synthetic biology can cause major concern in terms of the ecological calamities it can induce. Hence, there is a discursive discrepancy that can become rather acute when its technological implications are concerned in relation to the environment (Dryzek 2005, Purnick and Weiss 2009).

It is therefore interesting to take a closer look at how diverging narratives on technology and environment can occur within one iGEM team working on an environmental solution. As part of the competition's Environment Track, the Goodbye AzoDye Project of UCL iGEM 2014 can from that perspective be instrumental in getting a better understanding of the dynamic tension between tackling the problem of textile dyeing process wastewater disposal, and the potential ecological hazards from the technology they are using to solve this problem. However, unlike genetic engineering and the production of genetically modified crops, synthetic biology has not yet been challenged by a widespread public controversy surrounding its scientific practices, mostly due to the general unfamiliarity of the discipline among the wider lay public. As a result, the iGEM competition provides an experimental opportunity to see how opposing discourses develop both internally and externally as teams look at various aspects related to their summer project (Pauwels 2013; Torgersen and Hampel 2012; Tucker 2011).

Anticipatory Socialisation for Sustainable Governance in iGEM

Considering that the iGEM competition urges students of synthetic biology to be comprehensive in the way they deal with in their own technology and their project as a whole, the assumption can be made that the competition and the iGEM framework in general, fosters a context of social learning for students. This implies that the competition can be seen as a form of education for responsible innovation that, in turn, demonstrates some of the qualities that are required to make the governance of synthetic biology viable in terms of managing sustainable innovation. The way the competition is organised shows that within a team and within the context of the competition, spaces are created for the students to think about what they are doing, how it affects society and how they can respond to issues of safety and security while being part of society. Moreover, the competitive elements of iGEM gives students the necessary incentive to practice synthetic biology as a profession to which they can aspire to. The anticipation of fulfilling this objective, as portrayed by the iGEM, shapes the student's expectations of what it means to be a synthetic biologist (Pauwels 2011; Zhang 2013).

Therefore, the competition not only prompts students to reflect on their own scientific efforts and how science is practiced in general, the projects also encourages efforts that can benefit appropriate policy-making and governance for emerging dual-use technologies. In the case of UCL iGEM 2014, the governance implications also pertain to sustainability in response to environmental decline that has already occurred. Coming up with a solution that can subvert ecological controversy also requires an understanding of environmental governance in addition to dealing with the nature of emerging technologies. As such, the Goodbye AzoDye Project can thus act as a clear example of how a politics of environmental knowledge can be highly ambiguous in its discursive practice when confronted with the uncertainty that dual-use technologies bring (Kelle 2013; Lentzos 2012; National Research Council (U.S.) et al. 2009).


In order to gain a better understanding of the challenges related to the sustainable governance of an emerging technology, and synthetic biology in particular, the study in Sociological Imaginations has focussed extensively on the case study method. The singular nature of this method allows the researcher to isolate a specific instance within its wider context in order to explain how social relationships are interwoven in a specific case. Here we have chosen to take a look at our own team, UCL iGEM 2014, so that we are able to see how this team’s work and environmental discourse is related to broader societal developments. In other words, why does the team choose to do the project that they have chosen to do in the light of the characteristics of the times we currently live in? The topic that is developed here involves the ways in which our environments are under the influence of scientific human practice and technological innovations. These are issues that necessitate questions of sustainability as the environmental implications and discourses surrounding the production and application of knowledge imply that there are positive and negative effects of the latter when it comes to the state of the environment. A case study about sustainability research entails therefore a search for models and practices that appear to pave the way to achieve sustainable outcomes. Furthermore, it also means that the researcher has to be engaged with a topic that requires interdisciplinary interaction and processing data that are potentially unfamiliar to the eye of the social scientist. Nevertheless, sustainability research is ultimately about how the social factor interrelates or manifests itself in relation to other spheres, where a variety of disciplines can have differing perspectives on how a solution might be devised. When making an attempt to explore why iGEM and this team can provide an insight in understanding, and thus enhancing sustainable practice and outcomes, it is key to consider the complex (social) world as something that is unmistakeably beyond our control. Regardless whether the use of multiple variables can keep track of intricate changes, these complexities cannot be definitively reduced to the models of social phenomena we seek to create in the meantime (Evans 2011).

In social scientific research, the case study method is often not made explicit when researchers explore its methodological need because a predetermined case implies that the scope of the research is already a given. However, the motivation to answer a carefully constructed question on a sustainability issue, is juxtaposed with the kind of empirical work of a case study that would suffice to answer that question. Its rigour, scientific validity and appropriate use are therefore especially important when it comes to sustainability research considering that the multiple potentialities of actions, influences and outcomes require the simplicity and particularity of a case to demonstrate the scientific validity of the case in question (Evans 2011). A case study delineates the parameters of the subject in which the researcher is interested but does not disclose how it should be executed. To examine and analyse the UCL iGEM team of students or scientists in the making, it is important to actually look at what they do and say as practitioners of sustainability. Therefore, conducting an ethnographic study of this team can uncover some indications ‘about the ways sustainabilities are created, practiced and held to be true. Or they can tell us how the ‘ideal’ versions of sustainable living fail to take hold in the communities to which they affect’ (Enticott 2011: 39).

The ethnographic method in this case study primarily consists of conducting participant observation as a team of UCL iGEM 2014, in which I, the author of Sociological Imaginations takes part in the case study itself while still maintaining a semi-outsider position. The idea of combining ethnography and participant observation came in first instance from an e-mail conversation with previous contestant Sara Aguiton, from the iGEM Paris 2009 team, who demonstrated the use of this method in the iGEM competition of that year. While she primarily applied it to ethical issues, I have attempted to focus on how to use it for sustainability research (Aguiton 2009). Being a participant of the team entails various channels of observation. The team convenes on an almost daily basis during the summer of 2014, usually in the Biosciences Common Room of UCL, initially handling specific issues of the project on specific days of the week. During the month of June, I attended meetings about two times a week to discuss Human Practice topics as they were the most relevant to my work. When I eventually noticed that the level of saturation was reached in the covered topics and themes, I started focussing more on online presence, primarily to the general public. Media such as Facebook – both internal communication and public communication, Twitter, e-mails and plenty of material on the team’s collective Google Drive folder. In addition to the offline and online ethnographic material, I conducted an extensive focus group with ten members of the team with the support of Alberto.

The qualitative data collected from these previous methods subsequently needs to be subjected to a method of analysis. This research will draw on Maarten Hajer’s (2000) conception of discourse analysis to answer the stated research questions through the lens of an environmental controversy. The issue of how synthetic biology is constructed and understood in relation to solving an environmental problem, in this case the leaching of azo dyes into the environment, has to be discussed by considering the contexts, social practices and contents attributed to the discourse. As a consequence, it will constitute a "specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorisations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities" (Hajer 2000: 44). Coherence is here not necessarily seen as a prerequisite to a discourse considering that the complexity and uncertainty of environmental problems usually engender a multitude of possible statements coming from different pockets of knowledge. For instance, synthetic biology for the prevention of azo dye pollution, consists of not only of the dual discourses of innovation versus security, but also of questions regarding its economic and ecological implications, its (bio)ethics, and the sophistication of the technical features (Hajer 2000). For this study, I will consider the UCL iGEM team as an actor that produces a particular discourse within environmental politics. Notwithstanding this specific 'mode of talking', they somehow need to learn to communicate with a wide variety of actors who force them to diversify their discursive practices in order to gain prominence within the iGEM competition. And so this implies that they have to fully engage themselves with their project on a highly 'inter-discursive' level. (Hajer 2000: 46).

  • Anticipatory socialisation: Adopting norms, values, standards and behaviour of a group, which non-members of the group aspire to join. Through social interactions and experience, these individuals learn to take on the role they have yet to assume in order to facilitate their assimilation and eventual participation in the group (Marshall 1998).

  • Black-boxing: Ignoring or not paying attention to the internal workings of a scientific or technological achievement, or as Bruno Latour describes it, "the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become" (Latour 1999).

  • Commodification: Making a commodity out of goods, services, ideas or other entities that are usually not considered as salable things. This concept from Marxist political theory describes a process where market values are attributed to something that did not have such economic or commercial value before, and therefore sometimes replace certain social values.

  • Cross-borderness of synthetic biology:The simultaneous crossing of borders of scientific disciplines, industrial sectors and geopolitical areas. Various difficulties may arise from this as different notions of what knowledge is, come together and encounter various challenges in governance measures.

  • Deskilling synthetic biology: Making synthetic biology more accessible as practitioners do not need some of the skills in molecular biology to work on it. This has given rise to 'Do It Yourself' biology as an expression of citizen or amateur science (Calvert 2013).

  • Discourse: "A specific ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categorisations that are produced, reproduced, and transformed in a particular set of practices and through which meaning is given to physical and social realities" (Hajer 2000: 44)

  • Dual-use technology: Technologies which can be used for more than one goal, usually having both civilian or peaceful purpose and military aims. They imply a dilemma "because it is difficult to prevent their misuse without forgoing beneficial applications. [...] [M]any of the emerging technologies with the potential to do the most good are also capable of the greatest harm" (Tucker 2012 :1).

  • Ecological modernisation: Optimistic theory "that aims to harness the power of human ingenuity for the purposes of harmonising economic advancement with environmental improvement" (Cohen 1997:108; Huber 1985; Jänicke 1985; Simonis 1988).

  • Ethnography: The study of people's actions in everyday contexts, which means that the research takes place in the field. Data collection usually occurs unstructured through participant observation or through informal conversations. The researcher focusses on a small group of people to facalitate in-depth study. The subsequent analysis of the data "involves interpretation of meanings, functions, and consequences of human actions and institutional practices, and how these are implicated in local, and perhaps also wider, contexts. What are produced, for the most part, are verbal descriptions, explanations and theories; quantification and statistical analysis play a subordinate role at most" (Atkinson and Hammersley 2007: 3)

  • External accountability: (for synthetic biology) Accountability to the people outside the community of practising synthetic biologists, whose lives are affected by the implications of the technology. As a social actor, this community provides external accountability by acknowledging that there are concerns from others with regard to their actions within their scientific discipline. Internal accountability, on the other hand, refers to already existing chains of command within an institution (Zhang et al. 2011).

  • Governance: Refers, in its broadest sense, to the various ways and processes in which social life is coordinated. Therefore, alongside markets, networks and hierarchies, conventional governments are one of the modes in which institutions can be involved in governance, meaning that many heterogeneous actors are involved. Hence, the distinction between state and society has blurred so that new ways of governing are introduced, whether is be beyond the territoriality of the nation-state, or networks between government and other entities, or even by making adaptations to the way governments themselves work. The term governance, however, usually denotes how politics became less about governmental mechanisms of 'command and control', and more about procedures of 'consultation and deliberation', which sometimes favours an increasing presence of market mechanisms (Heywood 2002: 6).

  • Ignorance: Knowing that the knowledge is limited in a certain area. It increases with every state of new knowledge.

  • Interdisciplinarity: Combining two or more academic disciplines into one activity, which implies thinking and working across disciplinary boundaries.

  • Late modernity: The continuation of modernity as it is today, which is characterised by the way we have strongly developed into a global society. This is in contrast with the idea that we instead live in postmodern times and therefore have left modernity. Authors of the risk society theory and reflexive modernisation rather believe that modernity still aptly describes the times we currently live in, despite various technological and social changes that have emerged in late modernity.

  • Modernity and modernisation: Modernity refers to the contemporary historical period that is characterised by a rejection of tradition, the emergence of individualism, freedom and formal equality; an optimisitic belief in progress on social, scientific and technological levels; rationalisation and professionalization. The period is preceded by medieval feudalism and makes a transition to capitalism and the market economy, accompanied by industrialisation, urbanisation and secularisation; the development of the nation state and its institutions.

  • Modularity in synthetic biology: The premise that, at the level of nucleic acids, proteins and biochemical pathways, biology can be understood as made out of components that can be functionally separated ans recombined as they possess their own properties regardless of the context that they are put in, much like Lego bricks. In synthetic biology, these modules are made synthetically to fit into a range of different biological circumstances. The principle of modularity helps biological parts to be predictable in their function, making them prone to blackboxing, i.e. not requiring knowledge about how a particular module or biological part has been constructed.

  • Non-knowing: A type of ignorance with "knowledge about what is not known but taking it into account for future planning" (Gross 2010: 68).

  • Open-source biology: Collaborative practices in the biological sciences where tools are made freely available to enable new discoveries to spur innovation.

  • Oversight: Control and surveillance by an external authority, usually the government, in the practices of a certain professional group in society.

  • Professionalization of synthetic biology: A governance strategy for synthetic biology where regulation is combined with the advantages of self-governance so that scientific progress can occur in agreement with public values. This would mean that the synthetic biology community would be given delimited authority over synthetic biology practices, granted by statutory legislation. Practitioners would therefore have to be licensed in order to practice it. The concept makes an attempt to overcome the seeming dichotomy between a self-governing community of synthetic biologists ('bottom-up') and external regulation imposed by government ('top-down') (Weir and Selgelid).

  • Reductionism: A philosophical position which analyses and describes a complex phenomenon as representing a simpler or more fundamental level than the intricacies of the system appear to indicate. According to this position, the complexity of a system can thus be reduced to explanations of its individual constituents.

  • Reflexive modernisation: Process of modernisation that manifest itself in the risk society whereby reform and adaptations of already existing institutions (i.e. politics, science, economy) are essential to accomplish progress. The role of science and technology here is instrumental in re-evaluating such institutions like science itself, as technology is also considered to be the cause of the new hazards in this risk society. Science and technology are thus used in a reflexive manner to manage the risks of technologies developed in the process of modernisation. The adaptations and reforms are hence found in the way science, politics and business operate, thereby generating strategic concepts such as sustainability and precaution with which they can set out a new trajectory. On a political level, this reflexivity has expressed itself through subpolitical forms of non-governmental organisation and new social and environmental movements.

  • Risk: A situation of uncertainty in which some of the possible outcomes involves an undesirable outcome. In this case, the way a system operates and behaves is well-known so that one can anticipate the outcome and quantify the distribution of risk probabilities. As a result, assessing risk can be calculated objectively and rationally under conditions of controlled uncertainty (Gross 2010: 61).

  • Risk society: A society increasingly preoccupied with the distribution of (technological) risks, and "dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself" (Beck 1992:21). These risks differ from other times because "(1) they are undetectable by direct human sensory perception; (2) they are capable of transcending generations; (3) they exceed the capacity of current mechanisms for compensating victims" (Cohen 1997: 107) a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself.

  • Self-governance and self-regulation: A people or group that is able to autonomously exercise all of the necessary functions of power without intervention from any other authority. This bottom-up approach excludes other social actors from controlling future scientific practices, which motivates the criticism that self-governance goes against democratic principles.

  • Socialisation: The process of learning throughout life in which norms, values, customs and ideologies are inherited and disseminated so that individuals acquire the necessary skills and habits to participate in society. The result is that socialisation makes sure that there is contuinity in the cultural and social configurations of a society.

  • Sociology: The study of the origins, development, structure, functioning and organisation of social relationships and institutions in society. It is a scientific attempt to understand social agency in order to make (causal) explanations about social order and the effects of and changes in social relationships using empirical research methods and critical analysis.

  • Subpolitics: Expression of political modernisation where new stakeholders emerge and take on roles of leadership to drive institutional reform. This is especially the case in environmental governance where environmental movements, non-governmental organisations, businesses, and other stakeholders are increasingly present in political decision-making of environmental policy.

  • Tacit knowledge: Knowledge that is highly implicit when transferring it from one person to another, making it more difficult to acquire this knowledge. It cannot just be learned by written or verbal communication, but often requires (intensive) practice and/or talent. In the case of synthetic biology, it usually requires years of training to use a certain skill to complete a complex task in molecular biology or biotechnology. Because of the deskilling trend, the necessary tacit knowledge is considerably reduced making it more accessible for non-experts.

  • Technologies of hubris: The over-reliance on science and technology in the innovation policy agenda where aspects of uncertainty are excluded from analysis. This concept is in contrast with technologies of humility where unforeseeable consequences and social implications are taken into account (Maynard 2008).

  • Transnationalism: The contemporary evolution of greater interconnectivity between nations of people accompanied by the receding significance of nation states on a economic and social level.

  • Uncertainty: "A situation in which, given current knowledge, there are multiple possible future outcomes" (Gross 2010: 3).

  • Upstream: "Public participation before significant research and development has taken place and before establishment of firm public attitudes or social representations about an issue" (Pidgeon and Rogers-Hayden 2007: 191)

Conceptual Framework: The Governance Challenges of Synthetic Biology

What is often characteristic of new and emerging technologies and their associated governance measures is that they show a higher degree of scientific uncertainty, and appear to cross various borders. This is what Zhang et al. (2011) have pointed out to be especially true for synthetic biology as it puts an even stronger emphasis on these governance challenges for modern science. The main reasons for this is that, on the one hand, the uncertainty comes from the lack of predictability and awareness of increasing 'non-knowing' with regard to the technology, and on the other hand, the 'cross-borderness' related to various interconnecting aspects of synthetic biology (Zhang et al 2011).

At the core of assessing synthetic biology as a discipline which involves scientific uncertainty is the premise that this new and emerging technology is still at the beginning stage of trying to understand how things actually work and how they will affect society. This is a factor that needs to be taken into account since it implies that talking about synthetic biology in terms of risk is still something that is out of reach as risks are about having the necessary knowledge and tools to actually determine how great the risk is. To do this for synthetic biology cannot yet be done with full certainty considering that its scientific practices possess certain properties that make the calculability of risks considerably more difficult. Making a prediction of how a synthetic microorganism would behave does not become more manageable even if a new genetic circuit and its parts are well understood. Unforeseen and unintended consequences to health and the environment thus go broader than the concept of risk which cannot even be controlled by research institutions with considerable legitimacy. The issue of governance for synthetic biology therefore is more about "regulating the implications of uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy", rather than regulating what can be known through risk management assessments (Zhang et al. 2011: 8-9).

The uncertainty challenge becomes even greater when synthetic biology is discussed in terms of dual-use implications, where a civilian use of the technology can be translated into military ends. In the life sciences, risk as such already poses a difficult question as self-replicating qualities of biological systems mean that it becomes more difficult to document the exchange of various genetic material. This places the threshold to create biological weaponry at a slightly lower level considering that it becomes a challenge to trace the source of production. Moreover, as the applications of biotechnology becomes more widespread, the scale at which policy mechanisms need to hold perpetrators accountable become difficult to oversee. Furthermore, in order to acquire the skills to practice synthetic biology, one has to overcome a considerable degree of so-called tacit knowledge inherent to the scientific process. A large and heterogeneous group of specialists are required to cooperate and share their skills and experiences in order to make knowledge production possible. This experience is essential to the process because the long time that can be devoted to practice eventually lets the acquired skill be based on intuition rather than a clear set of steps that need to be taken. Such intricate relation between humans and non-humans illustrate how the practicing synthetic biology can be described as a socio-technical assemblage of knowledge production (Tucker 2011).

However, the opposite of this is also true considering that the requirement of tacit knowledge is undermined by a de-skilling trend in synthetic biology. While the former has led to the black-boxing of the scientific process to create synthetic microorganisms, increasingly, with a sufficient amount of basic skills, taking part in the advance of synthetic biology nowadays has ceased to be merely exclusive to a specific set of highly trained specialists (Tucker 2011). The reason for this is that the design and fabrication of genetic circuits is realized through the making of modularized components called BioBricks, which are designed and standardized so that they are readily available to different synthetic biologists, and applied for a particular function through the use of fairly basic tools in genetic engineering. Moreover, the provision of these BioBricks works via the centrally organized Registry of Standard Biological Parts. The resulting objective is one of more efficient, cheaper, and more predictable ways of doing the work, which ultimately benefits the synthetic biology community. Nevertheless, due to this modularity and de-skilling, non-experts can become sufficiently proficient and thus contribute to technological development as well (Mukunda et al. 2009; Tucker 2011).

The consistency that comes with the standardization of genetic parts and modules therefore brings the dual use of synthetic biology closer to being a reality. Nevertheless, creating novel pathogens remains considerably far from what is practically possible as there are still quite a few operational difficulties left to resolve before a straight line can be drawn from de-skilling to the prevalence of acts of bioterrorism. However, vigilance remains of importance in response to do-it-yourself synthetic biology movements and how-to protocols as misuse by non-state actors, who can now have greater access, cannot be excluded as a problem (Kelle 2012; Tucker 2011). Such non-state actors certainly became more prominent in the aftermath of the Cold War since biosecurity issues were now facilitated by weakening international borders. Many new actors from various geographical levels of organisation emerged during this time in response to this development, which in turn undermined the authority of governments in favour of an emerging governance structure. Especially after the anthrax attacks of 2001, biosecurity gained prominence as an issue through such initiatives as a verification protocol to reinforce the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. When this eventually failed, states now had to start negotiations with non-governmental stakeholders in order to set up agreements on dual-use practices. Nevertheless, the international politics related to dual-use governance remained predominantly based on a state-centred framework (Nightingale and McLeish 2009).

Another challenging property of synthetic biology for governance, then, relates to its interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature. In order for synthetic biology to devise solutions for a plethora of practical problems, the discipline needs a variety of various other disciplines to come together. Synthetic biology, in fact, forms a nexus for biology, chemistry, engineering, computational science, information technology and nanotechnology. It has therefore also been called a converging technology, creating ever greater possibilities for innovation within a highly heterogeous space of scientific knowledge production. Furthermore, besides the crossing of borders relating to political power and scientific disciplines, synthetic biology also urges initiatives to transcend the realms of nation states through an increasingly global and international diffusion of the technology. Progress in synthetic biology has to a greater extent been marked by the efforts of transnational programs which have created a dynamic enabling collaboration between scientists and non-scientists regardless of the geopolitical underpinnings (Pauwels 2011; Tucker 2012; Zhang 2013).

Synthetic biology
Scientific uncertainty Cross-borderness
(disciplinary, organisational, industrial, and national)
Source: Zhang et al. (2011: 15)

In conclusion, all these facets of cross-borderness inherent to synthetic biology question the ways how appropriate governance measures should be devised. In contrast to many other modern sciences, synthetic biology is rather unambiguous in forging synergetic structures considering that the cross-borderness appears to necessitate such an approach. Moreover, the aforementioned uncertainty also affirms the need for alternative governance measures considering that science cannot function anymore as an infallible authority for policy-making as their pursuit for more knowledge usually prompts new scientific questions and new uncertainties (Zhang et al. 2011). Sheila Jasanoff (2003) has called the condition in which scientists are confident to resolve uncertainty with the term technologies of hubris, in which "the unknown, unspecified, and indeterminate aspects of scientific and technological developments remain (...) treated as beyond reckoning, they escape the discipline of analysis" (Jasanoff 2003: 239). The result is that policy-makers are refrained from taking this into account despite that it is inherent to the scientific reality (Zhang et al. 2011). Consequently, "unknown, unspecified and indeterminate" factors are withheld from being the subject of discussion, forcing the debate to close down so that uncertainties persist to be incorrectly defined in terms of risks. This then seemingly perpetuates the idea that potential problems can be rendered calculable and thus manageable (Zhang et al. 2011).

Theoretical Framework: Opposing Paradigms in the Face of Environmental Decline

In order to capture the duality of synthetic biology governance, in terms of its positive and negative discourses in relation to the environment, this study has drawn on two ‘seemingly incompatible’ theories of late-modernity. The theoretical framework which will be discussed here has been proposed by Maurie J. Cohen (1997). It involves an integrative approach to the theories of ecological modernisation and risk society, based on their alternative visions of scientific rationality in post-industrial societies (Cohen 1997). Before discussing both theories within the suggested single framework, it is necessary to give an outline first of how the theories envision the current late modernity in relation to the condition of the environment.

Ecological Modernisation Theory

When it comes to the theory of ecological modernisation, problem-solving strategies to environmental decline is configured through the way the state operates in relation to market forces. It has been framed within the context of modernisation where the market economy is perceived as instrumental in addressing ecological concerns. The state itself has, according to the theory, performed inadequately considering the lack of governmental reform to resolve the environmental crisis. Meanwhile, actors participating in the market economy gained prominence as they were increasingly seen as important contributors to reform. Moreover, one of the central elements of the theory is its positive emphasis on the role of technological innovation to solve environmental problems. As a policy strategy, emerging technologies such as genetic engineering, can help carve out a path towards sustainable outcomes, notwithstanding that certain practices such as genetic modification are being confronted with a form of antipathetic vigilance coming from environmental activists. However, as a discursive theory, it mainly envisions a reformist trajectory for industrial society in which the latter puts these technologies to use and contribute to the greening of production and consumption as a way to render capitalism environmentally sound (Mol and Jänicke 2009).

The success of ecological modernisation depends on the extent to which science, business, governments and moderate environmental advocacy groups can collaborate and continue to do this by reforming institutional configurations so that they can operate at a structural level. The capitalist political economy thus remains fundamentally unaltered but the institutional framework for economic performance takes environmental considerations as an inherent part of its policy actions. This, however, does not mean that the environment becomes the main focus of concern. It is rather about serving the needs and preferences of humans so that society can start developing sustainably without having ecological setbacks hindering progress and modernisation. It is therefore important that the aforementioned collaborating entities of society are motivated by their intentions to serve the public good. As reform is expected from politics, non-governmental actors become also increasingly significant in their connections with governmental action (Dryzek 2005).

Risk Society

While ecological modernisation perceives technology as a predominantly positive, the theory of risk society views technological applications in terms of what it means for the distribution of risk in society. In the era of late modernity, risks tend to be described in relation to the difficulty to detect them while at the same time having a possible effect spanning several generations. This makes it difficult to enforce mechanisms of accountability when the technologies constitute an environmental hazard, either intentionally or unintentionally. As the late-modern society was more and more confronted with the prevalence of ecological crises, or as a potential future threat, environmental hazards and growing uncertainties led to a greater attention to risk as a central policy concept for action. With the unfolding of modernisation itself, attempts have been made to exert control on the perverse ecological effects of industrialisation and rational economic performance measures. Traditional political and scientific institutions were increasingly incapable of providing security and certainty, which in turn, undermined the trust between the public and these institutions which was necessary to restrain lay insecurities in society. The resulting political development instigated a form of so-called subpolitics to redefine how modernity and its institutions shape the way society evolves. For the institution of science this implies the breaking up of the monopoly of expertise that scientists have held. This, then, can contribute to the elimination of reductionist conclusions about how environmental problems should be addressed (Beck 1999; Cohen 1997).

Risk society theorists differentiate between a first modernity and a second or high modernity. The first refers to the classical industrial society while second modernity has been about the modernisation of modernity itself. It has hence become reflexive. In this contemporary times, according to Ulrich Beck, this reflexive modernisation has felt it had to re-evaluate the unquestioned premises of modernity itself and therefore became more aware of the notion that being able to control or even master the world through scientific and technological achievement, was an inaccurate promise to make. As it becomes increasingly impossible to be infallible in delivering predictability in relation to unknown outcomes - another promise that is typically modern - the characteristics of second modernity started to emerge. This high modernity is particularly unpredictable because of specific technological and ecological uncertainties that could potentially harm societies and which are representative of contemporary hazards. Since late twentienth century these concerns have mainly revolved around the unintended consequences of nuclear energy, genetic engineering, new chemical implementations or climate change. In the process of reflexive modernisation, uncertainty is hence perceived as a driving force that steers society (Gross 2010).

Integrating Technological-Environmental Risk and Development

The main objective in this study is to reconcile the theories of risk society with ecological modernisation in order to construct an appropriate governance framework for synthetic biology. A typology created by Maurie Cohen (1997) shows how both theories of modernity interconnect as processes of social change. The result is an integrated framework of technological-environmental risk and development where the ecologically modern society and the risk society are seen as a potential outcome of pathways that are taken in the current modern society. These pathways differ depending on whether society is seen as either leaning towards a secure environment or towards insecurity. Both, however, are perceived to be one of two possible outcomes when modern society continues to develop.

In Cohen’s typology, modern society is demarcated from pre-modern society with the start of the industrial revolution and the end of feudalism through the social reform that resulted from changes in the way the industrial economy was organised. The beginning of this new era was also marked by new hazards introduced by technologies that were not administered sufficiently. As a consequence, the ambition for material production caused considerable harm to the environment as side effect of cost-effective economic thinking. This changed, however, when values of environmental durability gained more importance as a social objective vis-à-vis the efforts achieved by industry. This marked the beginning of ecological modernisation, where growth remains part of a linear projection that builds on the economic rationales of modernity. In this instance, technology is a central element in the process of arriving at that ecologically-modern society. It is a tool to ensure that ecological responsibilities are embraced by society through a series of environmental reforms. The technologies which are used are hence a strong force for optimism in addressing the challenges put forward by environmental problems. However, these reforms also mean that all institutions, modes of behaviour and policies require structural adaptations so that the integrity of the environment can be maintained. These modifications are essential in order to create an ecologically-modern society that is able to guarantee ‘technological-environmental security’ (Cohen 1997: 111).

Although a society may choose to follow a certain path that fits into the process of ecological modernisation, it is not always presented with the conditions that would lead to such an outcome. According to Cohen (1997), the eco-modernist course can be confronted with an alternative trajectory that would lead to a risk society. This, according to risk society theorists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, is in fact the default pathway when the transition to the ecologically-modern society cannot be accomplished. Instead of the positive trend that ecological modernisation theorists prescribe through the transformative means of technology, the risk society becomes the result of industrial technology that is actually causing environmental hazards. These, in turn, engender insecurities among lay people who do not have the same knowledge about the technologies that are used in comparison with those who create and apply them. In the situation where the technology does not seem to be meet expectations set up by economic projections, insecurities appear to aggravate. Equally so, when institutions and their subsequent attempts for reform do not match the nature of the problems they need to tackle, responding to the ecological crisis will only have a marginal effect on the social system in which policies are formulated. Consequentially, fears lead to insecurity out of the inability of expertise to mitigate the uncertainty surrounding certain technologies. These, then, turn into the main driving forces in dealing with environmental hazards. Now, the focus of industrial and environmental policy becomes one of reducing the impact of industrial practices instead of reforming the practice altogether. Eventually, a risk society can self-correct itself by adopting a reflexive attitude toward the technologies and institutions so that society can have the opportunity the rehabilitate. The acceptance of a decline in trust in them hence turns the continuous anxiety from growing uncertainties into an objective to ensure mechanisms of accountability (Cohen 1997).

Chapter 1: Synthetic Biology for Environmental Reform

Seeking Ecological Innovation

Many emerging technologies have often been proclaimed to be paramount when it comes to addressing the impediments to sustainable developments in society. This also applies to synthetic biology as it promises to deliver solutions in wide range of areas that require innovative efforts. The U.S. National Research Council, for example, has indicated that this kind of New Biology has the potential to bring great benefit to society in terms of the sustainable production of food and biofuels, the restoration of ecosystems, and the improvement of human health (National Research Council (U.S.) et al. 2009: 6). There is an ongoing narrative which describes the impact of synthetic biology in revolutionary terms as to how ecological issues are being addressed. This suggests that this narrative follows a discourse of ecological modernisation in the way technological innovation enables society to set out a trajectory for social and environmental change (Mol and Jänicke 2009). Organisers of the iGEM competition hold on to this conceptual premise as well. In his final address to the competitors of iGEM 2013, the President of the iGEM Foundation, Randy Rettberg, compared the future development of synthetic biology with the invention of tools that sparked revolutionary changes throughout the course of history. According to him, during the industrial revolution and information revolution, the machine and the computer respectively have been the cause for these kind of drastic changes. Both technologies, he argues, ‘changed everything’ since energy and information appeared to be ‘a fundamental aspect of nature’. In the light of synthetic biology, he predicts however that ‘the next revolution’ will be ‘about being good at material’ using biological systems as the appropriate tools (iGEM 2013b).

This technological optimism has also been translated into finding solutions for environmental problems as part of the discourse of the iGEM competition. Teams are required to assign their projects to a specific categorical ‘track’ of their choice so that they can “focus […] towards a specific subject area within synthetic biology and […] know who they will compete against for the track award” (iGEM 2014g). As a solution to a specific environmental problem, the Goodbye AzoDye Project of UCL iGEM 2014 has been assigned to the Environment Track, which has been described in terms of “tackl[ing] massive environmental problems [of certain local or regional areas]” by teams that can learn from these problems and become passionate in finding a solution for it. These are the principles that make up a major part of the philosophy of the iGEM competition (iGEM 2014h). Moreover, it is stated in the track description that the health of the environment is directly related to the wellbeing of all life and that this can be enhanced with the help of the biosciences: “The quality of the air, water, and land, both on Earth and other heavenly bodies, limits the happiness of humans and other creatures. Can biotechnology be used to help clean the air, provide fresh drinking water, restore or enhance soil quality, terraform a near-Earth asteroid, or protect, preserve, or enhance natural biological diversity” (iGEM 2014i)? Hence, this view very much corresponds with the way ecological modernisation envisions technology to bring about the necessary interventions to prevent further environmental decline.

Seeking Industrial Innovation

The aim of the project to bring ecological innovation implies to a certain extent a change in industrial practice as well. The selection of the azo dye project was preceded by a process in which team members conceived their own project proposals. By making the project revolve around the issue of azo dye leaching, the team pursues a form of industrial innovation that is indicative of the ecological modernisation framework considering its attempt to match ecological concerns to economic aspirations. Joseph Huber, who is considered to be the founding father of ecological modernisation theory, has coined the rethinking of how industrial production should be realised through advanced technologies, with the term ‘super-industrialisation’. Hence, through various organisational levels, namely the iGEM Foundation and competition, the categorical group of the Environment Track and on the level of the team itself, this discourse of using synthetic biology as a technological instrument for reform becomes rather explicit. This is especially salient as many environmental and energy-related projects are always potential real-life industrial solutions for pressing ecological issues. In many ways, ecological modernisation is primarily instrumental as a discourse for policy-making purposes. However, at its core, the competition itself is in first instance about creating an incentive for future pioneers of science and technology to create clean technologies by using novel methods and approaches in biotechnology (Murphy and Gouldson 2009), or in this case, synthetic biology to enable a green chemistry for industrial dyeing processes.

The industrial innovation that is aimed for in the Goodbye AzoDye Project is in fact purposefully limited to an end-of-pipe solution in the process of textile dyeing in order to prevent the breakdown of azo dyes in leaching waste water into the environment. The proposed solution is therefore characteristic of an eco-modernist solution that is very much typical of environmental policy discourse in the 1970s and 1980s (Mol 1996). This is in contrast with the development of clean technologies and their application in industry so that processes of production are required to be restructured. This, however, implies an expensive investment with a higher degree of complexity to make the change actually happen. Therefore, technologies that are able to control a potentially polluting process without significant structural change, are preferred over others. The choice of the team to meet this cost-benefit analysis made by the textile dye industry can hence be interpreted as a pragmatic choice, demonstrating their affinity with market demands. Furthermore, from a scientific point of view, synthetic biology clearly has the capacity to invent a new dye altogether with the same product-related qualities but without its harmful effects (Murphy and Gouldson 2009). However, delivering such a clean technology lies beyond the given timeframe of the team as it means that a higher level of genetic engineering skills and material would be needed to accomplish it, as indicated by team member Georgia:

"If you build something entirely new, it usually takes years opposed to months to actually get a characterization of, understand a problem enough to actually do something about it. So it's kind of impossible to start from the very very beginning"

The members of the team have been aware of the limits of the product they want to present. While discussing the topic, they also addressed the presumption that, from the environmentalist perspective, one could argue that their own strategy, indeed, does not dispose of the use of the chemical substance that causes mutagenic and carcinogenic activity in the first place. Notwithstanding that they are treating an ecological hazard that originates from industrial activity, team member Adam pointed out this contradiction in their project:

“I think our project is such quite a good example of how our environmentally-based project, that we always have our scientist hats on, [saying] “this is quite a good solution, that’s the best bacteria that can degrade azo dyes”, and the environmentalist would say “you are using azo dyes in the first place, a toxic compound, is there a better alternative we can use in dyeing textiles”? We always kind of forget that there’s more and more to solve a problem”.

The emphasis here lies on the fact that the team acknowledges that their solution does not meet the requirements of the ecologically-modern society. It is also the nature of the problem that adds a constraining factor to how solutions can be devised. Some of the team members illustrated this by making a metaphorical analogy with the medical sciences:

[Tanel] “This is an honest problem where you notice the problem and then you look at it…”
[Adam] “…Are we treating the symptoms of the disease or the disease itself”?
[Georgia] “Yeah, but the disease is just so awesome”.
[Daniel] “The disease is incurable I would say in our case”.

Looking for the better solution which would engender the necessary institutional reform to ‘ecologise’ the economy, is something that all team members evidently would prefer. However, as a matter of pragmatic concern, organisational constraints necessitate an intermediate pathway for UCL iGEM 2014 to solve the azo dye problem, while others would rather say that the nature of the issue is insurmountable:

[Daniel] ‘I mean it would great, it would be fun if natural dyes, even awesome, to stick to clothes very tightly and – but the thing is right now azo dyes are worth 70 per cent of all dye production in textile, cosmetics. They constitute the whole basis of how we understand fashion and cosmetic industry and maybe we should aim to change that, but thing is, the problem is there are right now and I think the chances to reconvert the whole industry are very low so at least we are tackling the problem derived from the use of azo dyes’.

[Philipp] ‘So your argument would be, put simply, there might be a better solution but we shouldn’t wait (…)’.

[Daniel] ‘Not an immediate solution and I think in an immediate timeline, there is a problem that needs to be talked about …’

[Philipp]‘But you were saying is that, okay fair enough, but when you have this immediate solution you might make the search for a better solution’.

[Daniel]‘Yeah, of course’.

[Philipp] ‘It’s a trade-off between those. So otherwise you would make a better solution for such a perfect natural compound, why would anyone care now that azo dyes have been solved? But that’s just a …’

[Edoardo] ‘But when nobody ever talks about azo dyes, the better solution will never be found. The better solution that makes people think “how should we have a better solution”…’

[Yan-Kay] ‘We need to explore our intermediate pathway, else, we can still find a better solution using dyes (…)’.

From a reflexive point of view of risk society theorists, the attempts of the team are about tackling an environmental issue which was produced by the industrial society. Such an attempt can be seen as a way of mending the shortcomings of what would be called a ‘semi-modern’ institution (i.e. technology and business in the context of industrial society) fixed on material production. Moreover, science and technology are perceived here to have adopted the role of ‘guardian and constructor of taboos’ in the sense that agency in the risk society is steered by overly depending on risk analyses and risk management schemes to further a rational train of logic. Instead of putting into question the way traditional scientific rationality is practiced, science is compared to “a washing machine, as a symbolic detoxicator, as a sedative to suppress the worst fears” (Mol and Spaargaren 1993: 441).

Chapter 2: UCL iGEM 2014 in the Risk Society

Goodbye AzoDye: Addressing Environmental Hazards of the Classical Industrial Society

The vision to embrace the merits of technological innovation to enable the process of ecological modernisation, has been the subject of critique by risk society theorists who argue that technological optimism does not appear to be compatible with the urgency of some environmental issues (Mol and Jänicke 2009). In contrast, the risk society would experience scientific and technological achievement above all as being at the root of many latent environmental perversities. The production demands of industrial societies have brought nature into play as the industrial hazards affected the environment. Consequently, additional political effort and economic investments were needed to manage risk while upholding the initial economic activity. The innovation of science therefore also meant that there were unforeseen harmful effects in terms of how this implicated the state of the natural environment (Rutherford 2009).

With the Goodbye AzoDye Project, the team is in fact piecing together a genetically engineered micro-organism that can help to prevent the spread of hazardous wastewater pollution. In the meantime, it brings attention to an environmental problem that is typical for the industrial society in its ongoing quest to strive for further modern development. Nevertheless, the issue of textile dye effluents was only problematized after it was defined and explained in terms of the existence of actual risks related to what was happening. It was only possible to have the problem recognised as such after it was established that there was a connection between the pathogenic activity of the effluents in rivers and their release from that plants from which they originated. The team therefore needed to base the motivations for their project on studies that could demonstrate a correlation between the two. Some of the most salient studies focussed on the case of the textile dye processing plant along the Cristais River near São Paulo, Brazil, where increasing evidence was found linking the azo dye effluents in the industrial wastewater to the mutagenic and carcinogenic properties and effects of the water in the surrounding area of the plant. In the study conducted by Alves de Lima et al. (2007), the effluent was disposed at about 6 km from a drinking water treatment plant where around 60,000 people were exposed to drinking water of which the quality was compromised. The concentrations of effluent in the water (3%) appeared to be highly mutagenic in Salmonella (Alves de Lima et al. 2007; de Aragão Umbuzeiro et al. 2005, 2004).

Hence, in order for the effluent to be considered a risk, the ecological hazard at hand needs to have calculable and predictable qualities. In that way the necessary statistical knowledge can be produced to actually establish the risk through the measurements that have been done. The next step, then, is to develop the appropriate strategy for responsive action to mitigate that risk (Beck 1996; Giddens 1999). The aforementioned studies therefore suggest in their scientific publications that a language of risk is necessary to understand the problem:

"The water used for human consumption presented mutagenic activity related to nitro-aromatics and aromatic amines compounds probably derived from the cited textile processing plant effluent discharge. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the possible risks involved in the human consumption of this contaminated water" (Alves de Lima et al. 2007: 53)

"...human and ecological risks associated with the release of dye processing plant effluents should be more fully investigated, especially where the resultant water is taken for human consumption" (de Aragão Umbuzeiro et al. 2005: 55).

So what is typical of the modern industrial society is that it has created the knowledge in the areas in which a risk is manufactured from statistical inference. This leads to a situation where “the blinkers of individuali[s]ation drop off”, meaning that the emergence of hazardous effects, that harmed an increasing number of individuals, could finally be attributed to a source that posed a threat to a whole group of people. Prior to this, there was no way of explaining why individual cases began to suffer from something that was instigated beyond their knowledge and action. In other words, the prevalence of cancer in the area of the Cristais River ceased to be a matter of accumulating but unrelated individual cases, but could subsequently be explained through the risk that was measured. Team member Georgia also stated that this has been important to uncover an environmental problem without which they as a team would not even have been made aware of an issue they could work on:

“It’s really just because azo dyes have been around for so long, I feel like the problem hasn’t really been discovered enough, because they’ve been there since we’ve started diagnose cancer properly so they’ve kind of like been travelling along this road together and we haven’t even been able to separate them before. Now we are kind of like zooming in on the problem and we can do like “hey, wait, maybe cancer is more prevalent because of the way we’re dealing with these dyes that literally just split into the worst carcinogens we have””.

Participating in the Risk Society with Synthetic Biology

The team’s discourse on the hazards of classic industrial society is of considerable importance because, at the same time, they are also confronted with a public environmental discourse that relates to their use of synthetic biology. However, the nature of the ecological risk pertaining synthetic biology is considerably different from conventional industrial risk. The latter, for instance, is predominantly characterized by threats that mainly manifest themselves on a local level, which makes them clear in the limited scope in which they can have a potentially harmful effect. In the case of the Cristais River, the affected population of the relevant ecological system only concerned those organisms consuming the water of the river. In addition, local industrial pollution is often described in terms of the degree of health or environmental risk that is involved, which in this case means the extent to which there are carcinogenic implications of leaching effluent. Furthermore, in such a case of local industrial pollution, there is a higher probability that drawing a connection between the impact of the risk and the source can be done in a linear and hence easily measurable fashion (Beck 1996).

In contrast to the relatively more straightforward approach required in the Cristais River case, such ‘high-risk’ technologies as synthetic biology, or genetic engineering in general, tend to supersede such clear and localized risks when considering the scope of their impact. Their difference can be so great that authors like Ulrich Beck would portray the implications of something like synthetic biology in an almost apocalyptic manner. One of the reasons for this is that it would, for example, be impossible to trace the origins of synthetically engineered micro-organisms in the open environment, making it difficult to invoke accountability as to who can be held responsible for misusing or even exploiting the technology (Blowers 1997). Another reason is that, with synthetic biology, risks have been rendered incalculable and unpredictable in the risk society”, thus giving leeway to the accumulation of increasing uncertainty (Beck 1996: 160; Cohen 1997). In much the same way, the International Risk Governance Council would assert that the emerging risks related to synthetic biology are still largely underdetermined notwithstanding the possibility of the considerable impact that it might have (IRGC 2010; Zhang et al. 2011).

With regard to the potential large-scale risk factor, Beck (1992a) argues that “science hovers blindly above the boundaries of threats” because “testing comes after application and production precedes research” (Beck 1992a: 108). The logic of scientific research that Beck illustrates shows how safety implications are expected to become known even before the issue can be fully understood. Therefore, scientific experts have taken up the ‘freedom of application’ as inherently part of their scientific liberties to be autonomous in their ability to oversee technological practices (Beck 1999: 61). The myriad of innovative initiatives that stem out of this hence become irrepressible while the accountability for wrongful practice remains unobtainable. This ‘social explosiveness of hazard’ and the increasing prevalence of risks has triggered the emergence of a reflexive fear out of uncertainty and ignorance associated to these risks (Barry 1999; Beck 1996, 1992b: 165). As a consequence, the incentive is produced to become even more dependent on expertise. This, subsequently, makes it possible for scientific experts to claim a monopoly to address the environmental hazard by exercising a public discourse of scientific practice revolving around minimal risk as they feel that increased production of scientific knowledge relieves society from growing uncertainty (Beck 1992a; Blowers 1997). This aspect was made explicit in the team as well when discussing how synthetic biology relates to concerns of uncertainty. As team member Edoardo noted:

“Uncertainty is what pushes the scientist towards doing more research […]. That’s why iGEM pushes [the iGEM teams] so much to safety […], [that] is because they want [us] to think about it […], [that] we thought enough about it to take away as much as we can [away] of the uncertainty […]”

Chapter 3: Transcending Multifaceted Borders

Scientific uncertainty is considered an inherent characteristic in the governance of synthetic biology. According to risk society theorists, this uncertainty also has to do with a setting in which the standards of typical modern institutions such as conventional science and politics fail to accommodate to the concerns relating to rationality and security. They have been treated by the public as suspects causing the risk instead of being considered the trustees who are usually expected to manage them. A decline in the confidence in these institutions and others is what led to a form of modernization that is reflexive in nature, meaning that new arrangements have prompted new institutional reforms for environmental and social objectives. Nevertheless, technological transformations contributed to this evolution, helping to reconfigure the institutional makeup of scientific, political and economic practice (Mol and Jänicke 2009; Beck 2009: 54).

The ‘erosion of trust’ toward science and technology has manifested itself through the disintegration of this fixed and self-perpetuating institutional set-up. As a result, producing and making use of the acquired knowledge, as well as the expert authority that came with it, had to be shared now with opposing expert voices. A new heterogeneity started to emerge in scientific knowledge production where public trust in the authority of expert knowledge was no longer unconditional (Barry 2007: 246-247). Moreover, when it comes to the environmental risks of genetic engineering, experts are increasingly confronted with the difficulty and uneasiness of communicating the constraints of scientific practice and the limits of knowledge when attempting to address and mitigate the controversy. Social convention dictates that their expertise would be required to address factual matters which are sometimes impossible to answer from the available scientific evidence. Nevertheless, the concerns and questions conveyed by the lay public remain legitimate political questions. Consequently, the ‘transscientific’ questions, as van den Daele (1999) characterizes them, help to demarcate between acquired knowledge and what lies beyond (van den Daele 1999: 69-70).

In the case of synthetic biology as a discipline, environmental movements can come forward easily to counter the discourse of technological optimism and expert authority that the community of synthetic biologists might have. The reason for this is that an apparent kinship exists with a similar controversy surrounding genetic modification (GM). Despite that is sometimes described as ‘extreme genetic engineering’, ‘genetic engineering on steroids’ (Friends of the Earth et al. 2012: 2; Voosen 2013), or captioned with the notion of ‘creating’ or ‘tinkering with’ life (Kera 2014: 28; Torgersen and Hampel 2012: 143), synthetic biology however has not yet been the subject of widespread public debate similar to the heavily deprecated GM crops antecedent. This is because the existence of synthetic biology is still largely considered to be uncommon knowledge among the wider public. Yet, based on the current environmentalist attitude towards GM crops, future efforts of synthetic biology may become prone to similar displays of distrust (Pauwels 2013; Torgersen and Hampel 2012). Besides the intrinsic scientific uncertainty, the governance challenges of synthetic biology exhibit a considerable degree of what Zhang et al. (2011) call ‘cross-borderness’. This cross-borderness as governance strategy entails not only bridging nations through transnational action, but most of all, bridging the trust gap through public engagement initiatives and bridging disciplines through interdisciplinarity. We now examine how the Goodbye AzoDye Project exhibits these cross-border properties as a way of demonstrating how the iGEM competition acts as an incentive and model for governance strategies.

Implications for Governance Measures

Both the scientific uncertainty and the cross-borderness are indicative of three specific challenges for the (inter)national governance of synthetic biology: Governing knowledge and non-knowing, cultivating external accountability, and the fragmentation of social authorities. The uncertainty and cross-borderness are “only one thread in a tangled and mutually constituent web of scientific practices” which also means that their effect on these governance challenges are not manifestly evident (Zhang et al. 2011).

Synthetic biology
Scientific uncertainty Cross-borderness
(disciplinary, organisational, industrial, and national)
Governing knowledge & non-knowing Cultivation of external accountability Fragmentation of social authorities
Source: Zhang et al. (2011: 15)

The aspect of scientific uncertainty challenges synthetic biology governance in relation to the salience of knowledge and non-knowing. This has, for instance, led to the growing importance of the precautionary principle in governing emerging technologies. This principle states that regulation should intervene in the further development of a technology when there is good reason to think that it may be dangerous. Precaution should then be the guiding principle until there is sufficient scientific evidence or knowledge to prove that it is not, or ways can be found to assure safe use. So, in other words, regulating scientific uncertainty becomes a matter of gaining more knowledge. However, as is the case with modern technologies such as synthetic biology, more knowledge generally means more uncertainties coming from the newly acquired knowledge. Therefore, a policy of precaution may not be as effective as would have been thought intuitively when considering the scientific trajectory. Furthermore, the technologies of hubris tend to leave out uncertainty when setting up policies, and instead narrowly focus on what can be managed as a risk. Hence, the implications for governance will rather be about including non-knowing as an essential governance aspect of synthetic biology so that uncertainty can ‘open up’ the ways we think about science policy. In the end, governance of uncertainty is about the negotiation of ambiguity in knowledge, where evidence can be discussed in relation to the acknowledgement of the complexities causing the uncertainty. Therefore, opening up governance measures also means that compromises will have to be made and knowledge will be a matter of perennial brokerage (Zhang et al. 2011).

Furthermore, the problem of external accountability and the fragmentation of social authorities as governance challenges play a key role in the context of eroding trust. As science could not deliver certainty, the scientific authority of expertise had to be shared with other knowledge holders in society. The legitimacy of knowledge sources hence became a claim many could always partially deliver, leaving the knowledge landscape fragmented. External accountability, then, is directly connected to the cross-borderness of synthetic biology. It concerns bridging gaps with various ‘others’, namely between scientists and engineers, scientists and societal actors from civil society and business, and between scientists and the ill-defined ‘general public’. These are all ‘external’ actors which synthetic biologists are expected to forge ties with and target engagement initiatives at. The aim of this is to “feed information into one acting entity […], with all initiatives evolving around one central actor”, but if this would happen on an institutional level, information would be communicated to create mutual trust between the concerned institutional actors (Zhang 2011: 17, 20).

Regaining Trust in the Post-Traditional Society

Despite the unfavourable conditions of uncertainty in the public sphere, the crumbling scientific tradition remains an important focal point for the expectations of the reluctant and vigilant public. Therefore, as Giddens and Pierson (1998) argue, “[t]rust offers security in the face of future contingencies” (Giddens and Pierson 1998: 109), but in a post-traditional setting, experts are given the benefit of the doubt considering that they have not ceased in their attempts to provide certainty nonetheless (Beck 1999). With regard to the use of synthetic biology, the team also confirms that there is a problem of trust. They attribute this primarily to the lack of knowledge and familiarity with how synthetic biologists operate, and that this drives a misrepresented perception of the risk involved. The challenge, then, in terms of governance measures is to embrace trust and make it ‘active’ through the merits of “equality, discursiveness, reciprocity, [and] substantiation” (Beck 1999: 116). One of the ways this can be done, in other words finding a method to recuperate trust, is through public engagement (Stebbing 2009). From that perspective, it makes sense for iGEM to bring forward an operational framework, or even a philosophy to include public engagement as an important element in the competition. In that way, students become familiarised with “navigating both inside and outside the Ivory Towers” as they become part of the synthetic biology community (Kuldell 2007: 2; McLennan 2012). The motivation or idea behind this is that when students become acquainted with what occupies the minds of the public, and learn how to effectively communicate the methods and intentions of their efforts, they will be able to provide better guidance to the further development of synthetic biology in the light of various external pressures (Kuldell 2007). While reflecting on the importance of public engagement, most team members have interpreted its necessity not only in terms of an educating responsibility they are expected to hold, but also as an act of scientific persuasion towards the lay public:

[Daniel] “There is a lack of information I would say. The thing is, it is our job to like to show people it is not sorcery that it is like actual science […]”
[Yan-Kay] “[…] we still need to convince the public that it is safe and that it is a viable option. And I think we need this form of communication between scientists and the public about this so that they know”
[Georgia] “[…] I think that there is not enough public engagement to get them to understand what genetically modified organisms are, or what they do, or are they dangerous. Everybody kind of like, if I talk to people who don’t do science […], [they are] like “can’t that give you cancer or something?”, you know”?

Besides raising public awareness about synthetic biology, with Goodbye AzoDye the team also seeks to bring attention to a relatively unknown and overlooked environmental issue. This meant that the team had to reach a target audience that could be both for and against their project considering the technology they are using for a beneficial cause. The central aspect of their public engagement exercise constitutes the #UncolourMeCurious campaign, which was developed as a way to sensitize the public on “the carcinogenic nature of AzoDye waste products” through the use of “a striking video campaign” to gain the attention. This would “culminate in a beautiful short film to explain the dangers of the ‘azodumping’ […]”, followed by a stakeholder debate, a concept art competition and the creation of ‘textile-based BioArt’ leading up to a grand three-day exhibition (UCL iGEM 2014). The stakeholder debate can be seen as a form of ‘upstream engagement’, which is a way of showing responsiveness to the concerns that live in society in order to make suggestions to rethink scientific practice. Such dual-use engagement, then, can help to promote a process of democratisation which subsequently becomes a normative value for which to strive for in designing policy (Calvert and Martin 2009; Edwards and Kelle 2012).


In the process of regaining trust in order to mediate concerns of risk and uncertainty, questions are raised regarding the nature of the knowledge selected for the assessment of synthetic biology as an emerging technology. This implies that society engages in some reflexive action as a response to ongoing technological innovation. The reflexivity comes forth from the assumption that the shaping of knowledge will affect the way late-modern society will be conceived. Keeping the complex implications of this New Biology in mind, post-traditional science thus needs to look for a politics of knowledge that can account for uncertainty issues. From that perspective, the fragmentation of scientific disciplines, and the organisation of how these disciplines produce knowledge, hence does not appear to match broader concerns of dealing with the “misty real-world problems of our society” (Schmidt 2009: 1-2). Therefore, a knowledge politics of the potential synthetic biology controversy requires compatible and hence a diverse set of legitimate knowledge claims. Consequently, interdisciplinarity is considered to be key in late-modern society so that uncertainties that epitomise this time period can be dealt with through various interdisciplinary safety nets from which problematic issues can be approached.

Not only is synthetic biology inherently interdisciplinary, iGEM teams are also made out of students from very diverse academic backgrounds who now work together in a way that requires a considerable amount of knowledge exchange (Robbins 2009; Schmidt 2009). Furthermore, what is particularly reflexive about iGEM and synthetic biology in general, is the use of BioBricks because demonstrate this interdependence between disciplines. By bringing an engineering approach to biology, the construction of BioBricks for genetic circuits enables an operational linkage between engineers and biologists. Both have to work together constructively so that this new and hybrid technology can be developed and which would not have emerged within the constraints of autonomous scientific disciplines. The concept of BioBricks is even a metaphor for this connection between engineering and biology as synthetic biology is often described in terms of ‘building’ and ‘designing’ of ‘standardised, hierarchical parts, devices and systems’ (Finlay 2013: 27). These subsequently produce a genetically engineered ‘machine’ (Robbins 2009: 1). Moreover, this iGEM interdisciplinarity has been stretched beyond biology and the applied sciences into the social sciences and humanities when ‘Human Practices’ became an award teams could compete for, and which is now called ‘Policy & Practices’. More is discussed on this topic in the next chapter.

Political Modernisation and Cross-border Collaborations

New developments in the global governance of science and technology have been sparked by the growth of transnational initiatives in synthetic biology. Moreover, it is the iGEM competition that seems to be spearheading this development as a result of cross-border practices and scientific uncertainty in synthetic biology as explained in previous chapters (Zhang et al. 2011). What is specifically noteworthy here in relation to the tandem of theories central in Sociological Imaginations, is how this relates to redefining the role of the state when it comes to environmental reform. The theory of ecological modernisation, for example, has questioned the position of the state vis-à-vis the re-assessment of production and consumption patterns. Although the state remains of great importance, and even continues to be the preeminent policy actor, in terms of environmental policy-making, governmental involvement has been urged to take a step back. Instead, it chooses to accommodate for measures of prevention, participatory politics and decentralisation. This eco-modernist view is also fuelled by the notion that the void that has been created as a result, is subsequently taken up by market forces.

The eco-modernist twist to the notion that uncertainty drives social change in the risk society, has been described by Pellizzoni (2011) in terms of ‘disorder’. The instability and incalculability of risks generated by late-modern society give rise to disorderly conditions but they are rendered manageable or governable because of the way the ‘ecologised’ neoliberal market shapes new institutional opportunities to handle the contingencies of emerging complexities. This approach to the nature of risks hence breaks with the idea of seeing them merely as a source of fear morphing into the trust deficit that grew out of it. Therefore, from this market perspective, the biotechnological practices that engender uncertainty become manageable through commodification (Pellizzoni 2011; Sonnenfeld and Mol 2011). With the open-source Registry of Standard Biological Parts, BioBricks are increasingly acquiring the status of commodity in the synthetic biology community. It is therefore not surprising that the iGEM competition also fosters the non-monetary value in the exchange of biological parts through the Registry. When iGEM teams also make it part of their project to develop a BioBrick themselves, they become eligible to win higher-level medals and thus gain prominence in the competition. At the same time, however, this incentive helps to grow synthetic biology as a discipline considering that their contribution to the Registry also promotes the economy of biological parts so that others in the community can work out other ways of using the parts. Sometimes these projects can turn into something that has real-world implications in terms of new product developments and spin-off companies. From then on, the monetary market takes over, creating potential for lucrative applications. This however still happens very rarely at this point. Nevertheless, teams are encouraged to set up networks and collaborations to make their project as realistic as possible. The competition can therefore become more than just playing around and being creative as their work always suggests a potential real-world contribution to the discipline (Balmer and Bulpin 2013; Frow 2013; Kera 2014).

While the theory of ecological modernization envisages a continuing role for government to remain a central figure in politics, an alternative view of late-modernity would state that “the truly political disappears in and from the [formal] political system and reappears, changed and generali[s]ed […] as sub(system)politics (Beck 1997: 52). The challenges imposed by the industrial society have brought new uncertainties to the fore to which the traditional modern approach to politics could not adequately respond to. Consequently, other sections of society have attempted to counter the environmental crisis, which provided leeway for further technological development. Therefore, Beck (2001) notes that, in these conditions, the discourse of ecological modernisation will start to prevail as an umbrella concept for practical alternatives of pre-crisis politics, and hence promote new societal configurations. As a result, the reflexive approach in late modernity prompts the political landscape to break with its own rigid pre-existence. Nonetheless, the promise of industrial and democratic modernity to bring welfare remains unchanged as decision-makers continue to exercise their power within the context of government since the regulatory framework originates from it (Beck 1999).

The uncertainty brought forward by the world risk society can therefore be equated with an institutional crisis that feeds into new structural arrangements in non-governmental enterprises. These arrangements are now confronted with new novel ways of constituting the social realm because of the new ‘open industrial politics’. In the process of moving away from the myopic self-referential tradition to perpetuate an existing industrial system, this new approach has gained prominence in its political dimensions. So, notwithstanding the pre-eminence of economic values in industrial entrepreneurship, leadership performance in this business increasingly depends on the amount of public trust in relation to ecological concerns and responsibilities. This becomes even more pertinent when the technology is utilised to engender the aspired economic progress as it is tailored for increased industrial performance, hence understating environmental and social legitimacy (Beck 1999).

Chapter 4: The Playful Professional and Sustainable Governance

iGEM: Counter-intuitive Governance

In this final chapter, the position of scientific authority in the governance of science will be discussed in relation to how iGEM operates. The expectations of both experts and lay people has undergone a shift toward an understanding in which the distinction between the two has blurred. This evolution, and the emergence of iGEM generally, has enabled the global unfolding of synthetic biology. What is characteristic about this, according to Zhang (2012), is the significance of some elements in the governance of synthetic biology that can be considered ‘counter-intuitive’. Firstly, iGEM is said to act as a ‘scientific building block’ that operates as “a transnational body that defines and characterises new materials, metrology and testing methods, and provides the grounds for international standardisation and regulatory convergence” (Zhang 2012: 2). Every year the competition brings as much to the development of synthetic biology as other more traditional scientific organisations and institutions do. The way this has been noticed or observed is through the methods of collection and categorisation of BioBricks, and by the way standards and codes of conduct are evolving. Secondly, a counter-intuitive dimension of science governance can be found in the social and educational role of iGEM. By means of global access to the necessary materials and an open-source model in the sharing of genetic constructions, iGEM has enabled a setting in which the students, as scientists in the making, are embedded and assimilating with an expert culture that integrates the issues of biosafety and biosecurity while also promoting a public engagement and exchanges on a transnational to almost global level. A last counter-intuitive element, finally, has to do with how iGEM has managed to have an impact because of the incentives it provides to students. In essence, the competition prompts them to learn about and subsequently create external accountability through the objectives of public engagement by interacting with various stakeholders, regardless of the different kinds of borders they are confronted with. (Zhang 2012).

The Professionalization of the Synthetic Biologist: Beyond Self-Governance

As became clear in the previous chapter, collaborations and exchanges have been key in creating and fostering a community of synthetic biologists, most saliently through the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Besides this open-source biology network, according to Mukunda et al. (2009), to make this community culture open and safe, it must operate as a professional organization that can ensure biosecurity (Mukunda et al. 2009). When it comes to a specific iGEM team, such as UCL iGEM 2014, it is evident that the context of the competition provides a framework for incentivized self-regulation (Zhang et al. 2011). Moreover, the entire experience of participating in iGEM is about combining the burgeoning of a new-fangled life science discipline with education, a sense of community formation, and the creation of a collaborative and open network of students (iGEM 2014b). This set of social conditions is what Weir and Selgelid (2009) would consider as appropriate for the process of professionalization, which has been proposed as a way the governance of synthetic biology could be operationalised. The motivation behind it is that the concept bridges the bottom-up approach of autonomous self-governance with the top-down involvement of political and legal schemes. In other words, the useful and effective characteristics of the former are made compatible with governmental interventionism, taking into account that scientific objectives are matched with the public concern for accountability (Weir and Selgelid 2009).

The purpose of professionalizing synthetic biology is to connect the scientific value of expertise with the responsibility of the scientists to practice their field in a way that is morally accepted. The origins for this strategy comes from medical and engineering professions, where expertise is associated with the morality of the practice of the profession. If the same is applied to synthetic biology by means of doing no harm with the technology, it can be reconciled with and held publicly accountable with respect to the objectives of public health and national security. In fact, synthetic biologists already somewhat fulfil this requirement as many of them are actually engineers that permeated the field of biology (Weir and Selgelid 2009). This even applies to the UCL team where five students are biochemical engineers in the making and two others are pursuing a PhD in this field. The fact that the whole project is coordinated from the UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering also gives an indication of how strong this project is approached from an engineering perspective.

Nevertheless, in order to circumvent the governance conundrum for synthetic biology, professionalization can also be seen as one of the ways to connect the advantages of self-governing and self-regulating scientific production to a public policy framework. Science is often considered as a form of knowledge production that remains immoral and centred on discovery. By defining it in professional terms, other values can be attributed to it as well. In any case, what is suggested here is that there are ways in which governance can be organised so that the complexity of the issues can also be dealt with from within. Since synthetic biology has problematized governance for innovative practices in the life sciences, new regulatory frameworks have come forward to address the issue. Biosafety and biosecurity measures, such as updated codes of conduct, ethics education, oversight, commercial limitations, registration and licensing are among the options that have been suggested. Even so, there is a consensus with the community of synthetic biologists that the scientific momentum to gain progress as a discipline remains underpinned by transparency and synergism on a transnational level (Weir and Selgelid 2009). Furthermore, Miller and Selgelid (2007) argue that dual-use governance should be balanced between individual sovereignty of scientists and undivided governmental oversight (Miller and Selgelid 2007). The implied solution would then be a reflexive approach made up of self-governance within the scientific community itself. The role of the government can vary in degree of their involvement, but overall, the provided governance structure must assure that advances in science and economic growth are not curtailed (Kelle 2013).

Self-governance would entail that the synthetic biology community would be endowed with an operational framework in which it can voluntarily regulate itself to avoid misuse. Individual scientists are then able to work with codes of conduct that have been developed by the community itself and not by government. The main argument for this is that this would prevent a governmental overregulation that, per definition, is external to the community. Nevertheless, a complete disconnect would also imply that the importance of democratic engagement in the matter would be poorly recognised at the time when societal implications are pertinent (Selgelid 2009). Nonetheless, there have been some concerns with selfregulatory initiatives in the sense that they have been thought of as a form of “closed-shop” governance by NGOs like the ETC Group, denoting that regulatory self-reliance would never develop into meaningful action (Campos 2010; ETC Group 2009; Pollack 2010). Team member Georgia agreed that self-reliance or self-regulation would not be beneficial for scientists:

“It is clearly not unjustified to be cautious, I mean if we were incautious that would be bad because if scientists, as much as we have our safeguards, I feel if we didn’t have as much pressure from the outside world, the safeguards would be like less stringent, I’m not sure because I don’t know to what extent other people, other scientists, I don’t know how they feel but like, I think it’s always important to have societal pressure so that everybody is constantly checking back on themselves. But, yeah, I don’t think cautiousness is unjustified but maybe just blind fear is unjustified. They like hear something and then they don’t attempt to actually look into it further and then they just absorb all the information from bad sources and then that is unjustified because they are not making any effort to understand just to regurgitate the things they have heard from the Daily Mail”.

At the same time, however, there was general agreement in the team that if the public were involved through the workings of government, science could not afford to wait for policy-makers to get a handle on innovation that they see as being essential for society’s development.

[Daniel] “The potential of synbio is too big (…) so much good can be done with it”.
[Georgia] “As long as policy keeps up”.
[Daniel] “Yeah, if there is regulation...”
[Ning] “Regulation and communication so that people know the limitations, the benefits of this kind of technology so that they are not just “oh my God, this is a GMO, this is going to affect our natural world””.

iGEM as Educational Model for Responsible Innovation

The organisational tension that exists between self-governance and governmental oversight stems, according to Cohen (1997), partly from a prevailing linear understanding of the scientific attitude or ethic. Reducing uncertainty is said to become achievable by increasing knowledge so that scientists can subsequently capitalise on the public esteem they gain from having solved an uncertain issue, and hence continue to build on this strategy. From the eco-modernist point of view, this corresponds with the way in which industrial performance can remain competitive and economic growth can be accomplished (Cohen 1997). Recently, this rationale has been approached critically, as Cohen argues:

“It now appears that the correspondence between a society’s scientific attitude and its scientific knowledge may conform to an inverted U-shape. In other words, societal support for science increases with scientific knowledge only to a certain point, after which further understanding contributes to a decline in the favourability of public appreciation for science” (Cohen 1997: 114).

One of the reasons that the author gives is that the lay public has had the opportunity to become familiar with alternative knowledge systems which gained considerable legitimacy themselves. This occurred as increasing general welfare in the developed world brought new ways of knowledge transfer that became available to a wider and wealthier public (Cohen 1997). In the process of regaining trust among the public, forms of ‘public engagement’ and ‘upstream engagement' are being set up by scientists as a response in order to contribute to the variety in science education (Edwards and Kelle 2012). Hence, the motivation behind the iGEM competition also lies in the fostering of an educational method that seeks to enhance professionalization in order to adapt it to a system where external accountability can be rendered governable. When the team discussed iGEM as an innovative educational setting, they manifestly agreed that this opportunity has allowed them to learn more effectively and with greater relevance. This was the only topic that sparked the most enthusiasm and support for the iGEM organisation. They also wanted to highlight how this exemplified the ineffectiveness of traditional learning methods at university.

[Tanel] “Yeah, we try to make noise in the competition because, you know, it is not primarily based on the lab work. It’s more than just that. So the human practice, public engagement and everything else, we try to make it a grand project”.

[Yan-Kay] “I was in a focus group last week about how education has changed from GSCE level to undergrad, and I think one of the issues we all thought was that creativity seems to decrease as you go up because most students tend to study for the sake of getting through exams. So being in an iGEM team, we have a lot more scope of different ideas and try to implement those ideas”.
[Adam] “Yeah, probably I’m more learning doing this than during my course”.
[Georgia] “Yeah, I would agree. I learned more in these last six months working on this project than I have – I’ve learned more practically like in lectures, you just try to absorb information but you never really have the chance to apply it. And here, like literally every day you’re solving problems. It’s like a nice work-out for your brain. And you never collaborate as a team. I mean, obviously you do in like research but a lot of the time being a scientist is quite a solitary role and this is like a lovely team thing where everybody bounces off each other and kind of just (…). And it’s not just science as well, we’re doing like human practice and public engagement and we get to develop our animation and web design skills. It’s just awesome! You do so much and you learn so much”!

It can be said that the operational structure of the iGEM competition thus works as an incentive to learn your scientific craft in a way that encompasses its role in relation to society. All competing teams are in the running for several awards based on the various aspects of their projects but they can also win a prize for being the best in their own project category or ‘track’. UCL iGEM 2014 competed in the Environment Track and can thus win a prize for the best environmental project (Balmer and Bulpin 2013). The incentives of the competition are shaped by the governing values as explained by Randy Rettberg at the end of last year’s jamboree: effort, accomplishment, respect (for other people involved and for the technology), cooperation (with regard to open-source science for transparency) and integrity (in being truthful about the science) (iGEM 2013b). These shape the reflexive nature of the work that has been done within the iGEM framework and enable the students expand or ‘open up’ their views on the decision-making process (Balmer and Bulpin 2013). This has especially been the case with regard to an addition to the interdisciplinary nature of the competition. Since its inception in 2008, considerable attention in iGEM projects is now given to ‘human practices’, or ‘policy and practices’ as it is now called, to bring together natural scientists with social scientists. As such it is now part of the competition as a significant competitive element:

"The most successful teams often work hard to imagine their projects in a social context, and to better understand issues that might influence the design and use of their technologies. Increasingly, they also work with students and advisors from the humanities and social sciences to explore topics concerning ethical, legal, social, economic, biosafety or biosecurity issues related to their work. Consideration of these “Human Practices” is crucial for building safe and sustainable projects that serve the public interest". (iGEM 2014j).

This promotes the concept of ‘reciprocal reflexivity’ as a form of collaboration that creates the added value of scientists becoming more reflexive through their involvement with wider social assumptions (Calvert and Martin 2009; Wilsdon et al. 2005). Sociological Imaginations is, in fact, one of the outcomes of the human practice efforts of UCL iGEM 2014, in which such a collaboration took place. In the process of getting acquainted with the team in June, there was a genuine interest from the team to know what kind of contributions this section could bring to the project. They were always very open and they acknowledged that a social scientist could help significantly in the competition. However, attempting to bring forward a more inclusive strategy to my study, I was challenged by the workload that existed in the team to gain progress on making the scientific side of things work. Making an ethnographic analysis of the team preferably requires the involvement of the whole team. The team, however, was seldom together in the same place at the same time as most communication occurred via the Facebook group page and to collective e-mails between the group and the team coordinator. Many suggestions were made by team member Alberto and myself to work out an ambitious 'human practice' strategy but time constraints and other engagements made the collective effort rather difficult. We were the only two social science students who would have to get the attention of many more natural science and engineering students. This would almost give the impression that there was a divide between the social scientists and the natural scientists, which is not entirely true. As social scientists however, you can only hover around the team and make observations while they have to focus on their own specific task. But in the end, most efforts were able to conjoin on the #UncolourMeCurious campaign that turned out to be successful.

In any case, the interdisciplinarity creates a platform for potential synergetic action. And it is this that makes possible a non-linear way of knowledge production or Mode 2 knowledge production in relation to the governance of an emerging technology, which corresponds to a form of environmental governance that finds a common ground on the importance of sustainable action (Balmer and Bulpin 2013). Mode 2 knowledge production is inherently transdisciplinary and differs from Mode 1 by the fact that it focusses on the social robustness of science, meaning that social needs and values are taken into account. The focal point here lies on problem-solving and hence addressing problems by incorporating a heterogeneous set of knowledge producers besides maintaining scientific quality. The values portrayed by Randy Rettberg are compatible with the qualities of this Mode 2 science in contrast to the linear Mode 1, as compared by Matthias Gross (2010).

Modes of Knowledge Production
Traits Mode 1 Mode 2
Audience Academic community Wider society
Context Displinary Transdisciplinary
Organisation Hierarchical and institutional Egalitarian
Top priority Academic freedom Social responsibility
Means of evaluation Peer review and internal control General social relevance and social robustness
Degree of validation Scientific certainty Uncertainty as part of the science
Planning Long-term/linear Exploratory/experimental
Source: Gross 2010: 26

Furthermore, what is often attributed to synthetic biology and iGEM is the importance of playfulness. This can be interpreted as an adaptation of the experimental nature of Mode 2 knowledge production as a way to explore whilst being in the midst of uncertainty. According to Gross (2010), reflexive modernisation in the risk society is very much related to this notion of experiment in Mode 2 science. The experimental approach, however, cannot be based solely on the way it is perceived by the natural sciences. Beck argues that it is now the turn of the social sciences to design experiments outside the laboratory. Therefore, the concept of the experimental knowledge society is used where the boundaries between science and society are increasingly blurred and experts collaborate with laypeople so that science is democratised beyond the laboratory. In dealing with uncertainty, this then means that "knowledge about what is unknown can be fed into each subsequent step of an implementation to expose it to further observation and to turn recognized nonknowledge into extended knowledge"(Gross 2010: 171). In terms of governance, Zhang (2013) has also included this playful and experimental features as it being a form of art (Carlson 2010; Zhang 2013). As Randy Rettberg argues, "iGEM is a human mechanism to bring focus" and "engineering biology is just playing fun. That is what we are here to celebrate at the Jamboree" (iGEM 2013b). Team member Behzad also considered the playful and creative aspect as essential in making them learn more effectively:

"I did a placement during last summer and, I mean, you spend a lot of time in the lab but what you don’t get, you don’t get any of the planning codes. You don’t – there’s no self-directing like a case I did (…) was not “maybe you should try that”. It was more following orders rather [...] than creativity".

The way iGEM works as a concept for education is thus quite different, giving the student the opportunity to be reflexive about what they are learning instead of being acquiescent in a learning process layed out and predetermined by conventional educators. Moreover, what some team members acknowledged about this in particular is that working on their project signified an introduction into thinking holistically about what they are doing:

[Georgia]"For my chemistry, for my degree, I’ve spent a lot of time in the lab, like four hours every day but you are literally just following a recipe. There’s no time to think about what you’re doing. You literally work on this deadline and you just try to get things done perfectly and yet you learn how to reflux without burning your stuff but you don’t know what’s going on. I mean, you don’t know what you’re doing and in this case, because you’re planning every step of the way, you know exactly why and what you’re doing".
[Adam] "Because you get a bigger picture".
[Georgia] "Yeah, a whole picture".

This way of thinking was also felt by the team in the way that when one is immersed in the practice of synthetic biology, one gets a better understanding of how much of the uncertainty is actually perceived as a social construction without having a good understanding of the scientific process.

[Georgia] "The whole scientific process, I think part of the reason that scientists say that the science is good because we see every step of the way. We see like what we go through and the safety aspects and if, if the public was taken on that journey with us, they’d be more likely to kind of like hold a similar opinion because I feel like sometimes there are these misconceptions that scientists come and go in the lab and decide to do this one day and create crazy things (…). But if they were there from the offset watching us struggle and trying to make everything perfect, there might be less of a worry from the general public that we’re crazy".
[Tanel] "I think the advantages of engaging with them just, I mean they have no idea what we have been up to, as you said, from the start to the beginning, and understanding what it entails. That’s our responsibility".
[Georgia] "I think both sides, that they keep checks on us. We help them understand. I think it’s that way of doing it in general in science, just always having people that aren’t entirely immersed in this world. Being a part of it and being here to spread the word".

All this gives an indication of the self-correcting risk society explained by Maurie Cohen (1997). Uncertainty becomes recognised or is rendered acceptable as a source for social and institutional learning, here exemplified by the iGEM competition. Therefore, it can also be termed as a reflexive governance that aims for a sustainable development of synthetic biology (Voss et al. 2006).


The advent of emerging technologies, at a time when environmental deterioration creeps up on the edges of modern society, has led to a crumbling of the certainties in power and knowledge that the institutions of modernity use to be able to provide. From the premise of technological optimism, these technologies are strategically employed in order to ‘outsmart’ any ecological setback as long as our societal framework adopts the necessary environmental reforms. The promise revolutionary change that synthetic biology brings, thus falls into that same category, and aims to recalibrate the reductionist logic of modern industrial practices. However, in trying to erase the measurable risks of such a classical industrial hazard like toxic textile dye effluents, the Goodbye AzoDye project of UCL iGEM 2014 also needs to take into account that its cutting-edge scientific performance potentially necessitates an even greater risk as its incalculability does not even allow to bring forward the knowledge of how that risk would manifest itself. The deskilling dynamic and the reduced complexity that accompanies the practice of synthetic biology provide an additional social threat to the potentiality of the inherent genetic hazards (Cohen 1997; Lentzos 2012).

Consequently, a team like UCL iGEM is confined to a public space where uncertainty has pervaded the collective minds of people who were used to live in a world where risk was nearly always a manageable probability and rarely an unobtainable scientific insight. So, as this epistemological pitfall widens and the uncertainty grows, the social motivations for action are progressively taken over and driven by fear. In the process of this development, environmental controversies begin to arise around such issues as the cultivation of GM crops. Therefore, in the event of the iGEM competition, synthetic biology can almost inadvertently anticipate the public controversy by engaging with a global party of aspiring synthetic biologists. The instructions of playful innovation also entail unconventional and remarkably implicit incentives for the participating students to be more than a scientist in its narrow sense. Instead, the team objectives are defined in such a way that wanting to become a synthetic biologist implies acquiring the skills of a profession which requires the practitioners to be responsible in their actions. Engaging with the public from the very start and understanding how the scientist is inevitably embedded with the rest of society, are therefore inextricably linked to what it means to construct biological parts and devices to eventually use them for the benefit of society (Calvert 2013; Calvert and Martin 2009).

The governance implications of how iGEM works as a competition thus questions not only how we perceive synthetic biology and other emerging technologies such as nanotechnology in relation to addressing uncertainty and environmental concerns, but also how a politics of knowledge can manifest itself within an institutional setting. As illustrated by Zhang (2011), besides the notable uncertainty, the cross-borderness of synthetic biology confronts policy-makers with various challenges (Zhang et al. 2011), but at the same time, this pervasive feature also needs to be fully embraced by policy to ensure that the robustness of society can minimise harmful impact (Gross, 2010). In the case of synthetic biology, the cross-borderness means interdisciplinary action, regaining trust for technological developments amongst the public, and transcending political borders to envisage the transnational community in which synthetic biology operates. Within iGEM operations, transdisciplinarity has still proven to be unfavourable towards the social science of emerging technologies. While the synergetic linkage between engineers, biologists and computer scientists has occurred in a rather spontaneous way, the social sciences still have to overcome the constraints of priority considerations. In contrast to the playfulness of constructing a new genetically engineered micro-organism, constructing a trusting atmosphere is rather seen as a duty. As such, there is a discrepancy between the joy that comes from creating novelty, and the incidental embellishment of creating novelty to bring well-being and progress to society. As scientific apprentices, they probably already feel rather inclined to be preoccupied with the biotechnological puzzle that synthetic biology is.

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Author: Kevin Keyaert*

* The author of Sociological Imaginations, which includes all material that constitutes this section of the UCL iGEM 2014 wiki, has written and created this section in continuation of a research dissertation submitted for the MSc in Environment, Science and Society at the Department of Geography, University College London. The editing of Sociological Imaginations started after the submission of the dissertation. It involves a study which required full participation in UCL iGEM 2014 by bringing forward the scientific insights from the dissertation as a contribution to the competitive objectives of the team.

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