Tracks/Policy Practices


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iGEM 2014 Policy and Practices New Track

We are excited to announce a track devoted to Policy and Practices in iGEM 2014. Human Practices have been a part of iGEM for many years as a core element of iGEM activities within each team. This year, we have created a track for teams that wish to work exclusively in the policy and practices area of synthetic biology.

The iGEM Policy & Practices track aims to stimulate innovative ways of thinking about the policy, economic, social, legal, and philosophical landscape of synthetic biology. Teams participating in this track are developing skills and tools that will help to prepare synthetic biologists for the world they’re working in, and help the world decide how it might best make use of synthetic biology.

Requirements for Policy and Practices teams will differ from other tracks (e.g. they will not be required to contribute parts to the Registry). However, there will be additional performance requirements for a Policy & Practices team.


The iGEM competition calls on students to build interdisciplinary teams of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists to ask new questions about what synthetic biology can do. Over the past ten years, thousands of students from countries around the world have started to imagine a future that uses biology as a design medium, and that relies on open-source, standardized parts to build with biology. 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.

In previous years, iGEM teams that have made significant contributions to integrating broader social considerations into the design of their synthetic biology devices, have been awarded with the Special Prize for Best Policy and Practices Advance. This year we are introducing a dedicated ‘Policy & Practices’ track for teams looking to contribute detailed work grounded in the humanities and social sciences. The new name of ‘Policy & Practices’ is intended to reflect a broadened and matured vision for activities in this track - and across iGEM as a whole - that has evolved from the strong track record of Policy and Practices at iGEM.

What we're looking for:

The details of judging rules and requirements for both the cross-track Policy & Practices Prize and the Policy & Practices Track will be updated over the next month. In general, we are looking for:

  • Projects that engage with social, cultural, ethical, philosophical, environmental, political, legal and/or economic dimensions of synthetic biology.
  • Projects that are grounded in a clear understanding of the structure and practice of synthetic biology, and the broader social and political context in which this technology is being developed.
  • Thoughtful and critical investigation using approaches from the social sciences and humanities.
  • Interdisciplinary engagement and/or collaboration with engineers, scientists, artists, designers, and social scientists.
  • Active engagement with broader communities and stakeholders to explore a variety of perspectives and foster constructive debate and discussion.

What we don't want:

  • Projects that are focused on marketing/promoting a particular synthetic biology application, without a broader set of questions informing and driving the work.

A dossier of exemplary projects from previous iGEM competitions is currently in development.


Policy and Practices teams must meet the general iGEM 2014 requirements. In addition, P&P teams must meet the following track specific requirements:

  • Developing your iGEM Policy & Practices Team:
    • Faculty Advisors: Each team must work with at least two senior mentors. One of the senior mentors must be a faculty member. One mentor should be based in the humanities or social sciences (for example, law, economics, sociology, public policy), and one from any other discipline including, but not limited to, science, engineering, social sciences, medicine, and law. Additional faculty members may also be listed as faculty advisors. One faculty member must be designated as the primary faculty advisor. She or he is ultimately responsible for the official registration of the team, the team roster, and payment of team fees.
    • Advisors: In addition to the required roles above, teams are encouraged to recruit non-faculty advisors. These can include postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as current or former policymakers, government officials, legal advisors, entrepreneurs, or members of non-governmental organizations, regulatory agencies or funding bodies.
    • Questions? This is an experimental track, so please contact us at if you have any questions or concerns about participation and team requirements.
  • Project Submissions:

    Team submissions are required to convey (1) the project inspiration, (2) clearly articulated question(s) the project proposes to address, (3) detailed method(s) used (and their assumptions), (4) discussion of the challenges encountered in pursuing this work, (5) an explanation of who the project findings should be of interest to and why, and (6) an explanation of how the approach(es) might be adapted and scaled for others to use.

    These questions should be addressed in the following ways, in addition to the standard wiki, poster and presentation requirements for all iGEM teams. [Please note that these requirements are subject to revision until medal criteria are announced]:

    • A 2-page executive summary (that can reference additional resources on your wiki)
    • A 3-minute video that is accessible to an interested lay audience
    • any other formats you think can help iGEM teams and the broader community understand and interact with your work. This could be anything from an educational handbook, a software tool, a report, or a policy brief. We encourage you to be creative and to think about platforms that can be broadly shared and adapted.
  • Parts: Teams in the policy & practices track will not receive a copy of the 2014 distribution. They are not required to perform wet-lab work or to deposit new BioBricks in the Registry. Teams that do wish to receive a distribution copy of the 2014 distribution must request one from policypractices [at] igem [dot] org, and be affiliated with a university or community laboratory. Teams that do wish to use and submit a new part must adhere to safety and iGEM submission guidelines.

Exemplar Projects in iGEM

Imperial College London 2011

Area of HP work:Using Policy and Practices to inform the design of the synthetic biological device.
The Policy and Practices in this project was extremely well-integrated into the scientific work – the team put equal weight on experimental work, Policy and Practices and modelling. Policy and Practices work involved engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including companies, plant scientists and charities concerned with desertification, and holding interdisciplinary Policy and Practices panel discussions drawing on people with a range of different expertise. These discussions informed the design choices made by the team.
Contributor: Jane Calvert

Evry 2012

Area of HP work: Philosophical investigation concerning the introduction of Xenopus tropicalis as a new chassis for iGEM.
This is a very original philosophical project that was closely related to the scientific work being done by the team, who introduced Xenopus tropicalis as a new chassis for iGEM. The sophisticated philosophical and historical analysis of the Policy and Practices work challenges some of the taken-for-granted assumptions of iGEM, by asking whether the term ‘chassis’ – borrowed from mechanical engineering – is appropriate to apply to a model organism (and animal) like a frog. Importantly, the project draws attention to the ‘non-innocence’ of metaphors in synthetic biology. Overall, it transcends ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ discussions, raising thought-provoking questions rather than imposing one particular answer.
Contributor: Jane Calvert

BCCS_Bristol 2010

Area of HP work: Marketing and Commercialization
The Bristol team was working on developing a nitrate sensor for soil applications. What was impressive about this Policy and Practices project was how the team was able to take their idea and look at the possibilities for implementing this project in the real world. They went out and engaged farmers in their area, asking them if they saw value in using their system as a product, challenged ideas pertaining to GMO use in industry, and gathered a large amount of data to show whether their concept could be adopted in the real world. From these interviews they inspired their system and developed marketing materials (pamphlets, etc.) to engage their potential customer base.
Contributor: David Lloyd

Indian Institute of Technology Madras 2013

Area of HP work: Engagement with broader communities, education and helping society.
The team that won the HP award in the 2013 Asian Jamboree, was selected as they pushed the boundaries of the education side of human practice, being the only team we saw that potentially saved peoples lives. Being based in India and doing a project on Shigella transmission and food poisoning, for the HP part of their project they instigated a grass roots campaign to educate consumers of the dangers and how to avoid shigella contamination. Translated materials on the dangers of shigellosis into a number of regional languages, also going to small-scale slaughter houses across the country to explain these issues in person.
Contributor: Scott Edmunds

UT Tokyo Software 2012

Area of HP work: Social and educative side, democratizing and making iGEM participation easier for participants.
The team that won the HP award in the 2012 Asian Jamboree demonstrated how a software team can make a great impact on the education and practices side, producing a much more intuitive BioBrick search interface, as well as gamification of software to help the teaching of BioBrick standard assembly using fun puzzle games. Building something useful on an open API, this is also a nice example of the benefits of the iGEM open source approach.
Contributor: Scott Edmunds

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2013

Area of HP Work: Looking at the economic and policy dimensions of synthetic biology.
Why Notable: This was one of the runners up for the HP award at the 2013 Asian Jamboree, and they did a good job cataloging the synthetic biology ecosystem in East Asia. The team produced detailed and well researched summaries of the various academic and industrial players, iGEM teams, and relevant funding bodies and regulations in each of the countries covered.
Contributor: Scott Edmunds

2012: Stanford-Brown

Area of HP work: Looking into legal and intellectual property rights in iGEM and synthetic biology.
The 2012 Stanford-Brown iGEM team forayed into the realm of Practices when they encountered a patent that appeared to cover a gene they wished to use in their work. Unsure how to approach reading or understanding the patent, they sought the help of experts (It turns out both parents of one of the students were patent attorneys). They realized they were not the only iGEM team to encounter patenting issues and decided to create a practical iGEM-specific guide to U.S. patent law. As a complement to their practical guide, the team also compiled reviews to spur discussion amongst iGEMers on the ethics of gene patenting.

Useful project links:

University of British Columbia 2012

Area of HP work: Looking into legal and intellectual property rights in iGEM and synthetic biology.
The 2012 UBC iGEM team also explored intellectual property as part of their work on Practices, but came up with a different approach. They developed a survey to assess the experience of iGEM teams with patents and other property rights, and then created a country-neutral guide to intellectual property that reflected the interests of the iGEM community. Importantly, the UBC iGEM team networked with other iGEM teams to get an impressively high rate of participation for their survey.

Useful project links:

Medal Criteria

Bronze. The following 7 goals must be achieved:

  1. Complete Policy & Practices Judging Form.
  2. Create a Team Wiki.
  3. Create a 2-page Executive Summary, a 3-minute video, and a more detailed output in a shareable format of your choosing (e.g. briefing note, article, editorial, comic, film, etc.), accessible to an interested lay audience.
  4. Present a Poster and a Talk at the iGEM Jamboree.
  5. Clearly document a Policy & Practices question(s) your team chose to address, and explain its relevance.
  6. Detail the method(s) and sources of information you used to address this question.
  7. Outline the rationale and assumptions involved in the project question(s) and method(s), including if and how it adapts previous iGEM teams’ work.

Silver: In addition to the Bronze Medal requirements, the following 4 goals must be achieved:

  1. Apply your proposed method, showing the extent to which it allowed you to answer your question(s) in part or in whole.
  2. Evaluate your approach, describing the advantages and limitations of your method(s) in relation to the questions asked.
  3. Outline how your team managed limitations or challenges of your method(s).
  4. Detail how your method(s) could be applied by future iGEM teams.

Gold: In addition to the Bronze and Silver Medal requirements, demonstrate the usefulness or impact of your project in guiding Policy and Practices in synthetic biology. This could include one or more of the following:

  1. Produce data that can be used in an ongoing Policy and Practices-related discussion at the national or international level. Detail the process, how your data could be used, and what impact this could have. (For an example of such data, see the 2009 Peking University project.)
  2. Develop a tool to explore, advance or resolve a real-world Policy and Practices issue around synthetic biology. Describe your progress in developing the tool, what more would be needed to improve its functionality, and how it helps to address the issue identified. (For an example, see the 2010 VT-ENSIMAG software tool)
  3. Conduct a real-world test of your ideas (which may use iGEM as a venue), and describe the results. This could include engaging the intended audience or users of your work to gain their insights and feedback. Clearly describe the implications of the results of this test for synthetic biology governance. Describe steps taken to ensure your project is in compliance with relevant laws and regulations. (For an example, see the 2013 Lethbridge project).

Policy and Practices Track Committee:

Committee Members:

  • Megan Palmer (co-chair)
  • Emma Frow (co-chair)
  • Laura Adam
  • Nancy Burgess
  • Jane Calvert
  • Linda Kahl
  • Todd Kuiken
  • David Lloyd
  • Ken Oye
  • Piers Millet
  • Samuel Yu
  • Scott Edmunds
  • Tim Trevan
  • Others TBA
  • Friends of Policy & Practices:

    We are developing a network of friendly experts in policy & practice topics. Friend of Policy & Practices help guide P&P at iGEM (e.g. as advisors and judges) and are willing to offer expert guidance to teams as they develop their projects.

    Please contact the committee chairs at policypractices [at] igem [dot] org if you are interested in participating.