Policy and Practices

From 2014.igem.org


What is "Policy & Practices"?

"Policy & Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work."

— Peter Carr, Director of Judging

(Note: difference between P&P track and P&P component of all projects)

Suggested Topic Areas

Assessing Your Project

Risk Assessment

How might your project affect the health of humans or the environment? If it is a Health & Medicine project, will it be safe for patients, and will it have side effects? If it is an Environment project, will it affect biodiversity?

Consult with experts and consider the potential risks of your project. Think about how to address and minimize those risks.

Feasibility Assessment

Consider the economics of your project. How does it compare to competing technologies and methods for accomplishing the same goal? Is it possible to manufacture and sell your product at a price that your users are willing to pay? Who might lose their job -- or gain a new job -- as a result of your project?

End-User Considerations

How will people actually use your project? How will it be delivered (as a pill, as an environmental monitoring station, as a garden spray, as an industrial/factory process)? What should it cost? How quickly must it operate? How should users safely dispose of your product, once they are finished using it?

Approach some potential end-users of your project and find out about their daily lives. Examine how your project might fit into their daily routines, or how it might change their daily routines.

Helping the Practice of Science and Engineering

Law and Regulation

Synthetic biology is a new and rapidly changing field of engineering, and it presents great challenges for local, national, and international laws.

Are there lawmakers in your country who ought to know more about synthetic biology? See if you can give them an informative presentation!

What are the laws that apply to scientists and engineers in your country? Are any of them too strict, preventing the advancement of science? Are any of them too permissive, allowing scientists to proceed without accounting for the possible harms that might result? Discuss the situation with experts and write to your lawmakers!



Could your project be misused by someone who wanted to purposefully hurt humans or the environment? Can you make changes in your design to prevent such purposeful misuse?

Can you spot any gaps in the laws, customs, and institutions that prevent malicious people from using synthetic biology to do harm? What exactly are the vulnerabilities? Can you do some "white hat hacking" to test those vulnerabilities? How could those vulnerabilities be fixed?

("White hat hacking" means that you openly and honestly test the security of a system, intending to expose and repair a vulnerability without exploiting it. For example, to test the security of a DNA synthesis company against people ordering dangerous pathogenic genes, you might place an order for dangerous pathogenic genes, but then contact the company, explain your intent, and ask them to halt the order before they actually send you any dangerous DNA.)


Public Engagement


Public Outreach & Dialogue


Exemplary Past Projects

Here are some examples of noteworthy Human Practices projects since 2010, identified by members of the Policy & Practices committee, who describe briefly what they thought was most interesting or novel about the project. These projects are presented in date order, and cover a wide spectrum of topics and approaches to working in Human Practices. We hope they provide inspiration for your work, and encourage you to think broadly about what Human Practices means to you!

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2013

Area of HP Work: 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.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds

Indian Institute of Technology Madras 2013

Area of HP work: Engagement with broader communities, education and helping society.
This team won the HP award in the 2013 Asian Jamboree for pushing the boundaries of the education side of Human Practices, 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 grassroots campaign to educate consumers of the dangers and how to avoid Shigella contamination. They translated materials on the dangers of shigellosis into a number of regional languages, also going to small-scale slaughterhouses across the country to explain these issues in person.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds

Arizona State University 2012

Area of HP work: Design in context; education.
This ASU team looked at childhood diarrhea for their iGEM project. But they realized that being able to detect contaminated water is only part of the solution to this health challenge. The team coupled their design of a technical fix with activities geared towards prevention, and implemented a hygiene and sanitation course alongside their project. They also considered the ethics of introducing new types of knowledge and practices into new communities.
Suggested by: Megan Palmer

Evry 2012

Area of HP work: Philosophical investigations of synthetic biology.
This was an 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. Their sophisticated philosophical and historical analysis of the Human Practices work challenged 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 drew our attention to the ‘non-innocence’ of metaphors in synthetic biology. Overall, it transcended simple ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ discussions, raising thought-provoking questions rather than imposing one particular answer.
Suggested by: Jane Calvert

2012: Stanford-Brown

Area of HP work: Intellectual property in 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.
Suggested by: Linda Kahl

Useful project links:

University of British Columbia 2012

Area of HP work: Intellectual property in synthetic biology.
The 2012 UBC iGEM team explored intellectual property as part of their work on Practices. 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.
Suggested by: Linda Kahl

Useful project links:

UT Tokyo Software 2012

Area of HP work: Education, 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.
Suggested by: Scott Edmunds

Imperial College London 2011

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

BCCS_Bristol 2010

Area of HP work: Product Design, Marketing and Commercialization
The Bristol team was working on developing a nitrate sensor for soil applications. What was impressive about their Human Practices work 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.
Suggested by: David Lloyd

Tips & Tricks

Remember to consult with experts even if you are planning to do a public survey or outreach to high schools. With a little bit of help from experienced survey designers or professional educators, your work can become much more effective!

Where can I start?

Seeking Expert Consultations

Who is the Policy & Practices Track Committee?