An Asilomar for DIY biology and the shadow cabinet of science

In February 1975 biologist Paul Berg convened a meeting in Asilomar (US) to discuss with fellow biologists the biohazards of the newly found recombinant DNA technique. They agreed to employ particular standards of containment in their recombinant DNA experiments and banned a number of experiments that were deemed to be particularly hazardous. Most importantly, by issuing recommendations to the scientific community, Asilomar scientists deflected part of the public concerns regarding DNA manipulation, possibly avoiding restrictive regulation, and set self-restraint as a major regulatory option in the governance of biosciences.

References to Asilomar have multiplied ever since the CRISPR-cas9 system dramatically enhanced genome editing capabilities, leading to substantial ameliorations in research conducted on genetically modified cell strains or organisms. Genome editing has fuelled again a debate on the responsibility of science, and the limits of research. But the context of biomedical research has changed profoundly, with ever deeper entanglement between industries and academia, rising private funding, and the emergence of biotech powerhouses outside the perimeter of the American and Euro-American science of the post-war.

A novel actor in the research landscape that was absent back in 1975 is the Do-It-Yourself biology community. One is tempted to suppose that technological advancements move scientific research further away from non professional researchers. Research hardware becomes more expensive and hence it is monopolized by few, big, research centres. And indeed this might have been one of the drivers of the professionalization of research in the XX century, when it was no longer possible to do cutting-edge research within the limited budget of (rich) households. There is however a reverse side to this trend: any gain in technological efficiency makes technology more affordable. Think about this: your laptop has computing capabilities that match those of the best research centres worldwide only very few decades ago. This is the same process that allows amateurs to tinker with genomes in their own garage-labs (as the mythology surrounding DIY research has it).

DIY biology has attracted the attention of regulators, and even the professional research community, on the basis of safety concerns. In a recent issue of Nature, biomedical scientist Todd Kuiken argued however that DIY research communities are ahead of science in terms of self-restraint. DIY communities have already convened their own Asilomar – actually an iterative exercise in deliberation that produced a code of conduct. Obviously, rogue individuals cannot be stopped by declarations of self-restraint issued by self-appointed representatives of the DIY community. But this is exactly what might happen in the professional research community as well. And indeed reputation and name-and-shame practices make this Asilomar of citizen scientist a realistic tool for hazard governance of DIY biosciences (the very same comment exemplifies this practice as it condemn a particular DIY project that does not meet community standards).

The development of DYI into a semi-professionalized and structured independent community is not surprising. Alessandro Delfanti has argued that one of the cultural roots of biohacking is precisely the desire to live up the standards of “Mertonian” science in an era where big money has entered the picture and threatened the purity of research conduct and aspirations. If that is the case, we can add that one important social role of DIY communities is that of being a “shadow cabinet” of science of a sort: with no budget but considerable leverage to steer official research by doing better than it does. Yet this role requires structure, and a minimal similarity to “official” science. The Asilomar of citizen science does just that. At the same time, the limitations of a Mertonian model of science – and indeed of the Asilomar conference as well – may be inherited by citizen science, and chiefly the ideology of purity and the deceptive seclusion of science from society that this ideology generates. This would be an ironic fate for a movement that has picked up the banner of scientific citizenship to promote its ideals. But of course, there is a certain trade off between being a shadow cabinet of science and being a place where every curious can just walk in.

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