Human Practices in the BIOFAB
The BIOFAB -- along with the field of synthetic biology as a whole -- promises significant engineering advances in the design and composition of living systems. It also represents a practical exercise in the capacities and limits of a parts-based approach to biological engineering—organizationally, commercially, and biologically. In this way, the BIOFAB is an ideal testing ground for a range of human practices questions currently in circulation. Many of the security analysts, bioethicists, science studies practitioners and others studying synthetic biology have calibrated their work to the promises and dangers of making biology easier to engineer and making materials and know-how more widely available. To the extent that the BIOFAB successfully achieves its goals it is likely, in short, to ramify across multiple domains. In such a case, as its developers have recognized, the question of how the BIOFAB is organized and orchestrated becomes all the more pressing.
Gaymon Bennett (UC Berkeley) is leading an effort to interface with the BIOFAB in a mode of second-order participation. Specifically, this involves both observing the scientific and organizational practices of the Biofab directors and technicians, as well as contributing that observational analysis as a participating member of the Biofab’s team. Initial work consists of tracking fab development, infrastructure and processes. Ongoing work will involve observing practices of part selection, classification, production and characterization, as well as strategies for soliciting orders, distributing parts, and navigating commercial interests. The work is intended to develop a better understand how work in the BIOFAB is contributing or failing to contribute to the development of synthetic biology today. A central question will be: How is this venue being fashioned and administered given the range of biological, engineering, organizational, and ethical challenges it is likely to confront? Said another way, how are biology, the organization of research, and the ethical practice of science being configured such that the Biofab is an answer to the rethinking and reworking of bioengineering underway today? A goal of Bennett's inquiry is to pose and repose the question of how the BIOFAB is developing in view of such challenges as commercialization and security as work actually unfolds. In examining how synthetic biology as practiced by the BIOFAB is challenging prior configurations of the life-sciences, ethics, and security, the project hopes to illuminate the most effective venues and configurations of practice.
The project builds on three years of work in Human Practices within SynBERC. That mandate, broadly conceived, has been to experiment with an adjusted mode of anthropological inquiry to facilitate the challenge of rethinking and eventually putting into practice, a “post-ELSI” program for synthetic biology. As to the portfolio, a consistent effort of the Berkeley Human Practices lab has been to track the ethical ramifications of research programs and their venues. Such efforts orient inquiry into the problem of designing venues for the intersection of the life sciences, ethics, and security today—a problem which would seem to be a core challenge in the development of the BIOFAB.
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