Technologies shape our lives, but who shapes them? The answer seems hidden behind laboratory doors. With emerging biotechnology in mind, such questions become pressing. In 10 years there will likely be bioengineered products in our homes. Who influences their development? And for whom are they actually developed? Why is research funded? Do citizens play a part?
This blog documents our journey to an answer. We are Duuk Baten, Erik van de Pieterman and Gijs de Boer, and we study the relation between research labs, design studios and the world outside. The upcoming three months we will shed light on the politics behind synthetic biology.
The power of biotechnology
We might enjoy a victimless steak from the lab, dimly lit by a bioluminescent bouquet while stroking a furry but never-shedding cat. We might also fear bioterrorists with a redhead-targeted virus, a malicious muscle-pig that escaped, or toilets monitoring drug use. The biotechnology that will mark our future lives is being developed today. So-called synthetic biology empowers humans to design and construct – or synthesize – life itself.
In their labs, scientists and engineers make decisions that may far exceed those made by politicians in terms of implications. Technology can be seen as a kind of materialized legislation. As with many technologies in an early stage however, development happens out of sight. Should we expect engineers to take social and ethical implications into account? Should labs be monitored or would that only hurt scientific creativity?
At the same time, funding for research in synthetic biology comes primarily from governments. This raises questions on the purpose. Research in the Netherlands is supposed to be ‘relevant’, but when is it? Biotech surely has much potential to make industrial processes more efficient, but there must be more to gain than competitive power. On what basis are research budgets spent? And how do citizen interests fit in the picture?
Considering technology’s profound impact, there have been dreams about how development can be more democratic. While we may choose what to buy, we don’t choose what is invented. Could we vote for what research get funds? Could our representing politicians propose technological development plans? Or should we participate ourselves in setting the research agenda?
The questions raised above, about the role of researchers, funders and citizens, are the focus of the Biopolitics project. Synthetic biology is exactly at the development stage where such questions are relevant. Upstream in the process of invention, initiatives to democratize development have the most impact.
Recently, Dutch citizens could contribute to their National Science Agenda (NWA), in order to have a say in funding. The EU stimulates researchers to adhere to Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI) principles. Designers are already exploring implications of synbio in speculative designs, to broaden and facilitate debate. Do such initiatives lead to a future of democratic biotechnology?
The Biopolitics project
The upcoming three weeks we will follow along these lines. Our investigation will try to infiltrate the lab from all sides. We talk to bioengineers and scientists for a first hand look. We ask social scientists how development can be democratic. We inspect research budget and grant approval. Above all, we are open to your input! Each one of us sets out on his personal journey; Duuk digs in the labs, Erik follows the funding and Gijs discloses design. Click our names for an introduction per subject. Do you want to know more about the faces behind the project? Check our about page for a short bio.
In this blog we will share our learning curve – inspired by Joris Luyendijk – through insights, interviews and reflections. Besides, we hope to engage with you through reader queries and suggestions. The journey’s destination is a manifesto for democratic biotech and an overview of synthetic biology in the Netherlands.
So whether you are at home in biotechnology or just interested in technological development, join us in this project and engage in the discussion.
How can you engage?