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About ethics in our project

That talk was pretty important. We really had to make that ethical reflexions more “practical”, appreciating that questions in our own practices, our own habits, our own project. Different stakes were discuss during that talk, making it seems a bit messy, I'll try here to arrange it to make that stakes more obvious, I hope nobody in the team will mind about that kind of “over conceptualization” I'm about to do. We started that talk with a method I propose, a before/during/after evaluation of our own way to estimate the ethical parts of our project. What do we had in mind when we had to choose our project? What happened when we choose to work on vesicles? What happened then when the lab's manipulations started? What will happen after? What are we responsible for (in both senses) : by asking us questions at the time and by producing something in that iGEM's conditions? All that questions, put into that light, were quite delicate to handle... My own reading of that certain “caution” is that there is both factor of closeness and factor of distance from the ethical question at work in the team's mind. We try to enlighten that point at the end of that post.

"Before" : the ethical implication of the choice of a fundamental research project

The unrealistic perspective :

The choice of that “unrealistic” term has not to be read as a pejorative word. Unrealisticness is about “not wondering about a certain application”, but about something more global, that long distance communication system between bacterias. Unrealisticness is about “not decreeing now about reality”. Before choosing the message in a bubble project, during the brainstorming period, we wonder about a lot of different project which could be more “ethically fitted”, in particular when we were talking about biomedical projects.

It lead us to a question : is there some “favorable ground” for ethical reflexion? Why it seems so hard for us to “find” ethical questions to ask to our project? Why closeness to mankind seems to make ethical reflexions possible and relevant? To me, the way bioethics was culturally and historically built was to answer to pragmatical needs. After World War II, then with the “authority crisis of the 60's/70's”, the person, the individual, is put in the heart of ethical reflexion : giving him rights, conscious, “free and well-informed consent”, etc. That process, mainly lead by Americans thinkers in that pragmatical perspective, put the individual, the single, the man, at the crossing of all concerns. The issue was, at that time, about claiming that science and knowledge, even if necessary and “good”, couldn't be allowed to forget mankind in their process. What about ethical reflexion when there is so few man? So few reality? The way that point was express by the team was by certifying that our project was about fundamental research, and we don't believe in the application nowadays. The application is so, the moment, the instant when mankind is coming into the science process, when it is not anymore “science for science” as a “is this project possible?”, when you have to answer to other imperatives, and among it, ethical imperatives. That “science for science” period is close to a world of concept, of will, of future, of performances of knowledge and practices. Then, it is the crossing between two set of question : from “is this possible?” to “is this good?”.

Conceptualization of our project : “create a language”.

Our project is about communication between bacterias with OMVs, about building a framework which can be easily expanded to a lot of different inputs and outputs. As express by Christophe during the talk, we are not creating a practical tool, we are at the anterior and more meta level, trying to create and to control that communication system. Bacterias are thought through the metaphor of the transistor. That perspective, already defined as more “fundamental” than “applicative”, is also a new way to enlighten what can be a engineered approach of biotechnology : looking for a “ground work”, a “base” in the perspective to be used for some very different applications.

About the analogy with a communication system : is it ethically problematical?

I was personally wondering about that analogy with communication and computing. Is this a problem? Do we have to consider it ethically? Do “life” has to be treated as “mankind”? What kind of changes are we performing? Referring to the analytic philosophy of John Austin and it rewriting by the gender studies, reflexions about performativity (here) and speech act (here) could help us to ask a new question to our project : Does performativity has to be include in ethical reflexions? I think I was the one finding that question relevant, but I allow myself to tell a few words on it. Performativity and speech act are very useful tools to resolve the problem of that “fundamental” versus “applicative” perspectives. By saying that words are actually “doing thing”, the theoretical and practical perspectives are now joined in “real world”. By creating an analogy between communication, computing and life sciences, we are actually performing something, creating a new regard on bacterias, from now on tool to communicate. I really think that kind of performativity is really one of the most interesting point for social science studies and epistemology to look at synthetic biology. To the question which underlies that reflexion : “is that performativity ethically acceptable?” the team seems quite unanimous even if quite intuitive : sense and signification about what is “life” is always moving, by the research dynamics and discoveries in life science, it is not a problem, it is actually what “science is”.

"During" : A certain deviation about practices in science

By asking the “during the project” question, we were in a kind of deadlock. Nobody seemed to be “affected” by ethical questions during the project. Mankind is far away from our lab. So, we went to a more general question about the lab practices : “what can you accept?”, “what is your limit?”.

Lab : Accepting degrees in the manipulation in the team, the notion of scale.

We went round the table to know what was that limits, and what was the ethical stake of manipulating bacterias. It was pretty funny to ask the question of “animal rights” by the means of bacterias. The analogy with mankind was again the point. Everyone was referring to a limit that cannot be exceeded by similarity with mankind definition : to be a mammal, to have a nerve system, to have a brain. Soufiane bring a good point to the debate, by saying that one of the explanation of the fact that nobody really cares about what could happen to bacterias was that animals, mouses, even insect was a “unity”. We are in the scale's question : bacterias are regarded in colony, they're never perceived as a unity. Remembering what we already told about the birth of bioethics, we also can bring to our reflexion the fact that the question of individuality and its respect is one of the way to threat ethical question. When you face something which look more like a drop than a “being”, it is quite hard to consider it as something able to “afford” ethical perspective.

Modeling : “It's only a curve”

After asking that “lab” ethical question, we had to consider the second part of the project process : model-building. Can we ask ethical question to modeling? Does abstraction could be responsible for something? Of course, yes. Intuitively, if you are building a model to “killing a large group of people”, the ethical problems will appear very quickly. If we have in mind the work of Hannah Arendt about authority and bureaucracy, picking up the idea that procedures, protocols and organizational structures to manage activity can be a part of a certain disengagement of the actor's responsibility in the process. Let's consider that problem in our project : do abstraction can turn us away from ethical topics? Modeling in our project relates to mainly two phenomena: the emission of vesicles and the reception of the signal. Modeling has, among other thing, like purpose to think and perform the increase the virulence of the bacterium. That work is mainly focus on implemented mathematics, the product of that work is expressed in formulas, equations and frames of references. Is this a depreciation in the perception of the phenomenon by the means of these mathematical “detours”? Up to what point, the mathematical expression moves away the students from the ethical issues related to their models? Christophe expressed these detours: “it's only a curve”. Thus, we can issue the fact that a specific vigilence has to be built looking at the stakes of modeling. The abstraction of the mathematical tools is likely to involve a depreciation of the ethical issues of the phenomenon, the models expressing “only curves”. We could refer to the linguistic theory to make that point clearer, by the distinction between signifier (the mean, the mathematical expression of a physical phenomenon) and signified (the physical phenomenon itself). The signifier, even complex one, should not make us loose sight of the fact meant. This phenomenon must be examined in all its reality, in order to not neglect the ethical problems it could pose.

Ethical stakes of IGEM process in Paris

Samuel putted forward the remark of the access to biological knowledge and to the laboratory during the summer, by the IGEM team. Indeed, we have to consider modes of pedagogy and biological accesses to the material which are possible within the IGEM participation. You can join the team of Paris by answering to a call for participation of the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI) and after the selection of the students. An evaluation of the motivations is made but, encouraging the autonomy of the team, pedagogical principles deserve to be questioned in that “responsibility approach”. Indeed, and without criticizing fundamentally the aspects of this autonomy of students, we can point the following problems : which visibility, which control can we have on the learning and the techniques transmitted to the students? How can we be insured about their good practices during the preparation of the contest and after this one? Without any obsessional theory on the possible obscure motivations of a student, the question of the respect of the standards of containment and safety, protocols, etc is also posed in these terms. During the summer, the Parisian laboratory is in free access to the team. Knowledge, techniques and potentially risky practices of handling are taught to students. Confidence and will of transmission of the learning are motivations that I obviously won't called in question here, but we must, in order to get to these ethical “situated” and reflexive reflections, consider questions which arise in our ethical perspective. Is this autonomy ethically problematical? How liberal principles of education can be assessed? In other worlds, how to deal autonomy as an educative principles and responsibility as an ethical one? Are that principles contradictory? The Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity was founded in 2005 inside the Medicine University of Paris Descartes and define itself as a convivial place at the crossroad between Life Sciences and exact, natural, cognitive and social sciences. New way of teaching and learning are daily practices at the CRI, for graduate students, Phd and researchers. The originality of that collaborative, non hierarchical interactions between students and teachers can be find in the autonomy of the student (they collectively choose the content of the classes) but also in the main research's themes and perspectives, by the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Life Sciences master program and the European Interdisciplinary "Frontiers in Life Sciences” PhD program. The CRI has also educative projects to promote science to children or to high school students from disadvantaged environment.

That alternative educative principles are performed in the IGEM competition too, going on pretty well with the IGEM' spirit. We spend our summer working on the “message in a bubble” project, on our own in the CRI's premises, without any “teacher” or “chief” except with the help of Guillaume, educator for the laboratory part of the project and the global management of Ariel and Samuel. We had to work on our own, to manage meeting, schedules, defining our own rules and work's organization. Autonomy is a real experience, quite risky sometimes, but very attractive and exciting and permitting student to perform they own way to practice science. That autonomy, confidence to student and educative principles performed at the CRI during the IGEM competition could scare people. How the CRI's leaders manage the safety and security issues of the competition? We can refer to an other educative principle to explain it : the transfer of responsibility. That transfer is not like a contract or a pact, but like a process. Teachers and researchers did not pick up any safety/security manager or special leader of the team to deal with that question. In all the brainstorming phase, by their presence, their advices, their own practices, they progressively lead us to consider that questions, as we were now in their part. We came to responsibility “softly” and “naturally”, without pressure from the researchers, but as playing that researcher part. The IGEM competition is, in the CRI, the occasion of a correlation between a system of confidence, teaching principles encouraging the autonomy and the creativity of the team and a certain “taking risk” regarding the access of student to “risky knowledge and materials”. Autonomy and the confidence granted to the team also relate to the respect of the safety regulations and the “good” use of the received learning on this occasion.

A regard on the team difficulties to consider ethical questions

Regarding a certain difficulty for the team to take in hand that ethical question, I try to understand what factors could explain that difficulty. Let's consider both factors of distance and proximity with ethical problems, creating that tension.

Factors of distance : scale and time

  • Scale :

As we already notice, the particularity of bacterias as object of knowledge can be divided in two “set of questions” referring to two standpoints. Who is the subject of the ethical question : bacterias or man? If we focus on bacterias, as it already has been told, it is so far from mankind that the usual ethical questions are hardly raised and the answer seemed quite obvious to the team, that “bacterias can't be hurt, bacterias can't suffer from our handling”. We had to go through general questions about animals in laboratories to get to that conclusion. If we focus on man, the fact that our bacterias are non pathogenic makes thing quite different regarding risks. Even if unintentional mutation could happen, the risk is not daily dreaded as if we had to use pathogenic bacterias. Ethical problems seem, in both case, a quite far away from us.

  • Time :

A second factor of distance is the question of “runs” of time, creating a certain tension for an ethical reflexion. There is two different runs of time in the team's mind : the “long run” of the project stakes and the “short run” of the IGEM project. As already told, the main ethical problems are thought through hypothetical applications. The idea that the project could be use for “bad” applications is faced seriously by the team. But, it is approached as an abstraction, a so distant future. Charlotte even tell us that she didn't believe still being alive when that kind of project could find a serious application. Risks linked to industrialization processes or to safety issues when mutated bacterias are set into people's environment, are handled like SF-problems, even if they already exist here and now in “potentiality”. Student are living in an other temporality : the temporality of the IGEM concourse. From June to November, we had to build a team, pick a project, read papers to choose our way to implement that project, realize it, etc. All that specification needed for the IGEM concourse take a part in the fact that it seems difficult to care about what could possibly happen in 200 years, because of that radical focus on what could happen tomorrow, in that “IGEM project temporality”. Stress, short time project, deadlines, are factors of distance with ethical problems.

Factor of proximity : synthetic biology and IGEM spirit

In spite of that factors of distance, we can find some items which explain why the ethical questions are nevertheless relevant. That items are mainly linked to the development of synthetic biology as discipline. The democratization of the scientific stakes, the place increasingly important of a citizen debate about biotechnologies (let's think about GMO, stem cell, nanotechnologies...), or the profane visibility on debates of experts with internet, explain, among other things, why the formation of a new scientific discipline occurs with, at the same time, at its sides, the questions of its regulations. The ethical questions, strategic, or related to the forms of its governorship are questioned. The increasingly large importance of the social stakes related to the technoscience today has as a consequence the fact that the question of ethics does not appear anymore as a solution “after blows” to face a failing responsibility but as a preliminary and necessary frame. The question of the responsibility, of the morals and social values which are performed in the scientific practices of the new discipline takes form at the same time, but in tension, with the very first development of the discipline in question.

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