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iGEM > Paris > Ethics > Ethical Report > Preface


The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is an undergraduate competition begun at the MIT in 2004. In four years the competition grew up exponentially from 5 teams in 2004 to 110 teams in 2009. Within the context of its participation in IGEM 09 competition, the Paris team (iGEM Paris) proposes a reflexion about ethical stakes in synthetic biology, in order to exercise our critical reflexion. Our “disciplinary” motivations to lead that ethical reflexion will be developed in a more formal introduction. We propose to wonder, in that preface, about the several “causes” of the necessity of that reflexion, mainly by wondering about the way interdisciplinarity encourages reflexivity. We wish to establish the fact that ethical reflexion is necessarily linked to a critical perspective, a point will be enlighten in the introduction.

Synthetic biology can be read as an encouragement to interdisciplinarity, as a disciplinary challenge by bringing together, in a unique life science, perspectives from engineering and practices from molecular biology. That interdisciplinarity stimulates researchers the necessity to change from their initial “disciplinary standpoint” in order to come up to synthetic biology specifications, requiring them to change position, to become alternatively insider and outsider towards their own science formation. That change sometimes permits the development of a critical perception, or, at least, makes it more attainable. That critical perspective permitted by reflexivity is one of the ways to get to ethical reflexion.

Among the large field of synthetic biology, the IGEM competition invites young scientists, future researchers to interdisciplinary experimentation. Heterogeneous teams focus on freedom, innovation and motivation can lead teams to perform that disciplinary “insider/outsider” team standing. The specifications of the competition encourage to this reflexive position. In other word, the point is how exploration and experimentation in the way to build up an IGEM project can lead teams to that critical reflexion. Freedom and experimentation, encouraged by the structure of the competition, make the ethical reflexion both relevant and accessible to the teams' mind.

If we go ahead with our inquiry, crossing several institutional or disciplinary structures which promote a critical standpoint and ethical reflexion, we have to examine our own structure of participation in the competition : our team. We can find two “original” explanations to that reflexivity of the team. The Parisian team is build by volunteers to the “IGEM call” made by the Center for Research and Interdisciplinary (CRI) not only because of the student's membership of a certain university. Therefore, the team(iGEM Paris Team) is hybrid both socially and disciplinarily. Students come from high school or undergraduated programs, and differences in disciplines and specializations are large and various. At first, we had to make an effort to understand each other's different backgrounds. In the course of the project development, that “different regard” of the members was transformed, becoming a “shared regard” by building up our project and knowledge, in the process of building a team.

These differences between members, understood as a wealth, were already in the mind of the researchers of the Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity (CRI). The CRI was founded in 2005 at the Medical University of Paris Descartes and defines itself as a convivial place at the crossroad between Life Sciences and exact, natural, cognitive and social sciences. New ways of teaching and learning are daily practices at the CRI, for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and researchers. The originality of the collaborative, non-hierarchical interactions between students and teachers can be found in the autonomy of the student (they collectively choose the content of the classes) but also in the main research's themes and perspectives. The CRI “call for participation” to IGEM has to be understood in that perspective of giving to students critical tools, understood as a wealth in the scientific approach.

Several effects and new questions will rise of that interdisciplinarity, reflexivity and critical perspectives. What are the effects of those institutional and disciplinary causes of the ethical questions? Why and how can we enlighten what is “new” in biological engineering and in the IGEM competition through ethical reflexion? As we will analyze it in the introduction, we will have to consider the ethical reflexion as necessary, once we have admitted the social responsibilities of science and scientists regarding the social effects of their theoretical and material production. Our work will be lead by another imperative of the ethical reflexion, in order to make it concrete and not to give up to that intellectual temptation to go through concepts and methods without actually “doing something” about it. That imperative is making that ethical reflexion “practical” and so, to see who, where and when the decision process is made and how we can operate on it. Beside our aim, a rapid check on the institutional literature about synthetic biology, such as (CRI), make us consider the fact that reflexion is shared between different kinds of actors of that scientific field, especially States, international organizations and national agencies. The ethical questions about synthetic biology are also and mainly about questioning the governance of the field. How, as a first step, will we manage the debate? Then, how will we supply the decision making? In other words, who is going to decide? Who, after putting stakes into light, will deal and manage the tensions linked to that stakes? That tension is inherent to what could be the definition of “scientific ethics” : the coexistence, the “harmony” between a free scientific research, both in theories and practices, and the social responsibilities of those scientific theories and practices. The necessity of the ethical question can now be seen as “viral”, once accepted, it leads us necessarily to the question of the governance, of the decision making, of the action and regulation, from now, each seen as something necessary too.

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