Friday, April 09, 2010

garage biology

synthesis | I recall giving a talk in DC in 2003 or so wherein I made this point to a room full of intelligence types (domestic and foreign), and only about half of them -- predominantly the younger ones -- understood that information was their only tool in this game. The notion that you could effectively produce safety through prohibiting garage biology and related efforts is the height of folly. See, for example, "And the Innovation Continues...Starting with Shake and Bake Meth!" for the latest on the effectiveness of domestic prohibition of methamphetamine production. The effect is -- surprise!!! -- more innovation. Just like it always is. However much garage biology we wind up with, we will be much safer if practitioners are willing to discuss what they are up to without worrying about misdirected badges, search warrants, and guns.

To be sure, I don't have reason to suspect anything but good intentions and productive work originating from the garage lab shown above. Nor is a drug screening project likely to result in something scary. But I certainly can't know they won't make a mistake. I would feel more comfortable if they, in turn, didn't feel like they had to keep a low profile so that there could be open discussion of potential missteps. This applies to individuals and governments alike: "Above all else, let us insist that this work happens in the light, subject to the scrutiny of all who choose to examine it." (PDF) And I am waaay more concerned about what the government might get up to behind closed doors than I am about activities of individuals.

Next week I am headed to DC for another biosecurity/bioterrorism discussion, which will be interesting in light of the recent "F" grade given to US biopreparedness by the President's Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. See also my earlier analysis of the report. I mention this here because the US Government still doesn't get the role of garage biology in much needed innovation (see the slides above from the talk to the CA Assembly Committee for a list of important technical advances from small businesses and individuals -- this discussion is also in the book). Nor has the US Government clued into the PR job they have ahead of them with students who are gaining skills and who want to practice them in the garage. Both the FBI and the Biological Weapons Commission Convention (sorry, Piers!) had a presence at iGEM in 2009 -- as liasons to students the FBI sent Agents whose cards read "Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator". !!!Calling Chiat\Day!!!

There continues to be a prominent thread of conversation in Washington DC that "biohacking" is somehow aberrant and strange. But apparently DIYBio, you'll be happy to hear, is a group composed of the Good Guys. Everyone should feel happy and safe, I guess. Or maybe not so much, but not for the reasons you might think.

The creation of a false dichotomy between "DIY Biotech" (good guys) and "Biohacking" (bad guys) lends unfortunate credence to the notion that there is an easily identifiable group of well-meaning souls who embrace openness and who are eager to work with the government. On the contrary, in my experience there are a number of people who are actively hacking biology in their garages who intentionally keep a low profile (I am not certain how many and know of no existing measure, but see discussion above). This tally included me until a little over a year ago, though now my garage houses a boat under restoration. These people often consider themselves "hackers", in the same vein as people who hack computers, boats (!), cars, and their own houses. Yes, it is all hacking, or Making, or whatever you want to call it, and not only is it generally innocuous but it is also the core of technological innovation that drives our economy. And without direct interaction, I do not believe it is practical to ascribe motivation or intent to an individual - including and especially an incorporated individual - operating in a garage. Thus, I strongly object to the establishment of a conversation related to biosecurity in which the term "biohacker" has any pejorative connotations precisely because it perpetuates the misconception that i) this group is quantifiable; ii) that the group has any unified motivations or identifiable ethical norms (or anti-norms); iii) that it can realistically be currently addressed (or assessed) as a "group". Fist tap Dale.