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The role of codes of conduct in the amateur biology community

Posted by on July 5, 2013

By Dr Catherine Jefferson, freelance consultant on bioweapons policy and researcher at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London.  Catherine will be a member of the panel at next week’s Society of Biology  Policy Lates debate about biosecurity.

Codes are established to guide acceptable standards of behaviour and their importance as a dual use governance measure for the biological sciences has gained increasing recognition. For example, in 2005, codes of conduct for scientists were discussed during meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention and States Parties recognised that codes can make “a significant and effective contribution… to combating the present and future threats posed by biological weapons and bioterrorism,” as well as helping to build a culture of responsibility and accountability among the scientific community. But what happens when biological science is taken outside of traditional institutional settings? Are codes of conduct still relevant? And can they be effective?

In recent years, hackerspaces dedicated to ‘hacking biology’ have emerged and expanded to accommodate a growing community of amateur biologists who seek to ‘democratise biology’ and conduct biological experimentation as a hobby rather than a profession. Amateur biologists or ‘biohackers’ comprise a wide range of participants of varying levels of expertise, with some having little to no scientific training. The opening up of biology to amateurs has led to concerns about the perceived biosecurity threat of increased access to potentially dual use knowledge.

However, the link between the skill to create bioweapons and the actual projects being conducted by biohackers is frequently overstated, and overlook the extent to which a culture of responsibility and accountability has been fostered in the community. During 2011, organised a series of congresses to bring together biohackers from regional groups in North America and Europe to collaborate on the development of a DIYbio Draft Code of Ethics. Despite the diversity of participants involved, both groups developed a similar set of themes, with a focus on transparency, safety and peaceful purposes.

Initiatives such as this are an important step towards promoting best practice and in fact demonstrate a greater willingness among the amateur biology community to engage on these issues than typically found in the professional science community. Yet concern remains as to the effectiveness of relying solely on self-governance measures. Some commentators have noted that ‘hacker ethics’ did not prevent the masses of malware in the cyber world and suggest that biohacking could present future safety and security threats. But if self-governance is not sufficient, restricting biohacking activity is not an acceptable alternative. Any attempts to unduly limit the freedom of amateur biologists could drive what is currently an open and engaged community into an ‘underground activity’. Further open dialogue should be encouraged, not stifled.

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