In my dissertation, I am interested in how biotechnology is being ‘democratized’ in community science labs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Community science lab members (professional scientists, university students, DIY biologists, ‘biohackers’, interested amateurs) are generally thoughtful about what ‘democratization’ means within their spaces and communities, and how they can undertake initiatives to ‘democratize’ in other ways. However, whilst they aspire to ‘democratize’ biotechnology in creative, engaged ways, they are perhaps less critical about the project of ‘democratizing’ biotechnology more broadly, and generally think that doing so is necessarily a useful, worthwhile endeavour.
Discourses around citizen science and techno-optimism are especially prominent (and both take on a specific flavour inflected by Silicon Valley’s regional culture around innovation and entrepreneurship). More critical discourses which question the particular imaginaries about the relationship between science and society implicit in these discourses are less pronounced.
With respect to laws, there are several regulations that relate what sorts of projects and experiments can, and should, be conducted within community science labs. Additionally, the FBI has been a ‘partner’ of sorts with community science labs in the United States for about a decade. With respect to economies, these labs are heavily dependent on regional economies for donations of lab materials (e.g. from research labs, or unsuccessful start-ups). Some community labs members themselves also want to establish their own start-ups or create materials, tools, or technologies which circulate in these regional, and broader, economies.
There are several organizations involved, mostly non-profits who either help organize donations of lab materials to community science labs, or organizations which bring together community science labs at the global level.
Although there are some associated with DIY biology/biohacking who are eager to self-experiment, most community science lab members are wary or explicitly against this. Instead, most of the ‘bodily effects’ involved are related to the experiments which are conducted on micro-organisms (e.g. bacteria, yeast).
Community science lab members are generally engaged in conducting and communicating science and related project efforts to other group members and the public. They do so during community meetings, on social media, and via email. For community projects, the desire to ‘democratize’ and be as open as possible means that communication is generally transparent (although some information is withheld, e.g. specific experimental approaches which might be used by others in patents).
Efforts to ‘democratize’ biotechnology in these labs are generally aimed at producing scientifically literate subjects, although often this can manifest and implicitly depend on a ‘linear’ model of scientific communication, in which community science lab members are tasked with ‘informing’ newcomers of the benefits of these labs, and biotechnology more generally, in relatively straightforward, uncritical ways.
Community science labs are generally welcome to everyone interested in learning more about biology and science. As such, these communities are comprised of everyone from professional scientists eager to pursue their own projects outside of work, to eager people with no education backgrounds in biology. Many of the lab members have engineering backgrounds, and are interested in synthetic biology (i.e. the attempt to apply engineering principles to biological systems).
Community science lab members often rely on programs and platforms to help organize and collaborate on experiments together. There are also platforms (e.g. Mattermost) where updates on progress are shared with others.
Community science labs provide the ‘technical conditions’ which make biotechnology accessible to a broader range of people. This includes lab benches, devices, and materials to conduct biotechnological experiments. These labs also depend on technical infrastructures and services beyond these labs (e.g. DNA sequencing).
The ‘ecological’ conditions in my research relate to lab-based ecologies of micro-organisms used in experiments, and the potential for environmental contamination beyond the labs.
There are some possible geo-scale impacts related to community science labs (e.g. some community lab projects are environmentally focused).