Considering human practices as part of our research project means considering the ethical, social, legal, or economic dimension of a project to better understand what issues might influence or might be influences by the design and use of our technologies. This year, as part of our silver medal criteria, we decided to implement the STIR protocol into our project, which helped us to have a better understanding of how our work is going to affect several socio-political scenarios, and how these realms have affected our project. STIR is designed to take the form of a structured, cyclic discussion which takes place with members of a lab about decisions made over the course of a research project. STIR is designed to encourage laboratories to address broader societal dimensions and to integrate those societal considerations into their work. We are the second iGEM team to implement the protocol and took inspiration from the Imperial College 2016 iGEM team .
In order to better implement the Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) protocol , we contacted the STIR associate in the UK, Dr Paul Everest, in order to have a better overview of the processes that characterise the protocol. Even though we had previously read and examined the videos and reports that describe the protocol, we thought it would be valuable to have a human approach with someone who was directly involved in the implementation of STIR. Dr Everest accepted to speak to us and explained the typical features that distinguish the STIR protocol.
Dr Everest explained that STIR is entirely based on the idea of a collaboration between social and natural science. In order to achieve this, a joint effort was needed from both the social and the natural world, which could be created with the use of targeted questions that identified connections between the scientific project and how it could have had an impact on the rest of the world.
What was most interesting about the conversation with Dr Everest is that we realised that we were, almost unknowingly, already implementing the STIR protocol. Clearly the conversation with Dr Everest helped us refine the implementation and ask more structured questions, however we have been trying to create a bond between social and natural world since the very beginning of our project. Our team included members from a social science background as well as natural scientists, and this diversity has helped us to create a multi-dimensional approach that has benefitted the purpose of the project.
In order to implement the STIR protocol in its full potential, we have also reviewed previous implementations of the protocol from previous iGEM teams and noticed how its implementations was mainly tied to the creation of the project idea. Teams in the past have engaged in the approach proposed by the protocol and used it to come up with an idea that complied with the STIR structure and was well-thought in terms of social aspects of the project. However, once a project idea was conceived, several teams have abandoned the STIR protocol structured approach to focus on a closer analysis of the socio-ethical aspects of the project.
This, also according to Dr Everest, might cause the STIR protocol to lose its focus, since it is specifically characterised by a defined structure that should ideally be followed at every stage of the process. For this reason, not only did we implement the STIR protocol when choosing our project idea; but we also continued to adopt the same approach throughout the entire duration of the project, by devolving particular attention to how the ethical and political realm might affect or be affected by our decisions. In this way, we tried to make choices that reflected what could have been realistically feasible and sustainable from a legal, social, and economic point of view.
We believe that the protocol, alongside other social analyses and reflections throughout our project, have helped us to achieve a project that has taken into full consideration several social, political, and economic aspects that will have an impact on our work, and also changed the way our project was conceived since its very inception. We considered the three main variables of the STIR protocol for both creating a project idea, but more importantly, for developing it.
The variables we considered for integration were
- Learning and exploring societal dimensions of laboratory technical work
- Capacity to anticipate societal dimensions
- Bringing in alternative perspectives such as social and public values; ethical concerns; and stakeholder considerations.
For additional information on how we have implemented each of the mentioned variables please have a look at our gold medal criteria for human practices.
We believe that the STIR protocol, or at least an adaptation of it – like in the case of Imperial College 2016 – should be implemented by all iGEM teams. We employed the protocol as an entire team, which has helped us to focus our attention on societal dimensions by a multitude of starting points that represented the backgrounds of our team members. In particular, we believe that iGEM teams should have a designated humanist that can identify opportunities or decisions within the project. Human practices is an essential area of any iGEM research project, as it defines how our project will work in the real world and how it is going to affect and be affected by it. Therefore, we believe human practices should be devolved just as much attention and consideration as any other section of the project. Human practices can be challenging, but if devolved enough consideration, the project will largely benefit from it.
- Imperial College London. (2016) iGEM Page. Available: http://2016.igem.org/Team:Imperial_College/Integrated_Practices
- Arizona State University. (2016). Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR). Available: https://cns.asu.edu/research/stir. Last accessed 19th Aug 2017