April 10, 2009
Several weeks ago the Director of iGEM (my old boss) asked me to drop by to chat. He basically told me iGEM wasn’t going to allow amateur teams for 2009, despite earlier statements to the contrary, for two reasons:
1. iGEM depends on the academic institution of each team to provide a safety framework for that team. Because there is no formal safety framework or guidelines or precedent for amateur teams working outside of traditional labs, iGEM is afraid of the potential safety liability and doesn’t want amateur teams to participate until there is some kind of framework (2010!).
2. Most of iGEM’s funding comes from grants to support undergraduate education. A host of amateurs who are not undergraduates would be supported by grants for undergraduate education, which could be a situation the grantors wouldn’t like. Randy didn’t want to take that risk.
Randy also said iGEM would clarify the situation by making a press release regarding these changes, or at least describe them in an organizational email to the iGEM-interest email list. That didn’t happen. So in the meantime, I’ve been verbally explaining the situation to groups of people I think may be starting iGEM teams.
There is some good news: if you want to participate in iGEM in an amateur capacity, you can still do so by collaborating with a local iGEM team. This could help a lot with the fundraising for both the local diybio group and the iGEM team. DIYbio-Boston and DIYbio-NYC are both exploring collaborations with local teams.
As a community we need to start addressing the safety concerns society and the larger scientific establishment has with garage and coworking space wetlab work. I’m sure there are a multitude of opinions on how and what to do, and even what not to do. But I believe we need to organize some kind of formal statement anticipating and addressing these safety concerns, preferably with the help of objective experts. If you are interested in helping figure out how to do this, email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m thinking we should establish a DIYbio safety working group to be responsible for taking a leadership role on this developing real solutions.
I spoke with Randy about organizing a 1-day DIYbio symposium at the same time and place as iGEM this year (which is at MIT on the weekend of October 31). He was receptive to this idea. I think it would be very valuable to bring as much of the community together as possible to meet and discuss these issues and to present a collective snapshot of their work and projects to the world. There would be cross-pollination with many of the iGEM participants, and lastly, I’d like to use the symposium as a deadline by which some group or groups of people could formally present thoughts and work on our safety strategy to the community and to the rest of the world.