Team:UNAM Genomics Mexico/HumanPractices



Human Practices Home

Pop Culture and Fiction might not be the best teachers for anything out there, but many representations of the popular imaginary are taken from them and reflected on them in a complex relationship [1]. Undoubtedly, there is not a lineal and direct relationship between portrayals of science and scientists, but pop culture (as represented in TV, movies and books) might shed some light and give meaningful insights on what is being thought by the community, through history and now. There might be also powerful cautionary tales out there.

Take for example Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. Frankenstein is not a book particularly about science, but about anything that disrupts the continuum between the individual and the community. This disruption of virtue, as Shelley called it, is what might be considered to be at fault for the harm brought by Frankenstein's monstrous creation:

"I know that while you are pleased with yourself you will think of us with affection, and we shall hear regularly from you. You must pardon me if I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected".[2]

This assertion from Victor Frankenstein's father represents something critical in the novel. During the summer when Victor created the 'monster', he was "engaged, heart and soul, in one pursuit," making his eyes "insensible to the charms of nature," and caused him to "forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom [he] had not seen for so long time." The act of corresponding with another person, as portrayed in the novel, is an act of being involved in a community, and what Victor did on that summer according to his father and which can be inferred from the epistolary exchange, was to withdraw from the moral constrains of his community.

Victor Frankenstein is egotistical and he does not allow himself to respond to the needs and bonds of people around him. This egotistical search on Victor's case for Science ruptures community; that rupture and the consequences are embodied in the monstrous creation, which ultimately turns its back on his very creator.


While the election of Frankenstein as our cautionary tale may be seen as the most commonly used cliché to describe the work genetic engineers and synthetic biologists do, in this particular occasion we are focusing not on the unnamed monster and the analogy between our disciplines and the creation of new life, but on the doctor himself, his context and the results of his actions. Could this fictional story serve as a cautionary tale for us in the 21st century?

We believe it does. Right now, there is a breach between scientists and society that needs our most urgent attention. Perception of Science and scientists is suffering nowadays a crisis that might be considered of "public relations". The overall failure of the scientific community as a whole in its outreach duty and the perceived ostracism with which many of them carry their research have generated a gap between the general public and the scientific community within this paradigmatic deficit model. Despite the fact that we’ve got many great science communicators and Non-Profit Organizations devoted to this endeavor, the level of involvement of the society at large with the scientific community has been less than frugal.

The symptoms of this “public relations” failure can be observed in the last National Survey of Perception of Science carried out by the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico, which found that Mexican citizens consider scientists dangerous because they allegedly possess a great power because of the knowledge they have. While the media and the scientific community pointed against the usual suspects (pseudosciences, religion) to explain this aversion, we wondered if there might be another variable playing part in this phenomenon.

Bernard Rollin, a bioethicist from the Colorado State University, states in his book “Science and Ethics” [3] an interesting alternate hypothesis to explain this: there’s a scientific ideology that permeates the scientific community, which has driven scientists away from the community they are part of. This hypothesis, outlined in detail on the second chapter of his book, relies on a logical positivist true in which an ethical claim cannot be made from science, an endeavor focused on providing facts about the world and nothing else. In this view, according to Rollin, scientists have forgotten that there might be a duty to engage with the society, since ultimately the products of science tend to be shared within them and not exclusively with the scientific community. Rollin identifies three key components of this “scientific ideology” which make a lot easier to understand our current situation:
a) There is a “value free” science, influenced by the logical positivism mentioned above.
b) Part of this positivism has led to the reductionism we have experienced within the last years, neglecting social sciences and favoring chemical, physical and mathematical explanations.
c) While neglecting social sciences, we are neglecting historical and philosophical lessons that might shed light onto many of the ethical, legal, and social issues we face in sciences nowadays.

What we can do, and what we did

Our Human Practices approach this year wants to take into account these criticisms against the scientific community and its observed ideology. Our main goal is to produce a meaningful interaction with members of society, making an honest correspondence between them and us, in order to find the best way to create a significant and long-lasting interaction. We understand that the scientific community isn’t a detached part of society, but we also live in society and anything that is done within our labs might have an effect on society and therefore in us. We wanted to recuperate this bond with other people to address their concerns and expectations in a meaningful manner. We acknowledge and applaud previous attempts to integrate the social and ethical spheres of synthetic biology, as done a few years ago by the Paris team of 2009. Their work has proven to be one of the most comprehensive discussions of the ethical and societal issues posed by Synthetic Biology within iGEM. Nevertheless, this bibliographical analysis of arguments and its subsequent discussion between scientists seems to us as an incomplete approach, albeit an excellent parting point. Who holds those beliefs and why? Are these the views of society? Are there any other concerns we should know about?

Science communication has proven to be a powerful tool to share breakthrough knowledge among the general public. We've found that conferences and visits to schools are the most common approaches to communicate science among iGEM teams. Previous iGEM teams from our University have shown that this model can and does help to achieve a change in public perception of scientific concepts, as proven as our fellow iGEMers from UNAM Genomics two years ago with their survey before and after their talk. But, what did our colleagues learnt about the most intimate fears, expectations and opinions held by those people who will ultimately share the benefits or bear the burdens of our work?

We believe these approaches are incomplete. It doesn't matter how many schools you visit, or how many interactive expositions you put up, or how many times you appear on the news… Regardless the amount of people you reach, when science communication is unilateral and not a correspondence, the project is at risk of falling into the 'deficit model' of science and science communication, which is not a "correspondence between peers", but a unilateral transmission of ideas and knowledge. It is indeed important that the information is passed through, as a way to level up the scientific literacy of the general population. But there are things that us, as scientist, can also learn from them.

The strategy we implemented in this Human Practices project has been allowing us to identify the expectations, fears and hopes of our Mexican fellow citizens about the issues raised by Synthetic Biology in particular and Science in general. To achieve this, we developed two lines of action:

1. Create a preliminary diagnosis about the concerns, hopes, hypes and fears that are actually present in our community.
2. Establish through on-site and off-site science communication a dialogue with members of society, with the goal of creating a mutual understanding and correspondence, acknowledging that as future scientist, we do form part of society as well as others.

And this is the reason why most of the work presented in this Human Practices page is in Spanish. We are not doing this for anyone else but our people. Therefore, creating material or collaborations in other language than the one spoken in Mexico would fall away from the goal we have set up for ourselves.

The activities implemented to achieve these objectives include the following activities:
1. Who is Mrs. Lupita Cohnnie, PhD?
2. Bio-SintetizARTE (in Spanish and in English)
3. Outreach videos
4. Talk and surveys
5. Symposium on Science Communication
6. Future Work
7. Our Partners, Sponsors and Collaborations.

Welcome to the Human Practices approach of the Genomics Mexico iGEM team of 2012. We hope you like this new approach and that you decide to join us in this new paradigm.


[1] Kitzinger, J 2010. Questioning the sci‐fi alibi: a critique of how ‘science fiction fears’ are used to explain away public concerns about risk. Journal of Risk Research 13 (1) , pp. 73-86
[2] Shelley, M. 1818. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Open Library: Chapter 4.
[3] Rollin, B.E. 2006. Science and Ethics. Cambridge University Press - 304 pages