Team:KU Leuven/Human Practices/Ethics/Descriptive


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  • A video shows that two of our team members are having great fun at our favourite company. Do you know the name of the second member that appears in the video?
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Psychoanalysis & synthetic biology


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The interviews are part of our new developed approach, which is bottom-up structured.
All team members and their supervisors were interviewed to get a better understanding of their ethical beliefs with regard to synthetic biology and our project. This is what is called a descriptive evaluation. You will find the results below.


Although ethics is receiving more attention within the iGEM competition, most teams do not go beyond the main issues discussed in current literature, namely biosecurity and biosafety. The ethical beliefs of team members themselves have, to our knowledge, never been examined. To go beyond the current literature, interviews with all team members and their supervisors were conducted in order to retrieve their ethical beliefs and its relation to synthetic biology.


The aim of this part is to develop a new approach to how the Human Practices is tackled within the iGEM competition. We examined whether the ethical beliefs of the team members in daily life differ from their ethical beliefs as participant of the iGEM competition. In this descriptive evaluation, we investigate the ethical outlook or everyday principles of the iGEM team members and how they relate to their work in the lab. More concretely, how does, for example, being a vegetarian relate to one's perspective on genetic engineering, or what influence does it have if one is trying to diminish one's ecological footprint by reducing waste on the selection of the specific project of the team (for example, creating a bacteria that could perhaps reduce the use of pesticides).


Two students from the department of philosophy-one advisor and one member of the iGEM team-interviewed all team members with a predefined questionnaire. The interviews lasted 30 minutes. Team members were informed that their individual answers will not be displayed anywhere, but that larger tendencies or patterns were looked for. By way of investigating their ethical outlook it was attempted to break through the opposition between the scientist and the public. The questions were arranged in three different categories: principles, consequences and responsibility. They consisted of questions concerning their principles in daily life, their views on the consequences of their iGEM-project and the iGEM competition in general and what they thought about their responsibility and more importantly to whom they owed responsibility as a scientist working in the lab.
This summery will present the findings of the interviews according to three ethical themes, namely principles (deontology), consequences (teleology) and responsibility. The findings are presented in a general manner as to ensure the confidentiality of the interviews.

Interview Frederik

Sam interviewing Frederik


The first part of the interview concerned the relation between common day principles and the work in the lab. First, the team members were asked to mention some principles which they hold dearly in everyday life. Secondly, it was investigated whether these principles have a bearing on the work in the lab or their perspective on synthetic biology as a field of scientific research in general.
The reaction to the questions relating to the principles in everyday life were very diverse. Quite some people mentioned that honesty played an important role for them in their dealings with other people. Others mentioned that they were actively trying to minimize their ecological footprint by reducing waste, changing their food patterns and ways of transportation. It was interesting to see that most people needed some time to formulate their principles or to investigate their everyday dealings.
Most people thought that whatever their principles in everyday life were, these principles did not have much bearing neither on the work in the laboratory nor on their outlook on synthetic biology in general. The reason that was given for this gap between everyday principles and the work in the lab is because most people did not consider their work in the lab as an area of ethical concern. They have chosen to pursue their studies in this field of research and they have thus already decided on the desirability of the subject matter. Had they had ethical concerns with the recent progress in genetic engineering they would not have chosen this field of study in the first place.
Moreover, a very insignificant amount of people could imagine situations in the lab that would be in conflict with their principles or ethical values that they used as a standard for acting in daily life. Some people could imagine that certain types of genetic modifications, especially when it concerned the enhancement of human life, would be problematic in their eyes. This scenario, however, was deemed to be distant and unrelated to their role as a member of the KU Leuven iGEM-team.
Hence, the perceived relation between everyday principles and the work in the lab is very small. If their principles could be extended to their work as a scientist in the lab it would not cause any conflict. This became most illustratively clear in the choice of the project by the KU Leuven iGEM team, in which they try to minimize the use of pesticides which have a detrimental effect on the environment, by creating a bacterium that produces pheromones. The environment as an area of ethical concern was also present in the discussion of their ethical outlook outside of the lab.
On a more practical level, most people mentioned that there was little room for ethical discussions to take place. Mostly ethics was considered as something “necessary”, or cumbersome that hampered the scientific process of the project. One member mentioned that if ethical discussions would take place it would be “tussen pot en pint [between beers]”. This quote indicates that if there are ethical discussions at all they are not systematically integrated into the scientific process and into the work of the iGEM-team.


The second part of the interview consisted of questions concerning the consequences of their acts as researchers in the lab and the consequences of their project.
The answers in the second part were quite uniform, namely their work in the lab and as participants of the KU Leuven iGEM team was seen as a preparatory, as something that enabled them to learn about research in synthetic biology, however, without any real consequences (neither their actions as individuals or the project as a whole). The gap between their actions in the lab and an application of their product on the market was considered too big to be included in their considerations.
The project itself was seen as a positive contribution to the problems with aphids, because it is a more natural solution. Pesticides were seen as inferior to bacteria which could attract lady bugs by producing certain pheromones. Interestingly, neither the problem of intensifying the food production, nor the problems with mass food production were mentioned, seemingly indicating a narrow view of problem solving as an important way of thinking. Because our project has different applications (direct spraying on plants or a sticker model), the use of our bacterium on a large scale was problematic for some of the team-members. Especially direct spraying and with that direct contact of the created bacterium with the ecological system was often felt to be a step too far. An often heard argument was that everything must be safe and that all consequences must be kept in mind. However, at the same time the team members had to admit that controlling everything seemed to be impossible.


A distinction could be made between the feeling of responsibility of the supervisors and that of the team members. The range of what the student feel responsible for is usually and mostly limited to the iGEM competition. What happens after the results are published in the open-source library of iGEM is not their responsibility: the maleficient use of their biobricks is the responsibility of the person who misuses the biobricks. Supervisors do have a different feeling of responsibility. According to them, the scientist has to anticipate the different effects of their actions, even when the research takes place in the laboratory. The supervisors made clear that scientist do have to think about the potential effects of publishing their results in a open-source library.
The biosafety in the laboratory was of great importance to the team members. Literally, every team member who is doing lab work said that he feels directly responsible for the other team members and staff while working in the laboratory.
Next to this, team members usually felt that scientists have to be free and not restricted by regulations and ethical worries. Some team members made a distinction between the work of the scientist, who is discovering and developing, on the one hand, and the practical needs of mankind and society on the other hand. The practical needs are subject to other ethical concerns compared to the work of the scientist in the laboratory. Supervisors had a more comprehensive view on the aspect, in which the work of the scientist is more interwoven with society. Scholarships and grants are exemplary of this close connection.
Responsibility was often felt towards nature, since it was considered to have a intrinsic value and thus deemed necessary to be protected. (Click here to read Hans Jonas on this topic). However, the iGEM project was sometimes felt to be too short to implement this value in practical setting.
Finally, the responsibility towards the society. As an important part of the iGEM competition the team focuses on informing the public about synthetic biology in general and our project in particular. (Click here to read Hannah Arendt on this topic). Communication was considered to be important to inform the public in order to get a better understanding of each other. Some team members discuss their work with friends and family to reflect on the relationship of their work in the laboratory and the society. Their friends and family are a sort of sample which reflects the opinion of the society. The team members hoped to solve problems within the society. Therefore the responsibility of the scientist is closely connected to their work in the laboratory.