Do–It–Yourself Biology as Citizen Science: Taking Participation a Step Further

This post is part of Bill of Health’s ongoing blog symposium on Critical Studies of Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. Taking a closer look at the role of public participation in science, Rosen Bogdanov and Eduard Aibar argue that participation in DIY-biology is best understood as a collaborative experiment in technoscientific practices. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions already published by clicking here.

By Rosen Bogdanov and Eduard Aibar

We begin our small blog contribution from the very proposition suggested by our subtitle – “taking participation a step further”. What do we mean by “a step further” and is participation inherently linear such that we can take it to another level?

Contrary to many accounts of public participation in science (especially those that aim to increase it), we don’t assume that scientific innovation will somehow speed up, or become more accountable, with more public input. Rather, recalling Michael Gibbons and Helga Nowotny’s work (2001), we argue that the production of scientific knowledge can be made more “socially robust” by including other perspectives. This, however, presents a dilemma when thinking about the case of “citizen science” as the current flagship field for public participation in science. Often, citizen science projects are presented as data-driven ventures whereby citizens are invited to participate in a specific stage, or stages, of this process, or they are framed from the start as the non-expert “public” that participates in collecting or analyzing data.

In this post, we argue consider participation, not as some sort of linear process that can be increased or decreased, but rather as a collaborative experiment in technoscientific practices and biomedical institutions. In their work on the difference between public understanding and public experiments, Georgina Born and Andrew Barry define the latter’s aim as “not so much [to] present existing scientific knowledge to the public, as to forge relations between new knowledge, things, locations and persons that did not exist before – in this way producing truth, public and their relation at the same time” (Born and Barry, 2015). Through the case of two do-it-yourself biology (a.k.a biohacking) groups, we particularly explore these new relationships in the boundaries between contributors and potential contributors of scientific knowledge, as well as between disciplines and institutional structures.

pic-1Take the OpenDrop device – a low-cost digital microfluidics device, whose aim is to enable  citizens to  experiment with the emerging fields of lab-on-a-chip and point-of-care that aim to decentralize diagnostics and implement biomedical protocols in resource-limited areas. Through hackathons and community meetings, the development of OpenDrop is an example of an interdisciplinary and collaborative effort in constructing a more stable and functional technology. But what we found even more interesting was that through this process, The OpenDrop community was also able to integrate a wider ethical and political discourse on the legal frameworks of emerging tools for diagnostics , as well as their uses outside of the biomedical industry. One example we present is the way a small game is implemented onto this diagnostic device as a way of engaging more citizens to experiment with it and, thus, participate in a more general manner in the shaping of the technology. Our aim with presenting this example, was to  put emphasis on the way participation appears in biohacking projects as the end of a scientific project, rather than simply the means of a wider institutional agenda on citizen engagement in an already existing project.

Our second example – Open-source Estrogen, experiments in a similar manner with hormone research alternatives for citizens. This research addresses the issue of endocrine disruption – chemical pollutants that find their way into and interfere with the human endocrine system – through developing cheap bio-protocols in open workshops where citizens prototype their ideas and concerns into the design of the DIY tool. By doing this, the project puts emphasis on the openness of resources and infrastructures that can allow citizens to experiment with biomedical  initiatives. If we think in terms of expertise, such forms of engaging the public can enable those who want to grow their understanding of a specialist domain to do so and, potentially, make small contributions to the wider phenomenon of endocrine disruption.

pic-2But these two examples are not isolated instances of a more community-oriented citizen science. As Papadopolous (2015) puts it, certain participatory practices can serve as “a source of more disruptive kinds of social and political experimentalism, novel ways of equipping actors to deal with change in the face of pressing issues (e.g., climate change), extreme settings (e.g., disasters), and/or recalcitrant objects (e.g., digital infrastructures)”. We claim that they also avoid the pitfall of a managerial control over participation – such as it often appears in projects that engage the non-expert public via pre-selection mechanisms and by enacting neat divisions between professional scientists and citizens.

In conclusion, we claim that “participation can be taken a step further” not just in approaches that summon citizens or give them more access to science, but in projects and practices that experiment with reclaiming and reinventing the knowledge production process from within. In doing so, we demonstrate that  such ‘grassrootedness’ can go hand-in-hand with critical experiments in self-organized participation in research and development that can, in turn,  transform the conditions of the public’s everyday life.

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One thought on “Do–It–Yourself Biology as Citizen Science: Taking Participation a Step Further

  1. I would like to thank you to the author for this exciting news. I want to participate in this programme. I have learned a lot of reading about Critical Studies of Citizen Science in Biomedical Research through this post. By the way, thank you so much for this post.

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