Human Practices/FAQ


Frequently Asked Questions

On this page you will find frequently asked questions about: how Human Practices is judged, handling consequences, Human Practices methods, and what counts as human practices.

Judges asking questions at the 2018 Giant Jamboree.

Questions about how Human Practices work is judged

What is the difference between Integrated Human Practices and Education and Public Engagement?

Integrated Human Practices must be related to some aspect of your project. Activities like arranging a general survey or hosting a workshop about synthetic biology may not directly relate to the main problem your team is trying to solve. Integrated Human Practices involves taking what you learn outside the lab and adapting your project in response.

The Education and Public Engagement special prize recognizes teams who develop new and innovative education and engagement activities that may not directly integrate back into their own projects. A new curriculum resource, an educational game, or a set of accessibility guidelines might be a very worthwhile contribution to the communication of synthetic biology, even if it wouldn’t much change the impact of your particular iGEM project on the world.

What is the difference between the Gold and Silver medal criteria for Human Practices?

For the Silver medal, we ask that you think carefully and creatively about whether your work is responsible and good for the world. You need to investigate one or more Human Practices issues related to your project (through engaging with your relevant local, national and/or international communities, or through other creative approaches) and then document what you learn.

For the Gold medal, you must show that your investigation of HP issues has been integrated into the purpose, design, and/or execution of your project. We ask that you document how you have responded to what you learn. Did some aspects of your project change after your research or discussions? Why or why not? How did stakeholders react to changes you proposed? Answers to these kinds of questions are needed to meet the Gold medal criteria.

Thinking about the consequences of your work

What happens if we don't think about the consequences of our work?

There might be consequences for your team. iGEM has Rules of Conduct that cover safety and security, responsibility, honesty and respect. You must also follow iGEM’s Policies, which cover things like human subjects research. If the judges at the jamboree, the people at iGEM reviewing your project, or others in the community don't think your team has followed these rules, the Responsible Conduct Committee or the Safety and Security Committee might take disciplinary action against you. Your team might be unable to win awards or be disqualified from the competition.

Considering the consequences of your work, through human practices, is a requirement for participation in iGEM. It's also important for a successful project. There are different human practices requirements for gold, silver and bronze medals. As an iGEM student, you are also an ambassador for the global synthetic biology community; your human practices work help let you set a good example within and beyond the competition.

Is my team allowed to work on a controversial project? What kind of human practices should we do?

A project might be called controversial for many reasons— maybe you think you’re likely to see sensationalist media coverage of your work, maybe your project is connected to hotly-debated ethical issues. These may be the sort of issues that iGEM teams investigate through their human practices work. Whether or not your project idea is controversial doesn’t say much about its value.

However, your team will not be rewarded for seeking out controversy, and you should not pursue an idea simply because it’s controversial. Ask yourself whether you’ve found the best approach: are there other ways to solve the same problems? Teams are expected to document the rationale and process by which they select their project. A decision not to use certain methods or pursue certain ideas is a perfectly valid outcome of your human practices work, which you can document on your wiki.

If your team decides to go ahead with a controversial project, ensure you treat high-stakes issues with respect. Remember that iGEM students are ambassadors for the global synthetic biology community; what your team does this year may have a large impact beyond the competition. We also recognize that iGEM is an international community, and issues that are contentious and polarizing in one country or culture may already be settled in another.

Questions about what kinds of work count as Human Practices

I got advice from a professor at my university about my project– does this count as Human Practices?

We encourage teams to draw from as much expertise as possible in developing their projects. However, part of the goal of Human Practices at iGEM is to encourage teams to engage with issues that extend beyond the lab and even beyond their institution. While seeking expertise from professors may make up a part of your team’s Human Practices effort, we strongly recommend you also seek out input from more diverse communities.

Does feedback on something like public engagement work still count as integrated human practices?

Integrated human practices, according to the judging handbook, means that "you have thought carefully and creatively about whether your work is responsible and good for the world" and then have integrated that thinking "into the design and/or execution of your project".

Feedback from something like public engagement could be affect the design or execution of your project. As one example, the public response to an art exhibit run by your team might raise new ethical or societal issues, causing you to refocus your project. As another example, user feedback on a hardware or software tool could cause your team develop a new way to report your synthetic biology work.

If the feedback doesn’t impact the design or execution of your main project idea, it probably won't count as integrated human practices. However, gathering feedback is still important! It will let you develop better public engagements, will allow you to provide good documentation of your human practices methods, and could help your team win special prizes such as Best Education & Public Engagement, Best Software Tool, or Best Presentation.

I have an idea for something creative. How do I know if it counts as Human Practices?

Exploring and testing new and creative ideas is something we strongly encourage. We suggest that you take a look at past projects that may have tried similar ideas. If your creative work ties into the design and development of other aspects of your project, it may well be considered Integrated Human Practices. If you’re not sure about how to integrate your creative ideas into your project, feel free to contact the Human Practices committee for guidance.

Questions about how to do Human Practices

How do I connect with people or communities related to my project? Where do I start?

Don’t be shy! Many people are happy to speak to passionate iGEM team members. You might want to start with local businesses or nonprofits that do work related to your project or with experts whose work you’ve come across in your research.

When contacting someone, describe who you are and why you’re reaching out to them. Leave short emails or messages with specific questions, so it’s easy for them to respond if they have a tight schedule. Even if they don’t have time to talk, you can ask them to recommend other people for you to contact.

If you’re struggling, you can write to the human practices committee for further advice.

I want to conduct a survey, but I’m having trouble finding information about my country or institution’s rules on human research. What do I do?

It’s important to know that surveys will not count towards your medal criteria unless you comply with regulations on research involving human subjects and follow valid scientific survey design. You should review the iGEM policy on Human Subjects Research and the sections of the resources page on informed consent and writing valid surveys.

You can consult past iGEM projects, speak to your supervisors, or contact other researchers or teams who need to conduct human subjects research as part of their activities. Make sure you document your efforts so that future teams can build upon your work, so that judges can see your efforts, and so that iGEM knows that you have followed your local regulations.

I’m doing a Foundational Advance project- how can I integrate Human Practices into it?

Even projects which aim to develop the technical aspects of synthetic biology, rather than apply them to a real-world problem, can have important societal implications. Some examples of Integrated Human Practices in Foundational Advance projects include Marburg 2018, who integrated what they learned from their engagement with visually-impaired high school students to make both their wiki and presentation accessible, and Heidelberg 2017, who developed software to screen DNA sequences produced by their directed evolution algorithms for any potential safety concerns.

What if we want to patent our work?

One of iGEM’s core values is cooperation, which is expressed through the "Get, Give, & Share" philosophy of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, the open documentation of team wikis, and many other aspects of the competition.

That said, we recognize that your team may wish to secure intellectual property protection for your work, perhaps because, like many iGEM teams before you, you intend to start a company based on your work. Intellectual property law varies greatly between countries, and we would encourage you to contact your institution for support in navigating it. Many universities have a Technology Transfer Office- if you have access to one, that's likely a good place to start. You may find the resources offered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, such as country profiles, helpful.

Some previous iGEM teams have documented their thinking about intellectual property, You can read about the TUDelft 2017 and Stockholm 2018 teams applying for EU patents, and the Manchester 2017 team’s write-up on intellectual property and synthetic biology, which also covers their decision to decide not to pursue a patent.