Professor Elena Aronova of the University of California came to talk with us this past week on the history of science. My take away from her talk, was the role of citizen scientists in modern, western society. Though her talk centered primarily on the easter theater (understandably), I couldn’t help to draw connections between the current role ‘bio-hackers’ play in the science community of the United States. Do note: the biohacking sub-culture has a great many facets which I will not discuss in this post. Intent to provide my top-level opinions of and reactions to these home-grown scientists.
See, biohacking is a fairly new term that has increased in popularity through the years. The clear inference is that the biohacking subculture has grown steadily alongside the development of modern technology. That is to say that modern tech enables biohackers. Biohacking is formally defined as ‘the activity of exploiting genetic material experimentally without regard to accepted ethical standards’. I take great issue with that definition. The first being the connotation that ‘-hacking’ brings. See, in the earliest and purest sense, hackers were those who modified geochronology to better suit their needs or desires. They weren’t malicious in any means. There were merely curious — tinkerers. Which brings me to my second gripe with this definition: ‘without regard to accepted ethical standards’. Again, ‘hackers’ in the purest sense have no ethical connotation. The combination of fear derived from ignorance and the proliferation of this fear through visual media has altered the public perception of a ‘hacker’.
Disclaimer: less than savory language is used in the video.
The parallel I drew between biohackers and Aronova’s citizen scientist is that of necessity. Biohackers have emerged as relevant form of experimentation due to the intersection between the ‘do-it-yourself’ attitude of our generation and the fierce regulations that face formal lab research. Why waste time weeding through bureaucracy when you can just as easily do that same work at home? There lies the primary argument against biohacking: the restrictions put in place in formal lab-science is for safety and control. What happens when you genetically modify wheat so that your beer glows in the dark, but you accidentally concocted deadly and slow-moving carcinogens in the process?
This concern is not without merit. My naive response: the regulation should be in the distribution of produced matter. Individuals should be allowed to use technologies like CRISPR, but should be restricted in how they distribute those modified proteins. I like to pose the question, “what is the main difference between a hacker and security researcher?” The answer: security researchers write the code whereas hackers utilize it. As long as this citizen science does not spread to a great portion of the population, I see no hard. **
I argue that this wave of citizen scientists we call ‘biohackers’, will accelerate scientific discovery while educating the general public on issues normally confined a white-walled lab.
** Granted, the easiest way to prevent the spread of homemade disease is to restrict it’s creation in the fist place.