Book of the Day: Biohackers and the Politics of Open Science

a book about Open Source in Genomics, not only the diybio movement but more in general how open science culture and practices interact with today’s innovation and market system.

* Book: Biohackers. The Politics of Open Science. Alessandro Delfanti. Pluto Press, 2013.

Excerpted from Alessandro Delfanti:

“The three cases I present in this book are meant to exemplify the many different directions open biology is taking. Craig Venter, the US biologist known for his role in genetics’ commercialisation and subjection to secrecy and intellectual property rights, sailed the world’s oceans in order to collect genomics data and information he would then, for the first time, share publicly through open access databases and journals. The Italian virologist Ilaria Capua challenged the World Health Organization’s policies on access to influenza data by refusing the institution’s offers to upload its research group’s data on avian influenza genomics on a password-protected database.

Both Venter and Capua founded their own independent open access databases, although their goals were completely divergent. The rise of a do-it-yourself biology movement in the United States, DIYbio, was based not only on the American amateur science tradition, but also on explicit references to hacking and open source software from which it borrowed practices that it then applied to the life sciences. I must stress that I do not use ‘hacker’ as a native category; in fact, most biologists that use open science tools and practices do not define themselves as hackers. Among the cases I present, only DIYbio has explicit relationships with the hacker tradition. In other cases, as will become clear in the following chapters, hacker cultures represent a source of innovation and contamination of scientists’ cultures. Yet all three cases represent a move towards a more open informational environment and also a critique of the current system of the life sciences. Finally, they all have very different relationships to issues such as commercialisation, profit, or autonomy from institutions.”

In the Introduction, he writes:

“Crack the code, share your data, have fun, save the world, be independent, become famous and make a lot of money. There is a link between contemporary scientists devoted to open biology and the ethics and myths of one of the heroes of the computer revolution and of informational capitalism: the hacker.

In this book I show the existence of a confluence between the Mertonian ethos, the famous account of scientist’s norms of behaviour proposed in the 1930s by the science sociologist Robert Merton (1973) and the hacker ethic, a very diverse and heterogeneous set of moral norms and cultural practices whose foundations are based upon the desire to have a free and direct approach to technology and information.

The hacker ethic emerged in the 1960s within the first hacker communities in the United States and while different versions of it have been formalised in several books, manifestos and writings, what makes hacking interesting today is exactly the wealth and diversity of practices and cultures it represents. The emerging open science culture I point out is influenced by this wealth, as it mixes rebellion and openness, antiestablishment critique and insistence on informational metaphors, and operates in a context of crisis and transformation where the relationship between researchers and scientific institutions, and their commercialisation and communication practices, are redefined.

In this book I refer to biohackers – life scientists whose practices exhibit a remix of cultures that update a more traditional science ethos with elements coming from hacking and free software. It is well-known that cultures related to hacking and free software are indebted to the modern scientific ethos. Yet what I want to show is how hacking and free software are now contaminating scientific cultures, in what we could somehow be defined as cultural feedback. This process of coevolution is linked to the widespread and deep influence computers have on the scientific enterprise. In fact, the stories this book contains are related to the creation of genomics databases and community labs, and the use of online sharing tools and open source solutions.

Beyond the analysis of communication tools, I will explore a world in which the emergence of new scientific communities and new alliances between different actors are changing the landscape of scientific production. The sharing of genomic data through open access databases, the cracking of DNA codes, the standardisation of biological parts or the production of open source machinery for biomedical research represent one side of a process that also involves institutional change and challenges some of our assumptions about the relationship between research, commerce and power. A cultural shift lies at the centre of these transformations. Therefore, while one of the main problems analysed in this book is the widespread adoption of open access and open source solutions by biologists, my goal is to show that their relationship with hacker and free software cultures is deep and in some cases straightforward. In this way I tackle two main problems, one of which is the role of open science within the framework of informational and digital capitalism. The complexity of open science politics goes beyond the opposition between openness and closure and pushes us to look for a deeper understanding of today’s transformations in biology. The other is the evolution of scientists’ culture and how it interacts with the way science is done, distributed, shared and commercialised.

By analysing both discursive strategies and socio-economic practices of contemporary biologists who use open science tools, I investigate their role in the changing relationship between science and society and try to give a multidimensional, stratified picture of the politics of open science.

Life sciences innovation now takes place in increasingly complex and mixed configurations, in which open data policies and open access tools coexist with different, and more strict, sets of access policies and intellectual property rights (IPR). Further, life sciences are now open to the participation of new actors, such as citizen scientists, start-ups and online collaborative platforms. These biologists have a role in hacking biology.

Hacking has an active approach to the shaping of the proprietary structure of scientific information – to who owns and disposes of biological data and knowledge. But it also poses a challenge to Big Bio1 – the ensemble of big corporations, global universities and international and government agencies that compose the economic system of current life sciences – that aims at modifying the institutional environment in which biological research takes place by asking the question: who can perform biomedical research? Biohackers work against the high and well-defended thresholds to access that characterise Big Bio institutions. The skyrocketing costs of setting up a biomedical research laboratory, the increased complexity of biological research, the formal education required to work in a university or corporate lab, the complex bureaucracies that run scientific institutions, the legal and technological obstacles that prevent most people from accessing biomedical information have all been subject to attacks in the name of openness. Openness thus does not refer simply to access to information, but also to institutional change towards more open environments.

In fact, today the word ‘open’ has become an umbrella term that may refer to very different practices. In this book I use the expression ‘open science’ to describe a broad range of practices that include open source, open access, citizen science and online cooperative science or science 2.0.

When analysing open science I do not focus only on intellectual property rights, but more generally on the practices that foster access to the production of scientific information and knowledge. Thus, in this book we will embark on a journey through the very different ways in which science can become open and free. We will see how open science can be detached from the control of bureaucracies, but also represent a business and marketing model, and how it can widen citizens’ access to scientific knowledge or even become a resistance practice.

An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.

But my point is exactly that ‘the old tradition’ of the open science ethos is not enough to understand the transformations we are facing. This narrative about a corrupted Eden and its redemption is too simple and static. In order to present a different viewpoint on this story, I refer to the hacker ethic in order to study three open biology research projects. Criticising the main narration related to the cultural basis of open science, I want to shed light on the transformations that are shaking today’s science: a new open science culture that is emerging among biologists, evolving from the twentieth-century Mertonian ethos but also comprised of several new cultural elements.

An attempt at clearly separating the many facets of hacking from each other might prove to be flawed, as it seems impossible to demarcate the line of separation between hacking as a critical and alternative approach to corporate computing, as a community- driven technological evolution and as a source of socio-technical innovations to be subsumed by corporations and governments. The countercultural roots of hacking and its contribution to the IT industry are inextricable.6 Thus hacking is useful in developing an understanding of the similarities and differences between the approach to scientific institutions, corporations, intellectual property rights and antiestablishment critiques expressed by the biologists I have included in this study. Pointing out the relationship between scientists and hacking also allows me to make a comparison between open science on the one hand, and the history and the political economy of free and open source software on the other.

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