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A Biopunk Manifesto

The following was delivered yesterday at the UCLA Center for Society and Genetics' symposium, "Outlaw Biology? Public Participation in the Age of Big Bio".

It is inspired by, and deliberately follows the form of, "A Cypherpunk Manifesto" by Eric Hughes.

Scientific literacy is necessary for a functioning society in the modern age. Scientific literacy is not science education. A person educated in science can understand science; a scientifically literate person can *do* science. Scientific literacy empowers everyone who possesses it to be active contributors to their own health care, the quality of their food, water, and air, their very interactions with their own bodies and the complex world around them.

Society has made dramatic progress in the last hundred years toward the promotion of education, but at the same time, the prevalence of citizen science has fallen. Who are the twentieth-century equivalents of Benjamin Franklin, Edward Jenner, Marie Curie or Thomas Edison? Perhaps Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard or Linus Torvalds -- but the scope of their work is far narrower than that of the natural philosophers who preceded them. Citizen science has suffered from a troubling decline in diversity, and it is this diversity that biohackers seek to reclaim. We reject the popular perception that science is only done in million-dollar university, government, or corporate labs; we assert that the right of freedom of inquiry, to do research and pursue understanding under one's own direction, is as fundamental a right as that of free speech or freedom of religion. We have no quarrel with Big Science; we merely recall that Small Science has always been just as critical to the development of the body of human knowledge, and we refuse to see it extinguished.

Research requires tools, and free inquiry requires that access to tools be unfettered. As engineers, we are developing low-cost laboratory equipment and off-the-shelf protocols that are accessible to the average citizen. As political actors, we support open journals, open collaboration, and free access to publicly-funded research, and we oppose laws that would criminalize the possession of research equipment or the private pursuit of inquiry.

Perhaps it seems strange that scientists and engineers would seek to involve themselves in the political world -- but biohackers have, by necessity, committed themselves to doing so. The lawmakers who wish to curtail individual freedom of inquiry do so out of ignorance and its evil twin, fear -- the natural prey and the natural predator of scientific investigation, respectively. If we can prevail against the former, we will dispel the latter. As biohackers it is our responsibility to act as emissaries of science, creating new scientists out of everyone we meet. We must communicate not only the value of our research, but the value of our methodology and motivation, if we are to drive ignorance and fear back into the darkness once and for all.

We the biopunks are dedicated to putting the tools of scientific investigation into the hands of anyone who wants them. We are building an infrastructure of methodology, of communication, of automation, and of publicly available knowledge.

Biopunks experiment. We have questions, and we don't see the point in waiting around for someone else to answer them. Armed with curiosity and the scientific method, we formulate and test hypotheses in order to find answers to the questions that keep us awake at night. We publish our protocols and equipment designs, and share our bench experience, so that our fellow biopunks may learn from and expand on our methods, as well as reproducing one another's experiments to confirm validity. To paraphrase Eric Hughes, "Our work is free for all to use, worldwide. We don't much care if you don't approve of our research topics." We are building on the work of the Cypherpunks who came before us to ensure that a widely dispersed research community cannot be shut down.

Biopunks deplore restrictions on independent research, for the right to arrive independently at an understanding of the world around oneself is a fundamental human right. Curiosity knows no ethnic, gender, age, or socioeconomic boundaries, but the opportunity to satisfy that curiosity all too often turns on economic opportunity, and we aim to break down that barrier. A thirteen-year-old kid in South Central Los Angeles has just as much of a right to investigate the world as does a university professor. If thermocyclers are too expensive to give one to every interested person, then we'll design cheaper ones and teach people how to build them.

Biopunks take responsibility for their research. We keep in mind that our subjects of interest are living organisms worthy of respect and good treatment, and we are acutely aware that our research has the potential to affect those around us. But we reject outright the admonishments of the precautionary principle, which is nothing more than a paternalistic attempt to silence researchers by inspiring fear of the unknown. When we work, it is with the betterment of the community in mind -- and that includes our community, your community, and the communities of people that we may never meet. We welcome your questions, and we desire nothing more than to empower you to discover the answers to them yourselves.

The biopunks are actively engaged in making the world a place that everyone can understand. Come, let us research together.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.



( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 31st, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)

Damn this age of restrictions and corporate ownership of damn near everything!
Jan. 31st, 2010 05:15 pm (UTC)
===Other than the comment about the precautionary principle, I like this a lot.

===I think that the principle is actually a good one, when properly applied. One should not release the results of experimentation, due to very definite negative effects that can run very much out of control. While I trust the motivations of biohackers far more than corporations, I would like both to be acting under the understanding that the systems they are exploring should not be forced onto all others just because "we know better than you".

===(I really dislike the turn that GMO "science" has taken. Too early a release into the wild of the results of the technology, when it really should have stayed in the various labs for a fair bit longer. I trust the biohackers more, partially because they will have folks looking at their work and their critiques of things will be far more open...I think the safety net will be MUCH more effective, and will hopefully rein in the corporate science idiocies by real observation and testing.)
Feb. 1st, 2010 11:36 am (UTC)
Watching you play with "glowgurt" made me realise that I had an unconscious fear of science (me, who studied biology at university for a couple of years), and that I could let go of that fear.

I've been dabbling with a few cultures of penicillium, mostly growing and observing their effects on cheese.
Feb. 1st, 2010 07:27 pm (UTC)
So how did they react to your talk?
Feb. 2nd, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
Proactionary Principle
People’s freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even critical, to humanity. This implies several imperatives when restrictive measures are proposed: Assess risks and opportunities according to available science, not popular perception. Account for both the costs of the restrictions themselves, and those of opportunities foregone. Favor measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of impacts, and that have a high expectation value. Protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.

1. People’s freedom to innovate technologically is valuable to humanity. The burden of proof therefore belongs to those who propose restrictive measures. All proposed measures should be closely scrutinized.

2. Evaluate risk according to available science, not popular perception, and allow for common reasoning biases.

3. Give precedence to ameliorating known and proven threats to human health and environmental quality over acting against hypothetical risks.

4. Treat technological risks on the same basis as natural risks; avoid underweighting natural risks and overweighting human-technological risks. Fully account for the benefits of technological advances.

5. Estimate the lost opportunities of abandoning a technology, and take into account the costs and risks of substituting other credible options, carefully considering widely distributed effects and follow-on effects.

6. Consider restrictive measures only if the potential impact of an activity has both significant probability and severity. In such cases, if the activity also generates benefits, discount the impacts according to the feasibility of adapting to the adverse effects. If measures to limit technological advance do appear justified, ensure that the extent of those measures is proportionate to the extent of the probable effects.

7. When choosing among measures to restrict technological innovation, prioritize decision criteria as follows: Give priority to risks to human and other intelligent life over risks to other species; give non-lethal threats to human health priority over threats limited to the environment (within reasonable limits); give priority to immediate threats over distant threats; prefer the measure with the highest expectation value by giving priority to more certain over less certain threats, and to irreversible or persistent impacts over transient impacts.

blatantly copied from http://www.extropy.org/proactionaryprinciple.htm

- Bryan
Feb. 3rd, 2010 08:53 am (UTC)
love this quote from your post
Scientific literacy is necessary for a functioning society in the modern age. Scientific literacy is not science education. A person educated in science can understand science; a scientifically literate person can *do* science. <----- am quoting it on http://transitlab.org
Feb. 10th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
Just too cool
Fantasic - keep up the good work
Mar. 3rd, 2010 05:39 am (UTC)
Passing on the word
Hey Meredith,

I'm helping to found a biohacking community here in Baltimore, MD. I've linked to your article, within our blogspace. Come check us out, and feel free to give us some pointers.


I wonder whether you'd be up for a small interview to accompany your piece? 20 questions or something similar... What do ya think
Mar. 25th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
yes i am a bio outlaw
rebel yell, billy idle
Sep. 4th, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)
I just watched the video of this and loved it. Thanks!
Dec. 20th, 2010 07:53 am (UTC)

We at Anti-E support you.
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
I've become aware of this movement through the information on the Biopunk article on Nature's April 6 2011 issue.

As a post-doc and admin of an online science forum I support the efforts to bring knowledge to everyone. Especially enthusiasm to do science and understanding of the scientific method among general population need to improved.

One concern I have is safety. Most of those rules and regulations we have in the labs is to prevent accidental exposure of public to biological reagents. For example a bacterium transformed with antibiotic resistance genes can easily spread into the food chain. As long as people who do the experiments know the risks and take precautions to prevent science is science wherever it's made.
Jun. 1st, 2011 05:41 pm (UTC)
Providing tools
Let's put the tools in the hands of the people- but only on a voluntary, non-government basis. The tools should NOT be provided for by government, nor should people be taxed or forced to pay for said tools. They should be provided by voluntary donations and perhaps a use fee.
Mar. 8th, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
Hi Meredith,
I'm a science journalist doing a piece on biohacking for Canada's national broadcaster, CBC Radio's show Spark, which is about tech, trends, and ideas. I'd love to talk to you. Can we chat? You can reach me at Sonya (at) sonyabuyting (dot com). I hope to speak with you soon!
Lisa Brooks
Dec. 9th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
My body is a laboratory so then whAT MILLIONS OF POSSIBILITIES i HAVE AS A SELF INFLICTED bIOHACK!!! I have experimented with sound.aurual brainwave rythyms producing thetawaves in a generous state...Ive allready done lifetimes worth of chemical and botanical plant resarch and once lived with Timothy Leary in his garage in Beverly Hills. We designed a webpage for the masses that list every substance known to man that alters conciousness, what it does to the mind,body and brain. Also what to expect from the experience and most importantly WHAT TO DO IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG>>>>>very important we sell test kits for testing your MDMA and other substances to tell you if it is safe or not..most of it is garbage but you can learn how to obtain better resources once youve gone to our page. Leary.Com and Leary Float.Com which is about Floatation tanks..Samahdhi can be achieved through many avenues..I have graduated from the substances and now practice isolation sensory deprivation in the Samnadhi brand Floatation Tank...I suggest that MIT had done enough research about artificial intelligence as to produce a bionic part or two for the increased effeectiveness of the human body which has its limitations..backs,hips,knees needing replacement long before the rest of the body ceases to be productive..I would like to donate my body to Science before these things happen in order to help science and the millions of suffering people who need help with their deteriorating bodies...I have a plan to partner with a company to replace my joints in a fashion that makes them superusable and of metal.materials that wont wear out in one lifetime..if any of you engineers out there know how to direct me to such a source of bionic research using live humans U will be contributing to my cause to help the world and change humanity before the technology turns on us so to say...Biohackers I celebrate your cause and am looking for further websites aABOUT THIS bIOHAcking research and community....Sincerely Verotika777 on Fetlife.com Thanks
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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