Over the course of 4 years, the Ethics in the Lab Project, run at Harvard University as a collaboration between the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology & Society, delivered a model for changing thinking, organizing, and action in the early-stage integration of pathbreaking technological design with informed engagement with its potential ethical, legal, and social aspects that can be extended to other innovation centers. At the core of this model is a methodology of “experimental governance”, which values coupling science and technology studies (STS) capabilities for unpacking assumptions being made about science and its relationship with society with practical implementation of alternative sets of assumptions, all wrapped in an iterative system of learning and evolution.
I was the primary researcher on the Project, and ran a wide series of experiments in how to attend to the broader societal aspects of science and technology during early-stage development. Since substantial systematic change of the early-stage research environment requires change ranging from individual labs up through international policy, the Project’s experiments spanned this range. In this overview of my work, I break these accomplishments into experiments in changing the practice of research and its oversight, changing policy, and changing pedagogy.
Effecting the direction of work that is done by scientists was always a primary goal of the Project, and I provided several demonstrations of how that can be done in ways that are seen as mutually beneficial to scientists and STSers. At the local level, my multiyear engagement with Kevin Esvelt, a synthetic biologist at MIT’s Media Lab, led to an innovative “Responsive Science” working group, where I trained a series of graduate students on methods to engage more deeply with the social aspects of their research. Started as a result of the students realizing that they did not have the expertise to be engaging with the types of societal questions they thought were important, the group was led by me and ethicist Jeantine Lunshof. The group’s work had significant impacts on the content of their work (Buchtal et al 2019) and on the subsequent career trajectories of the students. Noticing that a major issue for many environmental biotechnology research teams wanting to engage more with the societal aspect of their work was just taking the first step, we collaborated on a short paper to provide a set of tenets for interested researchers (Normandin et al 2023). This paper was immediately picked up by other research groups and has become part of the curriculum at North Carolina State University’s PhD program on Agricultural Biotechnology on Food, Energy, and Water.
At the groups of labs level, my’ role as an advisor to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Safe Genes program provided an opportunity to study the degree to which an advisory role could actually change the content of funded research, as well as the design of the funding agency itself (Evans, in review). Over the course of several years, I worked with the Agency outlining the strengths and weaknesses of this mode of engagement, which may have fed into DARPA’s recent decision to hire a one-year Visiting Scholar to assess its current efforts more fully around the ethical, legal and societal aspects of the work it funds and experiment with a series of alternatives. As an advisor to the Agency, working directly with the teams on the Safe Genes project proved more challenging (see Evans, in review, for full details). However, at my suggestion, the Agency funded a workshop, noted below, on whether an international gene drive registry should be pursued.
At the national level, my role on the Council for the Engineering Biology Research Consortium (EBRC), and as a member of its Security Working Group, has substantially shaped the content and direction of the Consortium’s work, including experiments with red-teaming exercises for gene synthesis providers and work on organizing the industry/academia/publisher system for assessing security risks of synthetic biology publications (Mackelprang et al 2022).
Reflectively analyzing the different locations and methods STS and Critical Security Studies (CSS) can use to change practice led me to collaborate with two other STS/CSS scholars (Dagmar Rychnovská (now known as Dagmar Vorlíček) and Matthias Leese) on a workshop and paper about methods for fostering more critical collaboration between STS/CSS and practitioner communities (Evans et al 2020).
Policy for research and emerging technology is undergoing substantial transformation. The Ethics in the Lab Project has laid a strong foundation for studying and influencing these moments of change at the national and international levels. At the international level, I began my work on this grant with a publication in Science resulting from a workshop I organized with a broad set of different type of actors within biosecurity governance, from scientists and publishers to funders and government officials. This paper is seen as fostering a growing conversation within biosecurity governance for the need for more experimental approaches (e.g. it is referenced within the World Health Organization’s new Global guidance framework for the responsible use of the life sciences). This experimental approach has already caught the attention of the US National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, which has expressed interest in fostering more experimental governance through the legislation that it will be drafting over the next several years.
As mentioned above, I was also a primary designer of a global workshop exploring the viability of a global registry for all field trials of gene drive organisms. From an STS perspective, there are fundamental issues with representation and inclusion within an information schema like a registry and I worked with others to design the meeting to draw out and lean into those tensions. That focus carried over into the paper drafting that resulted from the meeting, where I collaborated with both scientists and social scientists (in particular, Sarah Hartley) to shift the conversation from information sharing in a technocratic system to specific actions to be taken to build space for opposing viewpoints and worldviews that are different from those of the scientist themselves. The resulting publication in Nature Biotechnology (Taitingfong et al 2023) substantially attended to the social, political, and institutional aspects of registry design, curation, and maintenance, noting tensions in problem framing between different sets of stakeholders.
At the US National level, I engaged in a wide range of policy activities to support further attention to the broader aspects of research. In the Fall of 2022, I presented on the need to move beyond existing policies on “dual use research of concern” to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. I have also worked closely with the Department of Commerce Emerging Technology Technical Advisory Committee (ETTAC), a committee that I have studied for 15 years, as it shifts its attention from considering the export control needs of individual emerging technology areas to producing a systematic analysis of the limitations of, and alternatives to, export controls as a policy instrument for identifying and mediating security concerns in science and emerging technology. This is in line with my public comments on the role that ETTAC could have (Evans 2019, 2023).
I have also been active in the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), sitting on their Law technical advisory committee, where I have engaged with a collection of companies interested in pursuing experimental governance options for non-export control ways of identifying and managing security concerns in quantum science and technology.
Building a capacity for early-stage engagement with the broader aspects of research is significantly about changing the ways that scientists and engineers are trained. The Ethics in the Lab project ran pedagogical experiments at the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels to study different approaches to sparking curiosity and rigorous analysis of the social aspects of research.
At the undergraduate level, in the Spring of 2020, I worked together with Sheila Jasanoff, L. Mahadevan, and Chris Lawrence on the formation of a new course at Harvard, ES28: “Science, Technology, and Society,” that mixed technical training on issues related to biotechnology, information technology, and the environment with exercises that “opened the black box” on examples of science and technology. These black box exercises were used to train students on how to unpack the ethical and social aspects of constructing and maintaining technological objects that we typically take for granted. In March, when Harvard instruction went online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the course pivoted to address the pandemic using resources taught in class. Students selected aspects of the pandemic to study in real-time, watching as the authority of knowledge was constructed or deconstructed, and as political authorities were forced to act under extreme scientific and technical uncertainty. Our reflections were published in Science and Engineering Ethics (Lawrence et al 2023).
While ES28 was designed primarily to appeal to engineers and science undergraduates, because the course was not required for their degrees, enrollment was low. The team made two moves to address this. First, we converted the course into GedEd 1173 “Numbers in Policy and Society” to a) make it satisfy Harvard’s general education requirement and b) to be able to train students regardless of their degree. Enrollments for the subsequent years of the course improved substantially, and it has been generally well-received. A major innovation begun in the first year, and substantially improved with the help of graduate student Hilton Simmet, was the production of a “Core Concepts Crib Sheet.” A collection of basic STS concepts explained in plain English with simple examples and references, the Crib Sheet proved very popular in the class, and has since been modified for other contexts, including the STS Summer School and the STS Research Seminar.
At the graduate level, Chris Lawrence and I began a week-long research seminar called “Beyond ‘Don’t be Evil’: embedding your research in social contexts.” The students spent the week learning how to engage with the institutional channels through which their research finds its way into applications and policy, and how social and ethical factors affect aspects of their research. the seminar was premised on the idea that there are many ways that scientists and engineers can be in relation to STS, and helped them develop their own positionality going forward in their projects. The seminar has since been run by me each year, with one of the former students in the seminar joining as co-instructor. As one student noted: “This course is a must for anyone pursuing a STEM PhD. We have a responsibility to contextualize our work beyond following our IRB protocols. We are part of society and need to act like it!” Several of the students have gone on to pursue the STS PhD Secondary Field.
The experiment that did much to bring the practice, policy, and pedagogy together was the Visibility Initiative for Responsible Science (VIRS). This initiative, a collaboration between myself and Megan Palmer at Stanford University, had three goals: train a cadre of postdocs from engineering and the sciences to conduct rigorous social science research; build an evidence base for demonstrating the limitations of existing security governance policies around early stage biological research and the alternatives that actors are experimenting with, from scientists to funders to publishers; and use that evidence base for launching a larger experimental governance initiative. It achieved these goals by gathering, analyzing, and sharing information about the value of biorisk management and how life science stakeholder organizations approach the issue in practice. This fills a gap in biosecurity governance, where organizations lacked access to concrete examples of how extant governance frameworks are or have been implemented in practice, which has hindered their ability to learn from one another about what works and under which circumstances. This is a substantial bottleneck in both turning novel proposed governance policies into new organizational design and practice, and also in using the on-the-ground knowledge to help shape better policy options at higher levels.
Over two years, VIRS analyzed 171 background publications, conducted 70+ interviews, ran two workshops, and produced 8 case studies and the Biorisk Management Casebook (Greene et al 2023). The case studies were from: the journal Science, the American Society for Microbiology Journal, the Danish Centre for Biosecurity and Biopreparedness, Colorado State University’s Biosafety Office, the International Genetically Engineered Machines Foundation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Foundry, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment’s Biosecurity Office, and the United States Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute. The Casebook was featured in several national and international policy settings, including National Academies, the Global Health Security Agenda, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the World Health Organization’s Emerging Technologies, Research Prioritisation and Support unit.
Evans, Sam Weiss (2023) ‘Export Control as National Security Policy’, Issues in Science and Technology, 2 May. Available at: https://issues.org/export-control-national-security-krige-daniels/ (Accessed: 23 August 2023).
Salm, Melissa and Evans, Sam Weiss (2023) ‘Training more biosafety officers’, Issues in Science & Technology, XXXIX(4), p. 21.
Lawrence, Christopher, Sheila Jasanoff, Sam Weiss Evans, Keith Raffel, L. Mhadevan (2023) ‘Ethics Inside the Black Box: Integrating Science and Technology Studies into Engineering and Public Policy Curricula’, Science and Engineering Ethics, 29(4), p. 23.
Greene, Daniel, Kathryn Brink, Melissa Salm, Connor Hoffman, Sam Weiss Evans, Megan J Palmer (2023) The Biorisk Management Casebook: Insights into contemporary practices. Stanford University: Stanford Digital Repository.
Evans, Sam Weiss (2022) ‘When All Research Is Dual Use’, Issues in Science and Technology, 38(3), pp. 84–87.
Normandin, Avery M, Lily M Fitzgerald, Julianne Yip, Sam Weiss Evans. (2022) ‘Hurdles in responsive community engagement for the development of environmental biotechnologies’, Synthetic Biology, p. ysac022.
Taitingfong, Riley I. . . . Sam Weiss Evans, et al. (2022) ‘Exploring the value of a global gene drive project registry’, Nature Biotechnology, pp. 1–5.
Connolly, J.B. … Sam Weiss Evans, et al. (2022) ‘Recommendations for environmental risk assessment of gene drive applications for malaria vector control’, Malaria Journal, 21(1), p. 152.
Mackelprang, Rebecca, Katarzyna P. Adamala, Emily R. Aurand, James C. Diggans, Andrew D. Ellington, Samuel Weiss Evans, J. L. Clem Fortman, et al. (2022). “Making Security Viral: Shifting Engineering Biology Culture and Publishing.” ACS Synthetic Biology 11 (2): 522–27.
Millett, Piers, Tessa Alexanian, Megan J. Palmer, Sam Weiss Evans, Todd Kuiken, and Kenneth Oye. (2022). “IGEM and Gene Drives: A Case Study for Governance.” Health Security, January.
Evans, Sam Weiss, Daniel Greene, Connor Hoffmann, and Stefan Lunte. (2021). “Stakeholder Engagement Workshop on the Implementation of the United States Government Policy for Institutional Oversight of Life Sciences Dual Use Research of Concern: Workshop Report.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 3955051. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
Evans, Sam Weiss, Jacob Beal, Kavita Berger, Diederik A. Bleijs, Alessia Cagnetti, Francesca Ceroni, Gerald L. Epstein, et al. (2020). “Embrace Experimentation in Biosecurity Governance.” Science 368 (6487): 138–40.
Evans, Sam Weiss, Matthias Leese, and Dagmar Rychnovská. (2020). “Science, Technology, Security: Towards Critical Collaboration” Social Studies of Science 51 (2): 189–213.
Long, Kanya C., Luke Alphey, George J. Annas, Cinnamon S. Bloss, Karl J. Campbell, Jackson Champer, Chun-Hong Chen, Sam Weiss Evans, et al. 2020. “Core Commitments for Field Trials of Gene Drive Organisms.” Science 370 (6523): 1417–19.
Lawrence, Christopher. 2020. “Heralds of Global Transparency: Remote Sensing, Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Facilities, and the Modularity of Imagination.” Social Studies of Science 50 (4): 508–41.
Buchthal, Joanna, Sam Weiss Evans, Jeantine Lunshof, Sam R. Telford, and Kevin M. Esvelt. 2019. “Mice Against Ticks: An Experimental Community-Guided Effort to Prevent Tick-Borne Disease by Altering the Shared Environment.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 374 (1772): 20180105.
Millett, Piers, Thomas Binz, Sam Weiss Evans, Todd Kuiken, Ken Oye, Megan J. Palmer, Cécile van der Vlugt, Kathrina Yambao, and Samuel Yu. 2019. “Developing a Comprehensive, Adaptive, and International Biosafety and Biosecurity Program for Advanced Biotechnology: The IGEM Experience.” Applied Biosafety 24 (2): 64–71.
Oye, Kenneth A., Megan J. Palmer, and Sam Weiss Evans. 2019. “Designing Institutions and Processes to Enable Integrative Programs on the Societal Aspects of Biological Research.” MIT Program on Emerging Technology.
Evans, Sam Weiss (2019) ‘Comment for the Department of Commerce ANPRM on “Review of Controls on Certain Emerging Technologies”’. Available at: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=BIS-2018-0024-0101 (Accessed: 23 August 2023).