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Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?

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Abstract

Artisanal science brought science to some unexpected venues outside of the disciplined work in the laboratories and policy offices where people improve our knowledge of nature or the regulations in society. In this paper, I will discuss further the non-utilitarian aspects of DIY, open and citizen science as a struggle for autonomy, but also reflection on how science serves various political and social agendas. I claim that the emancipatory science movements bring to the forefront an old clash between our moral, aesthetic and natural orders and aspirations and provoke us to rethink the autonomy of science and freedom and justice in society on new grounds.
154 Learnings/Unlearnings Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?155
Forgotten Histories of DIYbio,
Open, and Citizen Science:
Science of the People, by
the People, for the People?
Denisa Kera Introduction
T
he rise of makerspaces and hackerspaces in
 was followed by a surge of open, citizen,
and community science projects which en-
abled public around the world to gain direct access
to various tools, laboratory equipment, protocols,
and technical know-how. ese means of scientic
and technological production, previously limited
to corporate R&D institutes and university labo-
ratories, suddenly became democratised, literally
“open” (Pearce ) and available even in the Global
South (Kera ). Instead of only serving scientif-
ic innovation and economic growth, science and
technology became a means for political, activist,
and equally for highly personal and idiosyncratic
projects (Kera ).
 (Do-It-Yourself) and  (Do-It-With-
Others) tools, spaces, and projects make scientic
and technological interests and knowledge a per-
sonal and political matter. ey align epistemic, on-
tological, and scientic explorations and know-how
with normative interests. Rather than using science
solely to pursue discovery or serve industry, these
movements emphasise the diverse publics that can
utilise science to embrace various goals related to
engagement, governance, knowledge, justice and di-
vides. ey strive to democratise or even decolonise
science and technology (Boisselle ; Wylie et al.
; Egert and Allen ; Kera b), acknowl-
edge indigenous knowledge (Kera a; Sillitoe
) or at least to increase reproducibility and
engagement in science in various parts of the world
(Seyfried, Pei, and Schmidt ; Pearce ).
e surge of  or  projects, tools, and
spaces is often discussed as a continuation of the
Whole Earth Network counterculture movement
(Davies ; Toombs ; Turner ) which
deated in the s into Silicon Valley myth about
disruptive start-ups solving all world problems. We
can follow a similar dynamic in the case of the -
bio movement which embraces bio-entrepreneur-
ship and betrays the political agenda of the open
and citizen science goals (Delfanti , ; Toc-
chetti ; Söderberg and Delfanti ). Instead
of discussing this neoliberal “demise” of the coun-
terculture movement morphing into “California
ideology” (Barbrook ), we will emphasize that
such movements are also heirs to the s calls
for the personal to become political (Crow ),
which are equally important for understanding their
past and present ambiguity (Meyer , ).
In this paper, I will step back from the aspira-
tions of the  and  movements, and the
related critique of their Californian beginnings and
neoliberal ends, to discuss the forgotten origins
Denisa Kera is a philosopher and designer that
experiments with creative strategies of public
engagement in emerging science and technology issues.
She spent the last decade as an Assistant Professor at
the National University of Singapore, Senior Lecturer
of Future Design in Prague College, and a Visiting
Assistant Professor at Arizona State University, where
she cooperates with the Centre for the Study of the
Future. Currently, she is a Marie Curie Research Fellow
at BISITE, University of Salamanca, researching
anticipatory governance of blockchain futures.
156 Learnings/Unlearnings Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?157
of our attempts to make science more inclusive
and responsive to personal and community needs.
e genealogy of our pursuit for democratic and
socially engaged science goes back to the late th
century Jacobin calls for patriotic science, and oers
a cautionary story on the clash between the mor-
al, aesthetic and natural orders. e rift between
contemporary ‘mainstream science’ and the 
movements revives this tension that emerged in the
th century as a reaction to the age-old discussions
between atomism and stoicism, between our curi-
osity for nature and passion to improve society and
dene some meaning to human existence. Instead
of oering a nal verdict on the role of science and
technology in society, or politics in science, the 
and  movements provoke us to question and
rethink the value of knowledge, autonomy, freedom,
and justice on new grounds.
The personal is political, scientific, and technical
Sometime around , early  science activities
by individual hackers and makers rapidly evolved
into movements described in literature as bio,
open biology, garage biology, fringe biology, bio-
hacking, grassroots science, etc. (Seyfried, Pei, and
Schmidt ; Kuznetsov et al. ; Kera a;
Landrain et al. ; Vaage ; Wolinsky and
Wolinsky ; Ledford ). Practices such as
fermentation, building of open science hardware
(microscopes, s, microuidic plates), or engag-
ing with Synthetic Biology and later  kits
became common in makerspaces and hackerspaces
around the world. ese  science activities led
to the idea of developing independent citizen and
community science labs exclusively dedicated to
these pursuits.
e emphasis on open source tools and collabo-
rative practices oered an alternative to profession-
al, academic and normalised science as practiced in
universities and corporate R&D labs. Instead of pur-
suing a purely scientic agenda or applied research
that serves industry, these emerging practices and
spaces mobilised new narratives and ideas about
the purpose of science, emphasising the issues of
engagement, governance, knowledge, justice and
divides. While the critique of the neoliberal agenda
of biohackers as bioentrepreneurs is well covered
(Meyer ; Delfanti , ; Tocchetti ),
the aspirations of the open and citizen science ac-
tivist are usually admired and supported (Kera ,
a), but as I will argue, for the wrong reason.
We admire open and citizen science prac-
titioners because they strive to democratise or
even decolonise science, acknowledge the values
of indigenous knowledge or at least increase the
reproducibility and engagement in science in
various parts of the world (“Global Open Science
Hardware () Manifesto” ). eir curiosity
about nature follows closely the goals of improving
society through inclusivity, diversity, justice, and
creativity. ey also support current science policy
agendas (Kera b), such as responsible research
and innovation ()(de Jong, Kupper, and Broerse
; Pellé ), and anticipatory governance of
emerging science and technology (Nordmann ;
Davies and Selin ; Guston ).
I argue that the problem with these aspirations is
that they will be prone to populist excess if they do
not reect the earlier forgotten populist attempts to
bring science and technology closer to the commu-
nity. e genealogy of the pursuit of democratic and
socially engaged science includes the cautionary
tale of the populist Jacobin misuse of science. is
episode paradoxically conrms the importance of
exploratory and non-utilitarian research at the core
of independent science and technology practices.
e exploratory research in “artisanal science”
(Kera ) depends on the use of crafts to support
science as a personal and leisurely activity with an
open agenda in terms of its community values and
goals.
Artisanal science describes creative, unexpected
and non-utilitarian uses of science protocols in the
private and everyday lives of citizens, which cre-
ate conditions for both good science and politics.
Here I will contrast the term against the dangers of
anti-science and pro-science populisms that refuse
to connect facts and values, or insist on only one
proper way of connecting emancipatory goals with
facts and knowledge. e non-utilitarian, artisanal
science is pluralistic and experimental in terms of
how to connect values and facts. It insists on the
freedom for everyone to probe and decide on how
the personal will become political and scientic.
Instead of technocratic and anti-scientic excesses,
it gives an opportunity to reect upon how science
serves various political and social agendas, and
sees this as a part of an older issue and clash be-
tween our moral, aesthetic, and natural orders and
aspirations.
Jacobin science by the people for the people
e ambition to make science more responsive to
community needs has a problematic history going
back to the infamous Jacobin attack against the
“unpatriotic” atomist science during the French Rev-
olution. is oensive led to the public execution of
Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry,
and the creation of the infamous law of August th
, that abolished the learned academies of France
as incompatible with the republic. e Jacobin
search for a “moral and human” use of science is
echoed in many contemporary sentiments and calls
for publicly useful and engaged science that sup-
ports jobs and various patriotic agendas.
e main problem for the Jacobins were the
“inhumane” atoms, which did not care about society
or “polity”, nor presented nature as a model in line
with human ideals of social justice, good life or
community. e violent history of this longing for
unity between facts and values is well summarised
in the seminal  article by the historian of sci-
ence, Charles Coulston Gillispie (Gillispie ). He
discusses the abolishment of the French Academy
of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) by Jaco-
bins in  as a result of a clash between the ideals
of virtue (political action) and the knowledge of
nature going back to the Stoic and Atomist discus-
sions. e Jacobins shared the Stoic sentiment that
nature and morality should mirror each other, and
rejected the Atomist knowledge of nature as indif-
ferent to human ideals and norms, as evidenced by
Lavoisier’s new chemistry.
e populist call for science to serve the needs of
the common man was also inspired by Jean-Jacques
Rousseau’s idea of an original “state of nature”, rep-
resenting an ideal and natural community to which
we need to return. Coupled with Denis Diderot’s
embrace of craftsmanship as the model for mean-
ingful scientic work, it led to the rejection of any
knowledge that does not immediately serve societal
needs, translate into something patriotic and useful,
or understandable by the masses. e atomised and
mathematised Newtonian universe, that inspired
Lavoisier’s chemistry, ignored and even problema-
tised the political view of a harmonious nature
and a crafts-based science serving humanity. e
biblical purpose of a universe created for humans
in Jacobin “science” was challenged by emerging
scientic insights into fragmented molecules and
atoms that serve no teleological nor even immedi-
ate practical goals.
158 Learnings/Unlearnings Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?159
e nature of atoms, which was perceived to be
fragmented and unintentional, did not oer any
immediate benets to humanity nor did it give any
ideas on how to govern society. is provoked the
Jacobins to label Lavoisier as a representative of an
un-patriotic science that threatened the social bre
of the new Republic as this pinnacle of historical
development and natural perfection.
Jacobin sentiments are the predecessors of
contemporary views that consider applied research
as a responsible way of spending public money. e
current maker and  scene’s engagement with
craftsmanship also shares similar ideas, which is
the reason why we need to be aware of their violent
history. e Jacobin example oers a cautionary tale
of how dening good science through civic virtue
and what serves the Republic can lead to tyranny
and inhumane politics, but also bad science.
Facts and values in DIY science and anti-science populism
, open and citizen science movements bring
science to some unexpected venues outside of the
disciplined work done in laboratories or policy
oces where people improve the knowledge of
nature or develop regulations for society. Gener-
ating knowledge and experimenting with nature
within  science movements go hand in hand
with various aesthetic, artistic and personal explo-
rations of materials in nature, but also ethical, social
and political dilemmas and agendas (Kera ). In
this sense, the emancipatory calls for open, citizen,
etc. science are a continuation of the s calls for
the personal to become political, but we must be
careful about the excesses.
Epistemic, ontological, and scientic explo-
rations are always aligned with normative and
personal interests and projects in the intricate and
complex relationship between the worlds of atoms
(molecules) and humans, facts and values. e
tension between the knowledge of nature and our
aspirations for good life or justice, goes back to
the Atomist and Stoic debate on the indierence
of the universe comprised of disorderly atoms and
the moral agency of the individual and society
(Edmunds ; Atomism n.d.). While Atomists
insisted that the random swerve of atoms and real-
ity oblivious to human struggles will never provide
any reason for social order and meaning, the Stoics
insisted on a nicely arranged universe that reected
and conrmed our ethical and social aspirations
and biases.
e current crises of legitimacy and trust in ex-
pert knowledge, and the rise of populist movements,
are just an incarnation of this old conict. Scientic
and technological knowledge simply do not lead
to social and political change, such as response to
climate change, or improvements in human char-
acter. Change is a result of choices we make as re-
sponsible individuals or societies, after considering
not only knowledge and facts but also our values
and goals. e anti-scientic, religious and scepti-
cal movements are problematic, not because they
question scientic facts, but because they turn legit-
imate concerns into conspiracy theories. e issue
is not that all facts come with some form of agendas
and values, but that we are witnessing a ood of
agendas without any facts or even an elementary
interest in the world outside of human will.
e misuse of science and technology by var-
ious regimes in the th century (Wolfe )
forces us to move beyond the enlightenment idea
and technocratic beliefs that more knowledge and
data guarantees progress or gives us a blueprint
for action. e anti-scientic alternative, refusing
all facts and insisting on populist ideas of social
actions and moral values, ignores another import-
ant enlightenment period lesson: animosity towards
science feeds dictatorships. e insistence on an
absolute autonomy of knowledge and the prioritisa-
tion of some absolute or sacred values both support
populist excesses. e present , open and citizen
science movements oer a foundation for realising
how this happens, and how experimenting with the
various ways we bring together facts and values can
help us resist populist and technocratic excesses.
Attempts to resolve the tension between facts
and values, epistemic and normative ideals of
objectivity, transparency, autonomy, freedom and
participation, must acknowledge this messy history
before legitimising or even institutionalising any
practices or movements. We need a middle ground
from where to explore the plurality of the ways in
which we bring together facts and values, atoms
and human agency, and science with personal and
communal values.
Modernisation of politics and science
How to connect our pursuit of knowledge with our
social and personal values? How can scientic dis-
coveries serve societal and personal improvement?
e Jacobin’s search for patriotic science led to pop-
ulist and anti-scientic sentiments, but what came
after the Reign of Terror eciently enslaved science
to serve the political ideology of the state, and it still
persists in the present problems that provoke to the
populist backlash against experts.
e “modernisation of politics and science”
during the Second Republic or rather Empire
(under the “president” Louis-Napoléon Bonapar-
te –) led to the creation of a bureaucratic
apparatus that still denes how we manage science
nowadays. Science simply lost its autonomy and be-
came a servant of the colonial and imperial project:
the central feature of this modernization was
conversion of subjects of a monarchy into
citizens of a republic in direct contact with a
state enormously augmented in power. To the
scientic community, attainment of professional
status was what citizenship was to all French-
men in the republic proper, namely the license to
self-governance and dignity within the respec-
tive contexts. Revolutionary circumstances set
up a resonance between politics and science
since practitioners of both were future-oriented
in their outlook and scornful of the past. Among
the creations of the First French Republic were
institutions providing the earliest higher educa-
tion in science. From them emerged rigorously
trained people who constituted the founding
generation in the disciplines of mathematical
physics, positivistic biology, and clinical med-
icine. at scientists were able to achieve their
ends was owing to the expertise they provided
the revolutionary and imperial authorities in
education, medicine, warfare, empire-building,
and industrial technology. (Gillispie )
We are still heirs of this modernisation of sci-
ence that transformed the independent academies
of science into educational and research institutes
organised by the state to serve the state (“at sci-
entists were able to achieve their ends was owing to
the expertise they provided the revolutionary and
imperial authorities in education, medicine, war-
fare, empire-building, and industrial technology”).
e present calls for more applied research, that
creates jobs and brings innovation to society, but
also the naive embrace of emancipatory science of
160 Learnings/Unlearnings Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?161
any kind that will improve the “world”, only repeat
these attempts to reconcile facts and values, atoms
and human agency or social institutions, between
the tyranny of the Jacobins and Napoleon. e
insistence on national or community goals creates
very little space for truly independent science that
can radically question and challenge both facts and
values. Just like the technocratic calls for politics to
become more scientic, the forced unity of atoms
and human agency, facts and values, lead to new
forms of dictatorship.
bio, open and citizen science’s search for
independent laboratories and practices reminds us
that autonomy matters; we as citizens and re-
searchers are the heirs to a complicated history of
bringing together values and facts. Atomism and
science were independent and autonomous endeav-
ours until the th century. ey were not bound to
serve state institutions – and that seems to be lost
today. It was exactly this autonomy that enabled
these old institutions to come up with new entities
and cosmologies which questioned the teleological
and theological interpretations of the world that
were part of the feudal system and later monarchies.
ey indirectly enabled new political and social
projects to arise, because they questioned the basic
cosmology behind the Christian church and the
kingdom.
It is a paradox that the radical autonomy of
science that changed society and politics, ultimately
ended with the enslavement of new science to con-
tinue serving modern states. Is there any alternative
to the anti-scientic Republic and the “scientically”
modernised post-Napoleonic regime? Should we in-
sist on keeping science and human values separate?
Where do the open and citizen science practices
stand in this genealogy of bringing science closer
to society? Are we in danger of becoming Jacobins
if we search for socially responsible, decolonised or
even artisanal science? Should we accept the status
quo between science and state institutions, and only
improve their mutual checks and balances?
DIY, open and citizen science as catharsis
, open and collaborative practices question this
status quo that is a result of the Jacobins violence
and post-Napoleonic modernisation of science and
society/state relations (bureaucratisation). ese
new movements can make science independent
again and help preserve its status of ontological
“disobedience” (Woolgar , ): acting as a
probe into the non-human world and reality beyond
our social and personal expectations, norms and
ideas. In this sense, the , open and citizen sci-
ence should strive to preserve, rather than resolve,
the Atomist and Stoic tensions. Instead of recon-
ciling natural, metaphysical, human and political
orders, it should make them more visible for people
to experience their complex relations and history.
Movements to democratise open science today
are cathartic rather than transformational, revo-
lutionary, or reformist. ey are communal rather
than institutionalised, which allows them to main-
tain a critical distance to history, the present power
structures, and to experiment with new arrange-
ments between facts and values. ey are dier-
ent from ocial science, but also from the fringe
experiments of bioart or science in art (Bureaud,
Malina, and Whiteley ; Kera a) which
have a more elitist connection to contemporary art.
Bioart experiments and various creative attempts
at science communication also democratise science
and support the public participation of citizens,
however not as direct engagement but rather a 
tool serving an agenda coming from the outside.
e niche group of bioartists, artists and designers
of all kinds who work and collaborate in science
labs or move science into the galleries, produce
very provocative and inspiring works, but they also
preserve the institutional status quo and divisions.
ey remain elitist (not sharing the tools and spaces
of production) even when they try to bring science
to the people.
e nascent movement of citizen scientists and
 makers oers us an opportunity to rethink the
history behind our attempts to bring science closer
to society; recognise it as something personal and
political that simultaneously depends on direct and
material engagement. Everyone is invited to exper-
iment and dene their own community or project,
which connects atoms or similar non-human enti-
ties with human interests, values, and institutions.
By building open science hardware instruments,
opening independent science labs, gathering and
sharing data about biohacking experiments on
bodies and environments, we connect science with
the everyday lives, diverse interests, and hobbies of
the citizens. Instead of gaining privileged access to
science labs, equipment, and protocols and moving
them to galleries, citizen scientists and tinkerers
or science artisans demand open access to articles,
tools, and data that can turn the whole world into a
lab with a social rather than only scientic agenda.
e insistence of these new movements on
open-ended and collaborative research, rather than
nished and well presented (art)works with strong
authorship, is visible in their preference for work-
shops, alternative and even mobile labs, making,
hacking, and open-ended  research (Kera b,
b). ey support the educational and com-
municational goals of science or the aesthetic and
critical explorations of art, whilst remaining open
to a variety of idiosyncratic and personal projects
and ideas. ey raise new questions about inclusiv-
ity, knowledge and cognitive justice that are rather
neglected by most bioart projects. Instead of philo-
sophical and post-humanist concerns, they examine
specic issues with science and society interaction,
including calls for decolonisation, indigenous and
grassroots science. is makes the new movements
also very vulnerable in terms of repeating the mis-
takes of Jacobins’ patriotic science or nding even
more insidious ways to bureaucratise and “mod-
ernise” science.
Summary
bio, open and citizen science movements can
remain authentic only if they work as catharsis rath-
er than some entrepreneurial revolution or commu-
nal dream. Science catharsis happens every time we
perform and relive the history of science and soci-
ety interactions, through various experiments and
workshops, rather than when we claim new revolu-
tions, institutions, and visions about the future. It is
essential to stay open and constantly explore how to
connect the pursuit of a more just and open society
with the pursuit of knowledge.
Claiming to have some large impact on society
or science (democratisation, decolonisation, etc.) is
actually less important than preserving and experi-
encing the possibility of science becoming personal
and political again for small groups and collectives.
ese enactments and performances of the struggle
for autonomy of science outside its social, political
and historic roles and constraints, are probably the
most interesting and inspiring (cathartic) aspects of
these new movements.
e comical forms of comparing cooking to
science practices, home fermentation to synthetic
162 Learnings/Unlearnings Forgotten Histories of DIYbio, Open, and Citizen Science: Science of the People, by the People, for the People?163
biology experiments, or some symbolic perfor-
mance of power or magical thinking with instru-
ments and data may look like a science “cargo cult,
but they are a form of catharsis and empowerment.
ey extend the possibility of transparency, public
oversight, but also creativity and leisure, to science
protocols, data, and tools. ey make the personal
scientic and technological, embrace the ambigu-
ity and uncertainty around facts and values, atoms
and institutions. ey are what Steve Woolgar calls
“ontological disobedience” (Woolgar ), which
contrasts with the more common view of research
and community interactions of Polanyi’s “communi-
ty of explorers” (Polyani ).
Disobedience, a commitment “to be constantly
unsettling, challenging, destabilizing but with no
specic end in mind” (, p.), is a property
that Woolgar attributes to humans while Polanyi
perceives it more as an ontological quality of nature
which the “community of explorers” knows how to
master. Polanyi is very skeptical of “moral” dis-
obedience, which he attributes to existentialism
and nihilistic philosophies, that are trying to apply
scientic rigor to matters of human nature and
society. Connecting these ontological and social
meanings of disobedience seems to be the main
issue in our struggle to bring moral, aesthetic and
natural orders into equilibrium.
While Woolgar’s notion of “ontological disobedi-
ence” is not “ontological” enough, Polanyi’s “com-
munity of explorers” is too socially conservative and
restrictive. Woolgar ascribes agency and decision
making to humans in the social realm, while Po-
lanyi would like to keep such freedom to question
and experiment only in the realms of science. e
, open and citizen science movements extend
Woolgar’s notion to nature, but also democratise
Polanyi’s community of explorers by enabling
everyone to bring values and facts, create his/her
community of explorers, and dene new forms
of disobedience. We need to preserve this sphere
of experimentation with science and society on a
personal and communal level to better understand
our past, but also provide more critical visions for
the future.
Acknowledgements
I would like to oer my special thanks to the
“Pioneer communities” team for their feedback
on this article during the “Pioneer Communities
after the Whole Earth Network“ workshop funded
by the German Research Foundation (). e
research is also part of a project that has received
funding from the European Union’s Horizon 
research and innovation programme under the
Marie Skłodowska-Curie AnticipatoryLedgers grant
agreement .
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