As it turns out, the FBI and other defense organizations (Hello, DTRA) are pretty interested in DIYBIO. Coming away from the conference, it seems like the FBI is interested in exactly what you would expect: preventing bad guys (nefarious actors!) from doing Bad Things. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency on the other hand, is interested in buying technology from people who start in “garages”, or DIY environments, to use for defense work.
The main focus of the conference was on the interaction between law enforcement and DIY biologists. It seems to be that the FBI is not concerned with DIY biologists, and that the FBI certainly does not view the DIYBIO “movement” as a threat. The position of the Bureau is that local DIYBIO folks should get a hold of their local WMD coordinator, It was also reassuring to know that the FBI hires PHD biologists and a lot of scientists to work in their WMD department- it would be nice if policy makers were just as well informed.
There was also a good discussion about the media- it turns out that both the FBI and DIYBIO folks both tend to kind of dislike the media, because as one attendee put it “They overestimate our abilities, and underestimate our ethics”. There were some good talks given on how to engage the press in a a way that cannot be misconstrued, and how to do due diligence when someone wants to cover your space. Rachel had an anecdote from when the BBC approached them to do a piece on the DIYBIO activities at MADLAB/MCR:
The approach that we got. we are interested in debate, is't that lovely, PCR machines, exclamation points. This is what we read: we're going to do a piece on bioterror and flu virus research. And we knew that, we knew that we were going to be portrayed as extreme. We're the only group that can kind of say these things, we weren't the right people, but we were going to be their people anyway, and it was. This is what showed up in the BBC website.. "growing concern about DIYbio.. FBI, oh there you are". Biological threat, all in the same sentence. ( quote from transcript typed by Bryan Bishop )
I thought it was very useful that we had Dan Grushkin, Rachel Turner, and Sascha Karburg -who have both done quite a bit of journalism- to tell us how the journalism works. It is important to have both sides of the story to really understand what is going on, so DIYers can engage the press more tactfully.
Speaking of Sascha, we got to enjoy his documentary on DIYBIO at the end of the first day. After a few years in the making, it looked pretty awesome! I didn’t understand what they were saying most of the time, as it was in German, but the images definitely told a story.
I think that the highlight of the conference was finally seeing who was out there, and what they were up to. If you want, you can read transcripts here, courtesey of Brian Bishop.
The last day we all went down to Biocurious to play with some DNA. Biocurious walked everyone through the basic procedure for a chemical transformation, but the real highlight here was working with people from other places, and actually building a plasmid with the Genomikon kit.
Overall it was fun to meet everyone, and exciting to see what the rest of the diybio folks are up to. I think finally meeting the European counterparts helped bring the community together. And it was certainly good to learn that the FBI won’t be knocking on our door any time soon.