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


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.


Alessandro Delfanti:

"Biohackers explores fundamental changes occuring in the circulation and ownership of scientific information. Alessandro Delfanti argues that the combination of the ethos of 20th century science, the hacker movement and the free software movement is producing an open science culture which redefines the relationship between researchers, scientific institutions and commercial companies.

Biohackers looks at the emergence of the citizen biology community ‘DIYbio’, the shift to open access by the American biologist Craig Venter and the rebellion of the Italian virologist Ilaria Capua against WHO data-sharing policies.

Delfanti argues that these biologists and many others are involved in a transformation of both life sciences and information systems, using open access tools and claiming independence from both academic and corporate institutions." (



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."



From CHAPTER 1 : Cracking Codes, Remixing Cultures

"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.*

Open Science Politics

Alessandro Delfanti:

"The stakes of open science are high and recognised widely. Information and knowledge circulation have always been critical battlefields not only for science and technology but for human societies more generally. Problems related to the access of information and intellectual property rights have often been the cause of controversies and battles in the history of communication technologies and information societies. The results of those battles were foundational for the evolution of today’s capitalism (Johns 2009a; Mattelart 2003). Yet the rise of digital media and new information and communication technologies have magnified and generalised the importance of information control and management: information is a crucial commodity in the global market and has a key social and economic role.

In scientific research, data access has long been recognised as a central issue in the very definition of the purposes and nature of the scientific enterprise (Hilgartner and Brandt-Rauf 1994; see also Nowotny et al. 2001). Among the main indicators of this shift are the introduction of massive amounts of private capital into scientific research and the extraordinary growth of intellectual property rights that has taken place over the last few decades. On the one hand, we have witnessed the broadening of intellectual property rights beyond their classic reach, exemplified by the patenting of genetic sequences. On the other hand, we have seen the rise of a global intellectual property regime modelled after the United States’ legal framework and designed to protect private and public capital invested in biomedical research and development.

The blurring of distinctions between university and corporation research is one of the effects of changes mandated by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in intellectual property regimes, cuts in public expenditures for research and increased funding for targeted research by multinational corporations (Mirowski and Sent 2008). These changes have triggered battles over information control and property that have been particularly harsh in the life sciences field. A couple examples are: the developing ‘world war’ against bioprospecting, and the legal and political clashes around gene patenting that have been taking place in several countries as well as on a global scale. But this wave of science commercialisa- tion and increase in intellectual property rights has also caused a response, namely the creation of the open science movement which is part of a broader free culture movement. However, the crisis science is going through is not confined to problems of access to information and knowledge, but includes battles over the very shape of science’s institutions as well as over public participation in and control of scientific knowledge production.

The changes I depict in this book show how these conflicts, and the emergence of new open science practices, are making science unstable again, and how unpredictable the outcomes of such battles are. In conflicts that revolve around information, what is at stake is the very balance of power that characterises the digital economy, which is becoming increasingly contested and open-ended. Hence, new social actors and practices related to information control have acquired a peculiar prominence, and no analysis of today’s capitalism can avoid facing the challenges they pose, as they once again inflame remaining tensions between public and private, and between autonomy and centralisation. Of course, crises always involve opportunities and allow a glimpse at profound transformations.

In this book, then, I analyse scientists’ role in these battles related to openness, control and commercialisation, as well as in the emergence of new interests and economic models, and I ponder what future directions open biology will give to the evolution of information societies. As Adrian Johns underlines in his book on the history of piracy, not the mere analysis of technological or juridical change, but rather the study of the dynamical interlacing of technologies and society, can underpin a revision of the relation between creativity, commerce and power (2009a, p. 517).

In fact, there is no need for another book about the feasibility and desirability of the open science turn. Janet Hope (2008), Michael Nielsen (2012) and Peter Suber (2012), just to name some of the most recent and recognised works on the topic, have written persuasive books on the need for a more open approach to science production. Broadly speaking, open science advocates argue that more openness and transparency would make science more productive, more inclusive, more democratic, or might eliminate it from the influence of selfish private interests.

Yet a critical understanding of new open science practices needs to avoid the approaches that inform most of the accounts of these transformations. Indeed, I describe the scientific enterprise in a form radically different from both hegemonic accounts of open science and open access, which are often flat and spoiled by uncritical enthusiasm, and scholarly work on academic capitalism (Mirowski and Sent 2008). In my view, life sciences fully embody the diversity of free and open source software politics, which range from radical critiques against science commercialisation to new forms of neoliberal openness. By criticising and putting into context hegemonic visions of open science, I highlight that the opposition between enclosure and openness is inadequate for describing today’s controversies related to power over information and knowledge.

Furthermore, these conflicts are shaping the meaning of concepts that lie at the very core of information societies’ development, such as creativity, openness, access and property. Analysing the changes that involve the control and management of scientific information and knowledge in the age of digital media is then an important step towards understanding the transformations our societies are undertaking."

Open biology is ambivalent. While open data sharing and rebellion against bureaucracies are crucial elements of a critique of the current regimes of science – characterised by increased privatisation, com- modification and unjust power distribution – it would be naïve to see open science as a pure liberatory programme. Far from being only a tool of resistance against science commercialisation, open biology is participating in the evolution of neoliberal societies. Open science, though, is not merely a case of capitalism’s recuperation and instrumentalisation of a critical culture. Rather, I suggest it is one of the elements that drive the very evolution of a new spirit of capitalism based on openness, sharing, autonomy and horizontality (Boltanski and Chiappello 2005). Thus the normative approach to open biology that is prevalent among open science advocates might obscure power relations and new forms of accumulation.


I suggest that these case studies represent a remix between an old culture that is pre-existing, accepted, embodied in a complete set of practices and norms and ready to be used, and a more recent ethos linked to several other fields of innovation. The justifications they produce guarantee scientists a fun and fascinating job, while at the same time working for the common good. The strategies they pursue are often related to the norms of behaviour attributed to the hacker. In this sense, individuals can mobilise ethics when the need for a reconfiguration of different cultures becomes more pressing. Contemporary scientists can still use some cultural elements belonging to the old Mertonian science ethos, since the influence of that culture has survived the social dimension from which it was born, but they often need to remix it with new and different ethical and cultural elements.

The complexity of open science politics lies in the spaces of possibilities opened by this confluence. Using the hacker ethic as an analytical tool has allowed me to highlight some of the elements shared by very diverse types of scientists: one of the biologists I studied belongs to public research institutions; the second is a free rider who drains money from venture capitalists, media companies and public agencies; and the third group are amateurs external to official science but immersed in a complex entre- preneurial environment. At the same time, the hacker ethic has allowed me to indicate important differences in their approach to information sharing, corporate models and institutional settings. The public dimensions of these biologists are related to the current configuration of the relationship between science and society, enterprise, universities and other actors which participate in the making and marketing of contemporary biology.

This emergent class of biohackers is related to a new type of interaction between scientists’ practices and biology’s social contract. I want to stress here that I am not referring to their ability to provide more productive models or to produce better scientific knowledge. What I would like to show is that the new open science social contract they prefigure and contribute to building could restore some of the sharing practices that characterised twentieth- century academic research. However, it would also be transformed, broadened and improved by web technologies and the widespread diffusion of open and peer production. At the same time, it would include more strict intellectual property rights regimes. Different forms of information management and control would coexist in an environment inhabited by creatures as diverse as companies, universities, public agencies, start-ups and new institutions such as citizen science projects.

The new open science culture linked to this social contract maintains a political ambivalence. Through their mobilisation of ethics scientists better position themselves within the current socio-economic configuration of biological sciences. Both academic and industrial research (provided that it is still possible to separate them clearly) have increasingly been using diverse and mixed approaches to intellectual property, and in some cases – such as database management – strictly proprietary models are seen as no longer sustainable.

Thanks to the open and free input of non-experts and voluntary contributors, the participatory processes of governance and the universal availability of the output, open and peer production might prove to be more productive than centralised alternatives. Thus open biology is not only a tool wielded against the current status quo and against the enclosures represented by secrecy and strict intellectual property rights. The way in which information circulates has important political consequences, and the role of new media as a tool for democracy is an important discourse underlying the whole development of information societies."


Alice Bell:

"A desire to consider our ideas of open, in particular the various opens surrounding modern science, sits at the centre of Alessandro Delfanti's new book, Biohackers. The key premise is that hackers, scientists and neoliberalism share some interesting overlaps of culture, norms, ideologies, attitudes and people, or at least there are some interesting changes happening around the social arrangements of science, the biosciences in particular, and they're worth a nose around.

The result is not just an interesting exploration of the multiple possible meanings of open science but, much larger than that, an illuminating and clear study of some of the ways in which modern science operates.

After an introduction to some history of the idea of openness, Delfanti looks in more detail at what he dubs "biohackers". He then works through three case studies: US "venture biologist" Craig Venter, Italian virologist Ilaria Capua (who challenged WHO policies on access to influenza data) and the rise of DIY "garage biology". The term hacker doesn't always come from people themselves. It's only really the DIY bio communities who might self-identify as such, or even have an explicit connection to hacker culture. Yet Delfanti feels it is useful as they are all similarly disruptive and represent a comparable type of critique of the status quo.

At the heart of his argument is an apparent confluence between what is often known as the "Mertonian norms" of science (especially the desire to share work) and that of hacker ethic. Hacking mixes rebellion and openness with a form of anti-establishment critique, and so does science, and both may be applied to a variety of political ends. Delfanti talks through some studies of hacking culture to show it as pretty culturally diverse and ideologically heterogeneous. He also notes science doesn't just run on these things called "norms", but also "counter-norms" (translation of sociology-speak: scientists can be a bit self-contradictory, it must be bloody confusing being one). One might argue that if you define hacking and science so broadly of course they have similarities, and you end up saying very little of substance as a result. But the book manages to build an engaging and convincing narrative nonetheless.

A fairytale story of science's openness might go something like the following. Once upon a time, science was a smooth, efficient and ethical enterprise of sharing, equality and disinterest, driven by nothing but the common good. Then the evil corporations got involved and spoiled it all with a proliferation of restrictions to access, patents and industrial or military secrets (what is sometimes called "the tragedy of the anticommons"). But the hackers disrupt this, and now we have new tools which allow us to share and it might be taken back for the public good.

Delfanti knows this is too simple a story, and instead paints a more complex back and forth where science, after abandoning the tradition of secrecy which characterised it until the start of the Enlightenment, went through stages of openness permitted by patronage (either private or governmental) followed by enclosures encouraged by the developments in ideas of "intellectual property" at the end of the 20th, with a final counterattack based on open science movements in the 21st century.

This is possibly still too simple a view though, and Delfanti would have benefited from more on the way secrecy may be part of even very modern science. Brian Balmer's work on Porton Down is interesting here, or perhaps the literature on agnotology (culturally induced ignorance or doubt). Delfanti could also have made use of Steve Shapin's classic paper (pdf) on the way science ostentatiously opened up to forms of public witnessing in the 17th century and (perhaps more so) feminist critiques which show how limited this sense of openness was (Haraway's largely theoretical approach, or Winter's study of Mesmerism) to gain a larger sense of the long history of both science's rhetorical commitment to openness, and how many closures this has concealed.

There's also some work on the ways what Delfanti calls "Big Bio" publish work and tap into forms of open science which would have been a nice context, and it might have been interesting to see something on the more politically challenging notion of open exhibited by 1990s approaches to public engagement (e.g. see Jack Stilgoe and Simon Burall on this).

In his conclusion, Delfanti makes the important point that hacking biology is different from hacking DNA; biology is a social system within which change is created by political action. His case studies were all political actors as much as scientific ones, or at least they could only achieve their scientific work by working the social system. And yet we should question how deeply any were willing to challenge the system, or at least we might ask how many of these hacks were self-serving rather than ways to unlock science for the public at large? The biohackers discussed are largely tinkering with this thing Delfnanti calls "biocaptialism", not questioning its premise. It remains a very open-market form of open. Maybe that's appropriate, but it's not an ideological stance everyone would agree with. A book explaining how the public at large might hack the political economies of science has perhaps yet to be written. Or maybe it's not possible.

Biohackers won't tell you everything you want to know about open science. Despite the very interesting treatment of his three case studies, I remain sceptical that the idea of the biohacker – as deliberately loosely defined as Delfanti presents it – really exists as much more than an idea. But it's a powerful idea, well explained; one worth spending time with. The book will help you think about what openness, biology and open biology mean today. More broadly, Delfanti offers a cogent invitation to care about the politics of how science is put to work. We could do with more books like this." (

More Information

  1. Open Genomics
  2. Open Source Genomics
  3. DIY Genomics