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Permission given from publisher Macquarie University to post to Research Online 16 August 2015
A number of commentaries preoccupied with the legal, social and ethical implications of synthetic biology have emphasised that an important element shaping options for its future governance will be the normative ethos that is adopted by the emerging field. One venue that has regularly been identified as central to the development of this normative ethos is the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, an annual synthetic biology competition, which attracts thousands of students from across the world. The ideal values promoted by iGEM of collaboration, interdisciplinarity, sharing of results, and overt commitment to the consideration of social and ethical implications of scientific work, are frequently interpreted as offering a model for the future development of the field. In the discussion that follows it will be noted that many of iGEM’s normative aspirations appear to be difficult to convert into practice and that many of the paths which various forms of synthetic biology appear to be following deviate from the types of values iGEM publicly promotes. Policy makers are invited to make a more realistic assessment of iGEM’s capacity to contribute (via generating a distinct synthetic biology normative ethos) to the future governance of the emerging field.