Team:Oxford/P&P public engagement

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Revision as of 23:16, 12 October 2014


Public Engagement



Focus Groups

Our team hosted a group of volunteers, members of the public with no particular interest or prior experience of biotechnology. Our aim was to gain a deeper understanding of public perceptions and concerns regarding the advance of synthetic biology, and in particular to get an idea of how far these concerns are based on misinformation/lack of understanding, and how far they are legitimate, well-founded fears which need to be addressed by the scientific community as the field grows and develops. If synthetic biology is to become increasingly socially accepted, public participation in it’s growth will be essential.

8th August 2014 - Round 1

Our team hosted a group of volunteers, members of the public with no particular interest or prior experience of biotechnology. Our aim was to gain a deeper understanding of public perceptions and concerns regarding the advance of synthetic biology, and in particular to get an idea of how far these concerns are based on misinformation/lack of understanding, and how far they are legitimate, well-founded fears which need to be addressed by the scientific community as the field grows and develops. Particular issues which appear to be recurring themes in this discussion include:

Cross-Contamination of 'engineered' genes between synthetic and natural organisms

Cross-Contamination of 'engineered' genes between synthetic and natural organisms

There is widespread concern that biological machines may evolve, proliferate, and produce unexpected interactions which might alter the ecosystem.

Use of Bacteria (such as E. coli and P. pseudomonas)

Use of Bacteria (such as E. coli and P. pseudomonas)

The notion of 'bacteria' generally, and particularly the strains our team plans to use, have strong medical associations and are believed by many to be hazardous to health. E coli is widely understood to cause diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, whilst pseudomonas is best known for causing infections including pneumonia and swimmer's ear.

Uncontrolled Release of modified organisms into the environment

Uncontrolled Release of modified organisms into the environment

People have concerns that these will have unpredictable effects on ecosystems and that once taken these actions are difficult if not impossible to reverse. For example, synthetic organisms may outcompete their ‘natural’ counterparts and permanently damage biodiversity.

Spread of Antibiotic Resistance from synthetic to natural bacteria

Spread of Antibiotic Resistance from synthetic to natural bacteria

Based on vague knowledge that bacteria used in research are generally given characteristics of anti-biotic resistance and that these can spread between organisms.

Bioterrorism

Bioterrorism

The public are fearful of the ability of synthetic biology to produce known/modified/new organisms designed to be harmful to humans (as demonstrated, for example, by the synthesis of viruses such as the polio virus and the pandemic Spanish Flu virus and nurtured by Hollywood dramas such as 'Outbreak').

Creation of 'Artificial Life'

Creation of 'Artificial Life'

Some of the group expressed fears about scientists 'playing God', explaining their philosophical and religious concerns about the process of creation and the nature of 'living' beings. There was significant confusion as to how exactly 'life' should be defined, where it begins and ends, and what the requisite level of complexity is. Some people vaguely expressed fears that synthetic biology will 'blur' the line between the 'artificial and natural worlds', although did not elaborate on what was meant by this nor why this would be such a negative development.

Creation of Monopolies

Creation of Monopolies

There is some concern that patenting could lead to creation of commercial monopolies and inhibit research. [e.g. BRCA 1 Gene monopoly causing increase in price of testing which could potentially save lives).

Global Justice

Global Justice

Some of the group expressed worries about the fact that much of the development of synthetic biology and resulting intellectual property is likely to take place in and by extension principally benefit rich, developed nations. Particular examples of this concern which were raised included the possibility of farmers in poor countries becoming dependent on modified crop seeds controlled by large corporations which could extract whatever price they wished for the product, and the possibility of cheap alternatives for manufacture of chemicals such as antimalarial medicine (artemisinin) ensuring that local prodiction of natural equivalent products would no longer be sustained. Generally, this fear is expressed as a concern that technologies which are socially accepted on the premise that they will improve quality of life in less developed countries (golden rice and GM mosquitoes being cited as examples of such projects) may in actual fact benefit only rich Western companies and have no or even a detrimental impact on the lives of those the project was intended to help.

Lack of Regulation

Lack of Regulation

There is great concern that the development of fast-growing fields such as synthetic biology is 'overtaking' the regulation which is in place to regulate its application and to balance the risks and potential benefits. The possibility of biological warfare programmes is a major worry. A further concern is the possibility of 'garbage biology' (DIY home synthetic biology) may become a more popular, widespread hobby in the future - increased accessibility would make regulations which are in place far more difficult to enforce.THIS DOESN'T MAKE SENSE

Listening to Public Concerns

Listening to Public Concerns

All members of the group agreed that scientists should. Some members also expressed scepticism as to the claims of synthetic biology, and suspected that the potential benefits of the technology had been 'overhyped' in many areas, creating unrealistic hopes. It is important CONTINUE HERE

Valuing Public Support

Valuing Public Support

It was agreed that it is crucially important for scientists to recognise the importance of securing and maintaining public support and legitimacy. For this reason, scientific development must seek to earn public trust by not advancing too far ahead of public attitudes, and ensuring that potential applications of new technology offer clearly explained social benefits.

Accessibility of Information

Accessibility of Information

Many of the group felt that there remains a deficit of accessible, reliable, and impartial information. Independent sources of information are particularly significant: some members also expressed scepticism as to the claims of synthetic biology, and suspected that the potential benefits of the technology had been 'overhyped' in many areas, creating unrealistic hopes. Similarly, it was recognised that information concerning the risks of synthetic biology frequently comes from biased sources which may have a motive to overstate the dangers and seek to create excessive public anxiety.

Balanced Regulation

Balanced Regulation

There is great concern that the development of fast-growing fields such as synthetic biology is 'overtaking' the regulation which is in place to regulate its application and to balance the risks and potential benefits. Such concerns could be addressed We used the feedback from these focus groups to shape the direction of our survey questions. far more difficult to enforce.

15th August 2014 - Round 2

For the second focus group, we decided to produce a brief informative presentation giving an overview of synthetic biology, its pros and cons, and an outline of our project and aims. Also included were some 'mythbusters' directed at addressing the misconceptions we came across during the first focus group.
We hoped that comparison of the results from the group with the benefit of this information would help us to establish which concerns are legitimate and which are alleviated by greater understanding and communication. With this group, the focus of discussion shifted from the potential problems with biotechnology, to ways in which these could be addressed. With both groups, there appeared to be a very wide range in the level of understanding of synthetic biology. This is supported by the results of our survey, which also suggest a correlation between age and level of understanding (with younger generations tending to have increased knowledge). Further, it appears that many of the views of those in the focus group were based on media accounts of developments in the field - again, this is consistent with the feedback from our survey. Public concerns regarding synthetic biology arise from a combination of lack of understanding and legitimate worries.
Survey Results

Guided by the feedback we discovered during the focus group activities. We analysed the responses from over 100 members of the public aged 16-85, selected randomly and coming from all walks of life. Again, we split the respondents into two equal groups, one of which answered the questions after having had the benefit of the introductory presentation above (this time in the form of a leaflet). We compared the responses from these two groups, again to see whether responses were changed by a basic level of understanding (most of the respondents commented that they had had little understanding or had misunderstood many aspects of the topic). The results of our survey are illustrated below.
CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD A COPY OF OUR PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT SURVEY IN PDF FORMAT


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Youtube channel

Check out our youtube channel aiming to make iGEM, synthetic biology, and science generally accessible to a worldwide audience of all ages. We have everything from fun try-it-at-home science experiments to get children involved, to explanations of primer construction for older synbio enthusiasts.



Oxford iGEM 2014
Public Engagement Events

Inspired by the results of the focus groups and survey we organised and developed activities to bring the world of synthetic biology to members of the public. Click on the link below to check out more!