Team:Oxford/P&P public engagement

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  There is widespread concern that biological machines may evolve, proliferate, and produce unexpected interactions which might alter the ecosystem.  
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  There is widespread concern that biological machines may evolve, proliferate, and produce unexpected interactions which might alter the ecosystem. A couple of individuals vaguely referred to the 'butterfly effect' to express the concern that scientists do not sufficiently understand the ecosystems and environments with which they are dealing in order to accurately predict the outcomes of their actions. Nature behaves in unpredictable and unforeseeable ways - there is concern that something, perhaps biodiversity, will be lost if humans intervene inadvertently in the makeup of life.  
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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.  
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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. Others dismissed this concern as irrational, but agreed that the ability of bacteria to 'share' genes, evolve quickly, and survive in almost any environment called for extra care by the scientists working with these organisms.  
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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).  
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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).  
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We moved on to discuss ways in which these concerns could be allayed and advanced in order to allow the advance of synthetic biology with cross community support. The most important of the factors raised are explored below...
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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 <u>CONTINUE HERE</u>
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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 that the scientific and political communities listen, and are seen to be listening, to the concerns of the public so that they feel actively involved in the development of synbio solutions and their integration into everyday life and society.
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Oxford iGEM 2014
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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 here check out more on our <a href="http://2014.igem.org/Team:Oxford/Events"> Events</a> page!
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 here check out more on our <a href="http://2014.igem.org/Team:Oxford/Events"> Events</a> page!
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Oxford iGEM 2014
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We hope to excite a people from across society about the possibilities of synthetic biology, and to engage people in the debate as to how the science can become accepted into our everyday lives. We were delighted by the great response and enthusiasm we encountered from everyone who took part - thankyou very much who to all who attended!<br>
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Latest revision as of 03:36, 18 October 2014


Public Participation



Focus Groups

Our team hosted a group of volunteers composed of 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 its growth will be essential.

8th August 2014 - Round 1

Our team hosted a group of volunteers composed of 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. A couple of individuals vaguely referred to the 'butterfly effect' to express the concern that scientists do not sufficiently understand the ecosystems and environments with which they are dealing in order to accurately predict the outcomes of their actions. Nature behaves in unpredictable and unforeseeable ways - there is concern that something, perhaps biodiversity, will be lost if humans intervene inadvertently in the makeup of life.

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. Others dismissed this concern as irrational, but agreed that the ability of bacteria to 'share' genes, evolve quickly, and survive in almost any environment called for extra care by the scientists working with these organisms.

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 antibiotic 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 that 'garbage biology' (DIY home synthetic biology) may become a more popular, widespread hobby in the future - and that increased accessibility of synthetic biology to the lay public would make it difficult to enforce current regulations in synthetic biology.

We moved on to discuss ways in which these concerns could be allayed and advanced in order to allow the advance of synthetic biology with cross community support. The most important of the factors raised are explored below...

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 that the scientific and political communities listen, and are seen to be listening, to the concerns of the public so that they feel actively involved in the development of synbio solutions and their integration into everyday life and society.

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 should in future be addressed by communicating with the public in terms of how the research and use of each synthetic biology project is restricted and controlled by existing regulations.

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.












Oxford iGEM 2014
Attitudes Survey

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.

For a complete analysis of our results, take a look at our Intellectual Property Report...


...

...

  • What is your primary source of information about synthetic biology?
    The most significant source of information was formal education, which may be a cause for concern given the respondents ranged from 15-72 in age, suggesting that at least the older respondents are relying on outdated classroom teachings and are not being kept up to date with scientific development. The prevalence of media (21%) confirms the importance of having unbiased, factual reporting on synthetic biology issues. Nearly 1 in 4 respondents reported that independent research was their primary source of information about synthetic biology, which in most cases involved using the internet to seek information about latest developments. This, along with the results for 'word of mouth', suggest that synthetic biology is an area in which the public take an interest.
  • How would you rate the quality of this information?
    The respondents rated information highly for accuracy (although perhaps this is to be expected as it is unlikely one would continue to read information from a source which regularly got the facts wrong). Relevance also scored highly, showing that people feel synthetic biology has a sufficient impact on their lives that they ought to be kept informed about it. The high score for availability is likely due to the heavy reliance on online information; however, it is probable that this reliance also contributes to the relatively low scores for independence and accessibility. The sources accessed by the public online may well not be aimed at laymen but intended to be read by students or professionals and so may contain a high level of technical detail not accessible to the lay public.
  • How informed about synthetic biology do you feel?
    More than 1 in 3 respondents 'would like to be more informed', confirming the demand for accessible information about synthetic biology. The lack of such a source may also account for the 10% of the population who claimed to be 'disinterested' in synbio as they not understand the ways in which the science is relevant to their lives. On the other hand, 38% feel 'very well' or 'sufficiently' informed. The broad range in reponses may be explained by the fact that the question is subjective (people may have differing perceptions as to what level of knowledge counts as 'sufficient').
  • How do you feel about the social/ethical implications of synthetic biology?
    This graph shows that the majority of people have strong views about the implications of synthetic biology. Only a tiny percentage of people had 'no view' on the impact of syntethetic biology, which is an indication of just how contentious the ethics surrounding this area of science are. Unfortunately, the majority of people are more concerned than optimistic about the implications of synbio - much of our work in public engagement involved trying to understand why this might be, and how the concerns of the public can be alleviated.
  • How does your level of understanding about synthetic biology affect your concerns about its implications?
    The vast majority of respondents felt that as their understanding increased and that their concerns were alleviated. It is the responsibility of synthetic biologists to ensure the public are kept informed about developments and their implications. This will be of critical importance in ensuring public acceptance of synthetic biology solutions to societal problems.
  • Is there a correlation between attitude and understanding of synthetic biology?
    The graph shows an interesting correlation between perceived level of understanding and attitude - those at the extremes of understanding, i.e. those with very little or very high understanding, generally have positive attitudes, whereas those with a partial but incomplete understanding tend to be more concerned and have a more suspicious approach. This suggests indeed that 'a little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring'.



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 here check out more on our Events page! .
We hope to excite a people from across society about the possibilities of synthetic biology, and to engage people in the debate as to how the science can become accepted into our everyday lives. We were delighted by the great response and enthusiasm we encountered from everyone who took part - thankyou very much who to all who attended!

Youtube channel

Check out our youtube channel aiming to make iGEM, synthetic biology, and science generally accessible to a worldwide audience of all ages. Check out our videos on primer design, our light-detecting circuit and 'Primer Suspect' our teaser trailer for DCMation.

Oxford iGEM 2014

Retrieved from "http://2014.igem.org/Team:Oxford/P%26P_public_engagement"