November 7, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making synthetic biology public: Challenges and responsibilities

Recently two reports have been published which made me think about the (non-existent?) public debate about synthetic biology. Jessica Mazerik and David Rejeski wrote a guide for the Wilson Center on how to communicate synthetic biology and Virgil Rerimassie and Dirk Stemerding wrote a report for the Rathenau Institute entitled ‘Synbio Politics: Bringing synthetic biology into debate’. The intention of this report is to stimulate “political and societal opinion making” (p. 78) around synthetic biology.

Both documents deal with ‘making synthetic biology public’, in one case communicating ‘it’, in the other intending to create ‘public opinion’ around ‘it’. Both reports have appeared in a societal context where, as Rerimassie and Stemerding point out, “synthetic biology may still be in its infancy and is still unknown to the general public” (ibid.), and where, despite many efforts by science communicators, policy makers and intermediaries, including social scientists, “a broader societal and political debate on synthetic biology has not yet started” (p. 11).

This poses real problems for synbio science communication, synbio media coverage and also for synbio ‘responsible research and innovation’. The big questions for me are: What do we communicate ‘about’ with relation to synthetic biology, what do we write about it and what do we get people to think about in terms of responsible research and innovation. Can one debate an issue or set of issues in the absence of knowledge (of whatever kind!)? And what responsibility do social scientists have in this process? Should they stimulate debate before it occurs naturally (engage in ‘upstream‘ debating if you like)?

Mazerik and Rejeski say: “Scientists need to get over trying to tell people what synthetic biology is, and talk about how it is going to be applied and why people should care”. This advice seems to be sensible at first glance. However: Applied to what? Are there any applications that ‘people’ are aware of, should be aware of and why? And: Care about what? Before they care about something, ‘people’ might first ask: What is synthetic biology (all about)?

What is synthetic biology?

When you put ‘synthetic biology’ into Google, which is what ordinary ‘people’ may do, you get the following definition: “Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary science, combining disciplines such as biotechnology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, systems biology and biophysics. The definition of synthetic biology is heavily debated not only among natural scientists but also in the human sciences, arts and politics.” Where do people go from here? Let’s go a couple of links down to a FAQ page maintained by Here we find the following definition: “Synthetic biology refers to both: the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world [and] the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems.” The article goes on to say that: “There are two types of synthetic biologists. The first group uses unnatural molecules to mimic natural molecules with the goal of creating artificial life. The second group uses natural molecules and assembles them into a system that acts unnaturally.” The words ‘unnatural molecules’ and ‘creating artificial life’ might make people think – and even start to care about – synthetic biology …. but where might they get better informed?

What do people care about?

As the 2014 Public Attitudes to Science survey found, people don’t feel very well informed about synthetic biology. There are however some people who are perhaps better informed. These are people who have been involved in various initiatives (surveys, dialogues etc) undertaken by research councils and other organisations. Participants in these events seem to begin to care about general regulatory and ethical issues of which they will have become aware during the engagement process (see 2009 Royal Society report). Whether this translates into public debate is another matter.

Eleonore Pauwels found in her 2013 article dealing with ‘public understanding of synthetic biology’: “US public perceptions toward synthetic biology are ambivalent. Members of the public show enthusiasm for synthetic biology applications when those applications are developed to address societal, medical, and sustainability needs, whereas engineering biology is seen as a potential concern if this research is done without investigations of its potential risks and long-term implications. Members of the public also support funding for research that leads to applications that actually meet social and sustainability goals. When it comes to oversight, their priorities are to promote transparency and accountability and to ensure a form of tailored governance in which diverse knowledge sources help address the uncertainty surrounding new technologies.”

But where do people not involved in public engagement projects get their public understanding, perceptions or attitudes from? They probably rely on the media. So what’s out there?

What do the media tell us about synthetic biology?

An article on ‘Trends in American and European Press coverage of Synthetic Biology: 2008-2011’ found that media coverage has significantly increased over that time span. However, the “coverage … remains largely driven by events like the May 2010 announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute of the creation of the first synthetic self-replicating cell and, immediately following that, the Obama administration tasking the Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine the implications of that discovery.” Over and above Craig Venter playing God, “[e]thical concerns garner the most coverage in Europe, followed by biosafety and biosecurity issues. In the United States, biosafety is the top concern; in the 2003–2008 period, the top concern was biosecurity.”

A quick search on the news database Lexis Nexis reveals that there was a slight dip in coverage in 2012 but another increase in 2013. However, it would be worth investigating further who drives this increase in coverage, whether it reaches a general readership and whether it stimulate any public debate online or offline?

Is there public debate and if not should one stimulate it?

A quick look at some articles online reveals that synthetic biology articles don’t seem to garner a lot of comments and debate, but again this needs further investigation (as Tim Ingham told me when I visited Plymouth this week – see image) (here is an article he found that generated lots of comments and here is one with none, despite it mentioning an application). Our overall impression is that the Rathenau report is right: there is no public debate. The authors of the report therefore want to stimulate debate. Is that the right thing to do?

Much of the background material gathered for the Rathenau report seems to be gleaned from the media and in particular from coverage of the more spectacular aspects of synthetic biology. The authors of the report repeat, quite uncritically, words, clichés and metaphors, such as ‘unnatural’, ‘artificial life’, ‘playing God’, ‘nature as machinery’, ‘improving on nature’, ‘Jurassic park’, and ‘Creation 2.0’. They also say that all this “testifies to the ambitions of synthetic biologists dreaming of making synthetic life” (p. 28) or even “that in the future organisms will be ‘created’ with a higher level of cuddliness” (p. 37)!

Rerimassie and Stemerding make one reference to an actual application of synthetic biology that people might ‘care about’, namely an Ecover product which caused some controversy (p. 37), a controversy partially related to the vagueness of the term ‘synthetic biology’. However, in the absence of other concrete applications and in the presence of very speculative references to playing God, for example, inspiring “a further process of formulating political and societal views on synthetic biology” (p. 15) might be quite difficult and even perhaps irresponsible. I believe the responsible research and innovation agenda should not only be applied to the natural but also to the social and communication sciences involved with synthetic biology.

Making life and making opinion

Making life is difficult and scientists are always told to think carefully and responsibly about what they do and how they talk about what they do. As Steve Jones said in 2003 in an article that, on Lexis Nexis at least, used the term ‘synthetic biology’ for the first time in English Language News: we might have deciphered the human genome but “we are far from being able to perform miracles” (Daily Telegraph, 16 April). A decade later we are still far from being able to perform miracles, but, fortunately, we haven’t yet created any monsters either. That’s perhaps why we haven’t yet had a public debate about synthetic biology. The questions is: Should we ‘make’ public opinion in the absence of public awareness of and interest in this new science and in the absence of monsters and miracles? Natural and social scientists dealing with responsible research and innovation in the context of synthetic biology might have to tread carefully both when trying to make life and when trying to make public opinion.

[I’ll be blogging a bit more about synbio in the future, as I am now part of, indeed social science lead for, Nottingham’s SBRC]

Image: The Hoe, Portsmouth (I would like to thank Alison Anderson for inviting me to the University of Plymouth and engaging me in a discussion about synthetic biology)


Posted in public engagement with scienceresponsible innovationsynthetic biology