Kevin Mayer Senor Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Scientists Wonder if the Public Is Prepared for Designer Genomes

Given its current trajectory and rate of approach, synthetic biology is hurtling toward a close encounter with the public. Yes, synthetic biology means well, but its emissaries anticipate a wary reception. They know that the public remains blissfully unaware that anything like synthetic biology even exists—outside of science fiction. Alas, in science fiction, surprise visitors who promise fabulous gifts have been known to run afoul of unreasoning suspicions and attitudes.

To help ensure a warm welcome, synthetic biology’s emissaries have been trying to call ahead, but it seems that hardly anyone is listening. For example, the organizers of the Fourth Annual Sc2.0 and Synthetic Genomes Conference hosted a media roundtable on designer genomes. This roundtable, which took place on July 16, was to encompass not only synthetic biology’s scientific and technological status, but also its societal implications. Members of the popular press were invited, but only members of the scientific and trade press appeared.

The roundtable, which included stalwarts of science, industry, public relations, and bioethics, could have discussed synthetic biology at a level suitable for those already acquainted with the subject. Instead, passing on an opportunity to preach to the converted, the roundtable’s participants considered how a real give-and-take discussion might proceed with a general audience. This approach was also taken at a panel discussion, Genome Engineering and Society, which took place later the same day.

So, there was an extended discussion about a hoped-for discussion. That doesn’t sound too exciting. Still, it was unexpectedly revealing. Mainly, it suggested that synthetic biology’s advocates need to become more serious about public outreach.

Most of the public outreach suggestions were either circumspect or grandiose. A circumspect suggestion was to avoid provocative language, such as the phrase “kill switch.” Perhaps “kill” is objectionable because it suggests that something dangerous might need to be killed. The word “switch” could be troubling, too, since it suggests a blurring of the line between mechanical device and living organism.

At the grandiose end of the spectrum, there was the suggestion that synthetic biology could surpass the excitement of the Human Genome Project, if only it would launch a Human Genome Synthesis Project. This suggestion didn’t appear to attract much enthusiasm, most likely because it is premature. After all, it was raised at an event that focused on the difficulties of synthesizing a genome for Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Once a genome for S. cerevisiae has been synthesized, resulting in the “Sc2.0,” synthetic biology is most likely to synthesize a genome for another monocellular organism, or a fruit fly or a worm genome—not a human genome.

A synthetic human genome might have also impressed those in attendance as something that could as easily frighten the public as inspire it.

Other ideas at the “grand challenge” level were mentioned—resurrecting an extinct species, terraforming Mars, the cultivation of dancing plants. Less radical but still exciting synthetic biology applications were cited, too. These included bioremediation efforts; instances of “chemical engineering on steroids” such as biofuel production; and medical interventions such as the prevention of catheter infections.

When asked to rank synthetic biology applications for their ability to excite the public, most attendees had a relatively conservative outlook, as indicated by these numbers:

  • Really cool science (7%)
  • Commercial applications to solve global problems (28%)
  • “Green” innovations in energy, consumer products, etc. (25%)
  • Agriculture or food science (5%)
  • New medical treatments (33%)

A balanced outlook was also evident in remarks offered by panelist Huanming Yang, Ph.D., chairman and professor at the Beijing Genomics Institute. According to Dr. Yang, discussions of synthetic biology’s bioethics could as easily consider “do’s” as “don’ts.” That is, when weighing whether to embrace synthetic biology, society could decide whether it was prepared to forgo the good it could accomplish with genomic engineering, instead of being preoccupied with avoiding potential ills.

Dr. Yang also emphasized the importance of reaching the public before negative attitudes could solidify, as they have with other technologies, such as genetically modified foods. Doing so, however, is clearly a challenge. So many attendees are still behind the public outreach curve, as indicated by another poll.

When asked to indicate the biggest roadblock to public acceptance of synthetic biology, attendees responded as follows:

  • Lack of transparency in science (16%)
  • Mistrust (11%)
  • Access to information (8%)
  • Accessibility (11%)
  • Poorly educated public (52%)

If advocates of synthetic biology want to avoid a culture war with public constituencies, they might want to reconsider their adherence to what science and technology studies scholars call the “deficit model.” This model recently figured in an article by science writer Chris Mooney (“Do Scientists Understand the Public?”). According to Mooney, the model holds that if people “knew more about science and ceased to be in a state of knowledge deficit, a healthier relationship between science and the public would emerge.”

It is a dubious proposition. Many well-educated conservatives insist that climate change is doubtful, whereas well-educated liberals are among those who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

The Mooney article was commissioned by the AAAS to accompany one of its projects, “Improving the Scientific Community's Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology.” According to this AAAS project, public outreach should be neither timid nor grandiose, nor yet disparaging toward the public. Rather, it should invest in regular engagement.

The report’s key themes, still relevant five years after the report was issued, include the following:

  • Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide. Scientists and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration.
  • Scientific issues require an “anticipatory approach.” A diverse group of stakeholders—research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators—should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.
  • Communications solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal genetic information). In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. For emerging technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of public attitudes.

Even if synthetic biology advocates take the first theme to heart, the remaining themes will be hard to implement. For example, how can synthetic biology engage communicators if they represent an increasingly rare breed? Journalism, in particular science journalism, isn’t what it used to be. Staffs have been reduced, and general-interest print publications have given way to digital information streams that target specialized readerships. A potential workaround might involve foundation support of general-interest publications that provide integrated science coverage.

Similarly, synthetic biology might attract support for relevant social science research, even though synthetic biology is a relatively new discipline. For example, it might be possible to direct research dollars toward sociological research that would uncover what different public constituencies actually think about synthetic biology.

A precedent for such work, according to Mooney, has been set by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). “This law,” wrote Mooney, “requires federally funded research on the societal impacts of nanotechnology, thereby codifying an impulse already strongly present at the NNI’s creation: that it should foster interdisciplinary research and sustained efforts in public engagement.” Essentially, spending on scientific research and spending on sociological research could complement each other. As Mooney noted, this approach “provides much to build on, and could easily be applied to, say, synthetic biology research.” 


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