Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?

So, you have a cool new science that could make a major impact on global challenges like energy, disease and pollution and you want to make sure it reaches its full potential.  What do you do?  At some point, having a heart to heart with “the public” might be a good idea.  Especially if your “cool new science” involves playing around with the very building blocks of life!

A just-released national survey on awareness of and attitudes toward nanotechnology and synthetic biology from the Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies should help kick-start this conversation.  For the first time, this annual telephone poll has included questions on synthetic biology—the use of advanced science and engineering to make or re-design living organisms (such as bacteria) so that they can carry out specific functions.  The results are intriguing, and should help inform the path toward responsible and socially acceptable uses of synthetic biology.  But more on this later…

I have been eagerly awaiting the results of the survey for some time.  Would people’s awareness and attitudes match those found for nanotechnology, or would the extension of nanometer-scale manipulation to the biological world raise new fears and hopes?  And how would the concept of making new life from dead chemicals resonate with the religiously inclined?

Impatient for results, I tried out a quick experiment on my eleven-year-old son.  Presented with a one-line definition of synthetic biology similar to the one above, I asked what his first thoughts were.  The results: “Isn’t that against the Bible?”  Followed immediately by “Isn’t that like Frankenstein’s monster?”

At this point I should establish that the reason for using such a young and naïve subject was to gauge how accessible the definition for synthetic biology was that we were developing.  But his responses intrigued me.  He is not overtly religious (although he does attend church regularly), and he is untainted by the Frankenfood debates surrounding genetically modified foods.  Yet he immediately focused in on two key areas that seem to dog attitudes toward biological manipulation.  Understandably therefore, I was keen to see whether the results of the current telephone poll—conducted across the United States by Peter D. Hart Research Associates Inc.—matched these concerns.

The results of the poll weren’t as clear-cut as my son’s response, but they did highlight some interesting points.

First off, synthetic biology is not on the radar for most people.  67% of the thousand people polled had never heard of the field, while a mere 2% claimed they had heard a lot about it.  Yet when asked whether they thought the benefits would outweigh the risks (or vice versa), 60% of people who had never previously heard of synthetic biology voiced an opinion.  That’s right—they didn’t know what it was, but they sure knew whether they liked it or not!

This has echoes of Dan Kahan’s work at the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.  Dan has shown previously that when people are initially introduced to nanotechnology, their attitudes are driven by an emotional response—their gut feeling.  Such a gut-response to nanotechnology is seen in the current poll.  But in this case, more people were willing to make an initial judgment on synthetic biology than nanotechnology.

I mention Dan’s work because he found that when people leaned more about nanotechnology, their opinions were heavily influenced by their value systems; moral, political, religious, or otherwise; and not just by the science.  If this holds true for synthetic biology, people with strong religious beliefs might be expected to respond differently to more information on synbio than those less-inclined to a religious perspective—the “Isn’t that against the Bible?” response.

To gauge poll participants’ informed responses to synthetic biology, they were read two short paragraphs—one discussing its potential benefits and the other discussing its potential risks (see the PEN report for the paragraphs).  The order in which these were read was randomly rotated.  Participants were then asked again whether they thought the risks of synbio would be greater, the benefits greater, or whether the two would be about equal.

I was particularly interested in this question of how religious values affected people’s informed response.  Delving into the data, respondents who never attend religious services were ambivalent on the risks and benefits of synthetic biology—there was no statistical difference between the numbers of people who thought benefits would outweigh risks, and vice versa.  But people who attended religious services once or more per week were on balance more likely to feel that potential risks would dominate potential benefits.

Of course, it may be that this trend simply reflects a more risk-averse attitude amongst the religiously active.  But comparing the synthetic biology data with the informed attitudes to nanotechnology counters this suggestion.  In the case of nanotechnology, people who attended religious services once or more per week were ambivalent on whether the risks and benefits of the technology would dominate, while the religiously un-engaged clearly felt on balance that the benefits outweighed the risks.

A similar comparison between attitudes toward synthetic biology and nanotechnology was seen when poll subjects were separated out by gender, education and income.
Men on balance felt the benefits of nanotechnology would outweigh the risks, while women were on the fence.  But when it came to synthetic biology, men were on the fence, and on balance women felt the risks would dominate.

College graduates anticipated the benefits of nanotechnology would dominate the risks on balance, while people educated to high school or less were ambivalent.  For synbio, the graduates were undecided on whether risks or benefits were greater, while on balance those who only reached high school education or less thought the risks would be greater.

People earning more than $75 thousand a year thought the benefits of nanotechnology would be more significant on balance, while those earning less than $30 thousand per year weren’t sure.  In the case of synthetic biology, the participants earning $75 thousand or more weren’t so sure about risks and benefits, while those earning less than $30 thousand were sure on balance that the risks would be greater.

Overall, there were plenty of people within each gender, education, income and religious observance group who bucked the trends—anticipating more benefits when the majority were expecting higher risks, and vice versa.  But the overall picture is one of nanotechnology as an area where people are on balance either ambivalent about risks and benefits or anticipating the benefits to dominate, and synthetic biology as an area where people are either on the fence or anticipating the risks to dominate.

This is critical information to anyone trying to chart a course to successful and sustainable uses of synthetic biology.  Clearly, there’s something about the conjunction of “synthetic” and “biology” that drives an emotive and values-driven response in people that isn’t seen for nanotechnology.  But what to do about this?  If synthetic biology is truly as important as its proponents believe, there’s a lot of work to do ahead in engaging with people to help develop socially acceptable applications.

Fortunately, this “new cool science” is still in its infancy, and the opportunities to engage with “the public” are still there.  But it is growing up fast—The J. Craig Venter Institute is racing ahead towards creating the first artificial bacteria, and “biohackers” are learning how to re-engineer life at an increasingly rapid pace.

Some deep soul-searching between synthetic biologists and the public may not be in the making yet.  But a serious heart to heart will be needed sooner rather than later, if synbio is to reach its full potential without major growing pains.

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2 Responses to Synthetic biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart?

  1. […] biology and the public: Time for a heart to heart? From 2020science.org:So, you have a cool new science that could make a major impact on global challenges like energy, […]

  2. nanotürkiye says:

    I think that, synthetic biology will not be accepted as nanotechnology will be. Or nanotechnology will not be used in living organisms. Because there will be a lot of people who will not want these changes in living organisms. Some will be against because of religion, some will think that new monsters will evolve.

    But if we use nanotechnology in non-living organisms, there will be less opposition. Who will not want a antibacterial sock, or air conditioner, or material strenghtened with carbon nanotube? It is not a living thing, not a new creature. And this process, adding new properties to materials are done for many years, it is a common thing.

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