Broad Public. Engaging a Broad Cross Section of Society.

To determine the quality of scientific work it is not sufficient to classify the amount of knowledge generated for society but also if this knowledge can be understood and subsequently used by the society. Hence, we to engage as many parts of society into our project as possible, since we believe that synthetic biology and our iGEM project in particular has many implications for every individual. To promote the dialogue with society, we organized a talk evening addressing the question "On the Way to a Synthetic Future?" in cooperation with the Biotechnological Students Initiative e.V.and the Helmholtz-Initiative for Synthetitic Biology. Moreover, we introduced synthetic biology and our project to interested students and families from local high schools and engaged in discussions with the Secular Humanists Rhein Neckar and Dorothea van Aaken, pedagogue for environmental education and representative of the BUND for safety issues and ethical considerations. We further summarized our experiences and ethical considerations in an essay.

Like most other scientists, we appreciate the importance of a constant dialogue between scientists and society. However, in reality this dialog is usually no true interaction in both ways but a unidirectional information flow via all sorts of media, including scientific books, tv documentaries, movies etc. Besides open protesting there are close to no possibilities to return constructive and immediate feedback to a scientific controversy.

This is why we think the best and most efficient way of communication is direct face-to-face interaction between scientific experts and the general public. However, to organize such an event one has to face several challenges. For example the format has to be as such that both parties have enough space to develop their arguments and thoughts and most importantly time to express them. Furthermore, the discussion should be hold in a respectful and stimulating atmosphere.

To fulfill all of these prerequisites we tried to establish close relations to and between different groups of society. We met philosophers and critics as well as fellow researchers and experts over the whole period of our project. In the focus of these meetings were thorough discussions over ethical considerations, feasibility, safety and most importantly the general gain for society. Under the motto "On the way into a synthetic future?" this interaction culminated in an open talk evening where all parties got together to share and discuss the potential of synthetic biology and its implications on our future.

We were able to put together an interesting and diverse program:

  • Introduction to Synthetic Biology by Philipp Walch from the iGEM Team Heidelberg 2013
  • The New Creation – What We Could Expect from the Next 50 Years by Olaf Fritsche, author and science journalist
  • Philosopher’s Stone by Tania Christiansen and Sophie Rabe from the iGEM Team Heidelberg 2013
  • iGEMs – Unveil the Invisible by Charlotte Bunne, biology student and member of the iGEM High School Team 2012 from the Life Science Lab of the German Cancer Research Center
  • Pitfalls of Decision by Stefan Dewald, telecommunications engineer and member of the Secular Humanists Rhein Neckar
  • Public Perception of Synthetic Biology by Reinhard Heil from the Institute for Technology Assessment and System Analysis at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • Is Artificial Life an Invention of Mankind? – Hints to Resolve a Contradiction by Rolf Kickuth, science journalist and publisher of “Chemistry in Lab Biotechnology”
  • Synthetic Biology meets Poetry by Isabel Marleen Pötzsch, high school student, emerging author and member of the Life Science Lab of the German Cancer Research Center
  • Our guests, non-scientists like students from local high-schools, parents and grandparents as well as scientists-to-be participated lively in controversial discussions with the lecturers, either by directly asking questions or by filling in the prepared question cards, which were then read out by our moderator Alexandra Moosmann from genius science & communication. To get an overview about the audience's opinion of snythetic biology, everyone was asked to fill in a short questionnaire. See our survey to find out what our guests think of synthetik biology! Following the talks, we invited the lecturers and our audience to engage in further discussion over snacks and refreshments.

    In summary, the field of synthetic biology was agreed to capture great potential, yet, the fact that we are unable to foresee possible risks of this new technology was often considered to be dangerous. One of the major demands of lecturer's and the audience was to promote the dialogue between science and society, by public talk evenings and panel discussions just like ours to allow direct and personal communication. Another aspect was the more philosophical question on whether we actually want to realize everything that might be possible to achieve researching synthetic biology. This led to the important issue how to regulate research and who is in the position to do so. Of course, national and international politics set boundaries to every scientific action, but is this sufficient to avoid misuse? In agreement to this result an international survey shows that the general public has a very heterogeneous perception of synthetic biology. According to the Eurobarometer 2010, only 18% of the people have heard of synthetic biology. Germans are the most skeptical of all European countries: only 27% support synthetic biology, 20% of society strongly disagree and 31% disagree with exceptions. In the public perception, synthetic biology is mainly associated with biotechnology, human enhancement, cloning of human and green biotechnology.

    As a first step to improve the public perception of synthetic biology, we wanted to establish a common understanding between science and society. Together with last years high school iGEM Team from Heidelberg, we held three open 1 hour presentations on synthetic biology and our iGEM projects followed by a question and answer session with the audience. More than 100 people from different backgrounds attended these interactive events. To get more specific we handed out questionnaires with three different questions, which were answered by the audience in two parts. Before the main part of our talk, our guests were asked to answer only part 1, either the question “What is the definition of synthetic biology?” or “Do you have an idea of what synthetic biology could mean?” – each individual could decide which one accounts better to his or her knowledge on synthetic biology. In our talk, we first gave a brief introduction into synthetic biology, explained the concepts of iGEM and elaborated further on our project “The Philosopher’s Stone”, before last years high school iGEM Team from Heidelberg presented their project iGEMs - Unveil the Invisible. Finally, we gave our personal outlook for a future with synthetic biology. Before offering time for questions, we ended our presentation with the second part of our questionaire. The latter two questions were: “What do you associate with synthetic biology?” and “Which questions remained to be answered?”. Here, we wanted to know, in which way our presentation had influenced their opinion on synthetic biology. 

After our talk, many questions were addressed, concerning both the principles of synthetic biology in general and NRPS in particular. However, the vast majority of questions dealt not with understanding the biology behind “The Philosopher’s Stone”, but rather with the potentials of synthetic biology.

    Many of our guests pointed out their concerns regarding missing safety regulations of synthetic biology. They strongly insisted for more transparency and communication by scientists and industry. The discussions following the presentations revealed that the skepticism to synthetic biology is mainly based on a lack of communication and the difficulty to acquire trustworthy knowledge.

 When analyzing our questionnaire, the most positive and striking result was that people who had stated that they did not have any idea of synthetic biology prior to our talk, found the discussion highly stimulating and informative. In conclusion, we believe that organizing such an interactive evening should be obligatory to following iGEM generations. It not only informs the public about ongoing research but also helps the teams to formulate their ideas in an understandable and comprehensive way. And last but not least it is a perfect opportunity to enlarge the number of friends for synthetic biology.

    Furthermore, we were invited to the Secular Humanists Rhein Neckar, a group of critical minds with a broad range of interests, such as ethics, philosophy, politics, natural sciences etc. who meet and discuss current issues. Their main focus is ethics, as many of them are philosophers, however, there are natural scientists, economists and linguists as well. This mix of characters, their way of thinking and expertise made it both challenging to present the project appropriately (i.e. on a suitable level of abstraction). After an 1-hour long talk, often interrupted by critical questions, we engaged in another 2 hours of discussion with the entire audience. The range of questions was, as indicated earlier, quite broad, ranging from “What exactly is the sense of your project?” to “Is synthetic biology at all controllable? If something has economic value, people won’t be able to control it, right?”. 

We also conducted our questionnaire among the secular humanists, with a particular philosopher-appropriate feedback. We got questions like: “Is there anyone (or any institution) who has the authority to set legal boarders? And when is going further too far?” or “Isn't synthetic biology somehow a second industrial revolution? Only that the steam engines we're building have the ability to change when we're turning our backs on them?” remained unanswered. But although not all questions could be answered, we are very thrilled about the lively discussion and new food for thoughts for our project.

    With Mrs. Van Aaken, who not only is a pedagogue for environmental education, but also member of the BUND (a German NGO for preservation of the environment), we talked about the impact of synthetic biology on environment and on our lives in general. We cannot foresee all consequences and the impact our actions will have for the future – which accounts for both, the interactions of our “creations” with different ecosystems as well as the impact of synthetic food or medicine on our bodies. The evaluation of possible risks arising from them has to be done according to the specific use of the synthetic product. Furthermore, we should return to our essential needs instead of the urge to pile up cheap goods and wealth at the expense of nature and the poor. 

Besides this general issue, we also considered the question whether synthetic biology is an artificial process or rather something natural. When interacting with the non-scientific public in general, a common association to synthetic biology was “artificial”. However, we can ask whether synthetic biology actually is human-made artificial or accelerated natural evolution. Addressing these questions in the discussion with Mrs. Van Aaken lead us further in the theory behind science in general, what natural sciences really are, what nature is and whether our quest for knowledge and technological advance is part of human nature. These considerations opened up an entirely new point of view on what we as scientists were doing and thus, we thank Mrs. Van Aaken for broadening our horizon during this enlightening afternoon!

    Thanks to