Survey. What Society Thinks of Synthetic Biology.

The public opinion has great impact on the future of any new technology. Although research might be able to offer solutions for many of the challanges our society is currently facing, they depend on the approval and goodwill of the public to realize their ideas. Moreover, national and international legal frameworks limit every scientific action, which again, lie in the hand of the people. Thus, communication with a broader cross section of society plays a key role for the success of any scientific project. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, communication (from Latin commūnicāre, meaning "to share") is the activity of conveying information through the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, visuals, signals, writing, or behavior. It is the meaningful exchange of information between two or more living creatures. 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, with more than 100 guests. Of course we were highly curious about our audience's opinion on synthetic biology and therefore asked our guests to give us feedback via a survey, in which 55 people took part. You can access our data here.

According to our survey, our audience shows a nearly perfectly balanced gender distribution (51% feamle, 49% male). The average test person was 23.7 years old, whereas women were slightly older than men (24.2 years compared to 23.3 years old). Pleasingly, we were able to reach nearly all ages: The youngest participants were 14 years old, the oldest a 72 years old gentleman. As one would expect, the distribution of degrees corresponded well with the average ages. The majority of our guests held a high school degree (60.0%, of these are 48.5% males, 51.5% are female). This is followed by the bachelor degree (20%) and the secondary school certificate ("middle school", 9.1%). Only a minority held a master degree or a PhD (both 5.4%).

By first established a common language and common basic knowledge on synthetic biology, we aimed to enable everyone in the audience to fully understand the science and the concept of synthetic biology. Following our talk evening, the audience was asked to estimate their knowledge on synthetic biology. 91% of the test group could define the term with great (32.7%) or intermediate (58.2%) certainty. Only 9% were more (5.4%) or very (3.6%) uncertain. These numbers mirror the great success of our talk evening on educating the public. Yet of course, the test group was not chosen randomly, but consisted of people who actively and intentionally attended a talk evening on the matter. Therefore, our data is most probably not representative and the high state of information also due to previous knowledge. According to the Eurobarometer 2010 presented by Reinhard Heil from the Institute for Technology Assessment and System Analysis at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology during the talk evening, only 18% of the european public have heard of synthetic biology. Of these, only a fraction could define the term.

Following our talk evening, we captured what our audience associates with synthetic biology by asking them to chose from the options "Genetic Engineering", "Bioengineering", "Pharmaceutical Research", "Modeling", "Basic Research", "Biological Weapons", "Food", "Environmentalism", "Alternative Energies", "Killer Viruses", "Playing God" or else.

Most people selected "Genetic Engineering" (78.2%), "Bioengineering" (67.3%) or "Pharmaceutical Research" (61.8%) and "Modeling" (56.4%), which have indefinite connotations (shown in blue). Since we explicitly stated that synthetic biology can be seen as extended genetic engineering, the high number of selections is most probably attributed to this. "Pharmaceutical Research" however indicated the great hope people place in synthetic biology especially regarding yet uncurable diseases. The emphasis of the biomedical potential is less surprising, since the research in Heidelberg is clearly focused on medical fields and the local public is thus biased. Moreover, we pointed out the advantages our project could offer for drug research.

Clearly negative terms like "Biological Weapons" (43.6%), "Killer Viruses" (25.4%) and "Playing God" (20%) (shown in red) were selected by an unexpected high number of people. As layed out before, our audience actively participed in our talk evening on the potenial of synthetic biology in the future. Many guests were also invited by the Secular Humanists Rhein Neckar, a group of critical minds who meet regularly to discuss current issues. Therefore, they are most likely also sceptical towards potential risks of a powerful technology like synthetic biology. In contrast to that, nearly half of the participants associated aspects such as "Environmentalism" (36.4%) and "Alternative Energies" (34.5%) with synthetic biology (shown in green). Moreover, 43.6% ot the participants associate synthetic biology with "Food", most liekely due to the petri dish burger discussed by the author Olaf Fritsche during his talk.

This data is generally consistant with the statistics on the public perception of synthetic biology as explained by Mr. Heil during his talk: According to the Eurobarometer 2010, synthetic biology is mainly associated with "Biotechnology", "Human enhancement", "Cloning of human" and "Green biotechnology". The two aspects "Human enhancement" and "Cloning of human" were of course discussed during the course of our talk evening but played only a minor role. This was most likely due to relativising statement of participating researchers.

The participants were finally asked to evaluate the potential of synthetic biology. Nearly everyone stated to be interested in synthetic biology (98%, ++ and +, blue bars) and considers the issue important (96.1% - and - -, green bars). The majority of 90% (++ 56.4% and + 34.5%, red bars) was furthermore confident that synthetic biology could solve many of the major challenges society is facing today. As pointed out above, these include pharmaceutical research, food, as well as the protection of the environment and alternative energy. Interestingly, the participants were aligned on two sides regarding the controlability of synthetic biology in our group (yellow bars). 21.9% (++ and +) doubted that society or researchers are able to fence the potential of syntehtic biology, whereas 77.8% (- and - -) are positive that we will be able to keep this technology under control. Consequently, there were different opinions on the potential risks of synthetic biology (purple bars). 46.3% (++ and +) are rather sceptical and consider synthetic biology to be dangerous, whereas 53.3% (- and - -) consider to riscs associated with synthetic biology to be controllable.

The audience was furthermore asked to draw conclusions on how to ensure a corporate social responsibility in synthic biology research in the future. All people questioned recommend to invest more money in research (100% ++ and +, blue bars). Additionally, the majority demands more public education (92.8% ++ and +, blue bars) and to make all knowledge public (75.9% ++ and +, green bars). At the same time, the audience was divided on whether to request more regulations for research (yellow bars). Yet, no one concluded that research activities should be stopped after all (100% - and - -, purple bars).

In summary, the field of synthetic biology was attributed to harbor great potential, yet, the fact that we are unable to foresee possible risks of this new technology was clearly pointed out. One of the major demands of the audience was to promote the dialogue between science and society, by public talk evenings and panel discussions just like ours to allow direkt and personal communication. Another aspect was the question on how research can be regulated and who is in the position to do so. Of course, national and international legal frameworks limit every scientific action, which again, lie in the hand of the people. The presented data shows that the general public has a very heterogenous perception of synthetic biology.

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