Towards societal embedding of synthetic biology – engaging the public

View all posters

Afke Betten, Prof. dr. J.E.W Broerse, prof. dr. Tj. de Cock Buning

Athena Institute, Netherlands

Synthetic biology is a developing scientific field with potentially huge impact on the world, possibly positive (e.g. greener fuels and cheaper medication), or negative (e.g. unforeseen and undesired consequences for the environment or controversy in society). Many scholars argue that to realize societal embedding of synthetic biology an interactive multi-stakeholder dialogue including the public at large is needed (1,2). However, since synthetic biology is currently little discussed among the public (3,4), such a dialogue must be facilitated actively. For this, the Interactive Learning and Action (ILA) approach can be deployed. Examples are patient participation in the agenda setting of burns research (5) and the involvement of small-scale farmers in biotechnology innovation processes in developing countries (6). The ILA approach aims to open up science and technology development processes by involving relevant stakeholders in early phases of development. It is structured along five phases: (1) initiation and preparation; (2) in-depth study of needs and visions; (3) integration; (4) priority setting and planning and (5) project formulation and implementation. In phase 2 we have conducted eight focus groups with Dutch citizens to (1) identify their perceptions of synthetic biology and (2) test early-stage public engagement. Results show that while participants were unfamiliar with the topic they were very interested in it. Participants tended to link the cases to negative examples from the past and expressed fear, and mistrust towards government, companies and the industry. The structure and content of discussions differed per proposed synthetic biology application. Overall, these results can help to further design communication tools and shape a healthy science-society dialogue. To put these results in an international perspective we are currently linking up these results to results from similar initiatives such as the Synthetic Biology Dialogue in the United Kingdom (7) and the Synthetic Biology Project in the US (8).