Communicating Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is out to revolutionize modern biotechnology. If and how the media and the public are even aware of this new branch of science was the subject of an experiment.

Synthetic biology aims to revolutionize modern biotechnology: whole organisms are to be constructed “from scratch”. In the popular media scientist from this field are said to “create life”. However, is synthetic biology really perceived as being different from biotechnology?

Science communication as a basis for discussion

The project was built around an experiment in social psychology. Scientists in Synthetic Biology (SB) wrote press releases about their results, which journalists converted into articles. These pieces served as input to focus groups. The focus was on real-life applications, even if they were still in a distant future.

The experiment showed that issues regarding the risk-benefit balance were more dominant than scientific concepts or ethical questions. Ordinary people often thought that aims of Synthetic Biology had already been achieved – many were astonished that biotechnology could not yet construct organisms from scratch. They appraised SB indifferently to begin with, but along the discussion, assessments aligned with previously held beliefs about biotechnology. Overall, SB is not perceived as being something entirely new.

The issue in the media

In the media SB was covered marginally although appearing regularly on the science pages and on specialised websites. Public interest increased only when the person of Craig Venter was featured. Venter was depicted ambiguously, in contrast to the mostly positive reporting on SB and its possible applications. Risks were rarely mentioned. The rhetorical figure of “playing God” was less prominent than engineering or gaming metaphors, i.e. “constructions“, “Lego”, or “building bricks”. There was a strong male dominance in persons covered and in the metaphors, often derived from “typical games boys play”.

Conclusion: Whether European research funding organisations would consider SB a new field remained unclear. Differences in national research programs both in science and ELSI studies were considerable in the six countries investigated. ITA as the project co-ordinator concluded that, for some time into the future, SB may appear to the public as a buzzword rather than a scientific field.

COSY aims at developing a theoretically as well as practically applicable communication concept for post-genome biology
01/2008 - 03/2010