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./strong>
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?
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.
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”.
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.
Will synthetic biology elicit controversies similar to genetically modified crops before? Maybe, but where exactly are the analogies, and how can we gain substantial insights rather than mere guesses? We argue that apart from the intrinsic properties of the technologies at stake, the context of their implementation is decisive. To assess mechanisms of past and potential controversies, an investigative tool is presented. The Gate Resonance model, derived from older models of societal conflict, allows identifying key elements of conflict generating processes. Monitoring the developing debate on synthetic biology using this model, analogies to the case of genetically modified crops appear less suggestive. So far, there are only few indications that a controversy is imminent.
In dem Beitrag werden einige Probleme angesprochen, die sich für die TA von "emerging technologies" ergeben. Erstens werden mit dem Anspruch, aus vergangenen Fehlern zu lernen, oft Maßnahmen zur Konfliktvermeidung gemeint, damit „nicht dasselbe passiert wie bei der Gentechnik“, u.a. die Initiierung einer öffentlichen Debatte. Welche Rolle spielt TA dabei? Zweitens ist der Kontext, in dem Technologien entwickelt werden, von PR-Strategien durchsetzt, die eine entsprechende Analyse erfordern. Welche Rolle spielt Kommunikation für TA – als Gegenstand und Mittel? Drittens gerät TA im Fall von emerging technologies von der Rolle des Beobachters in die eines Players, der (mit)definieren muss, wovon die Rede ist. Was bedeutet das für das Selbstverständnis von TA?
Non-scientific factors such as general attitudes, media coverage and political support influence the public image of a scientific-technological field – but how does a new field find its image? To shed light on relevant processes, COSY did investigations in three areas: public attitude formation, media reporting and program funding. As an example we chose the emerging field of Synthetic Biology (SB), being considered a “hot topic”. Having received increased media attention recently, it provides a living communication experiment: prone to elicit attitudes, they are not yet determined. To find out how lay people cope with challenging insights from SB using their everyday knowledge, we performed an experiment shaped after the flow of information as it actually occurs: scientists wrote press releases on their work, Austrian journalists made newspaper articles thereof and focus groups of lay people summarised and discussed them. Journalists and scientists were then confronted with the outcome. The results show that popularisation and framing start early; for example, press releases tended to omit technical terms and emphasised benefits. Journalists considered applications to be most important for the reader and thought their main task was to present balanced information on risks and benefits. In the focus groups, attention shifted further to risks and ethical issues, and concerns and hopes were similar to those over genetic engineering years ago. While most participants felt better informed after the discussions, attitudes to SB polarised along pre-existing opinions on biotechnology. In addition, many attendants thought that what SB promises had already been achieved – which means that science only catches up with long-standing projections. Groups dominated by female participant raised the “playing god” metaphor more often. However, in serial reproduction experiments (“Chinese whispers”) morally tainted issues, even “creating artificial life”, disappeared quicker compared
01/2008 - 03/2010