My thoughts, memories, and uptakes of the days’ events.

Today has been about exploring the public perception of, and public engagement with synthetic biology and conservation biology.

The question asked to the panel this morning was: The public landscape of synthetic biology and conservation – how can we move forward? This session was led by Bertina Ceccarelli form the WCS.

She introduced the session by talking about the aforementioned perceptions: those of stakeholders will vary because each stakeholder will hold different values. The question was: how can SynBio and ConservationBio researchers shape a dialogue with the public, if there are mixed values within the camps themselves?

The first panel member to address this was Todd Kuiken from the Woodrow Wilson Centre. He looked at how the media was presenting SynBio to the public. The media is, more often than not, the first contact the public has with science. So how the media frames the science, and what rhetoric it uses could have an influence on public perception of the subject being reported. Kuiken showed that SynBio’s exposure in the media was increasing, but just giving them the information wont increase their acceptance of it, or bring them round to a certain point of view. He showed that, after being introduced to the subject of SynBio, the public’s opinion on whether or not research in the field should continue had not changed if comparing samples from 2010 to 2013. His advice was to consider the who, what, why questions that the public will have about SynBio. If researchers can have a good, and coherent answer to some of these questions, the public may find a coherent answer more acceptable.

Following this, Marcus Schmidt from BioFaction, looked at public engagement and biotechnology. BioFaction asked groups of people of all races, ages and in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, certain questions regarding the world of conservation. It was interesting to see how the Developed and Developing countries saw the situations in very different ways. When it comes to land use for agriculture, the developed countries said that farming should intensify on the land being used already, so that no more needs to be used. People from developing countries said that the demand for food should be reduced. Another area of conservation debate is overfishing and subsidies (a topic barely covered in this meeting). The question was: should the incentives and subsidies be abolished in order to reduce over fishing? Both developed and developing countries said yes, but developed countries said it should be done sooner rather than later. The developing countries said that it should be removed over time, allowing the fisherman to adapt and prepare accordingly. Something Marcus mentioned was how SynBio could help with conservation: it can raise awareness, it may be able to decrease pollution from excess nutrients, it could help with de-extinction, and it may be able to help restore degraded ecosystems.

The third panel member to speak in this session was Ed Gillespie from Futerra. He has come to this conference from a branding and marketing viewpoint, and made it clear that the individual communities had some work to do in marketing their fields. With some great jokes, and a lighthearted manner, he got a lot of laughs from the audience, but he also made them think. He focussed on the negative image that conservation and biodiversity seem to have built for themselves; it is one of a loss, a mourning of the creatures going into extinction. Instead, he suggested a “Love Not Loss” message needs to be put out to the public. Love you planet; Love the natural world and all the creatures on it. They need to make the public feel that conservation is not just a scientific concept, it is also about awe and wonder of the natural world. The way that the investors are being communicated will also raise suspicion amongst the public: talk of grains, big pharma, oil companies sponsoring this work will automatically raise eyebrows and guards. A message to both communities was to focus on grabbing the publics imagination by getting the attention of their emotions. The public wants to be inspired, feel hope and excitement; this requires a positive, hopeful and inspirational image. The priceless role of communications, especially in science is “getting simplicity on the right side of complexity.” It might be useful for the individual communities to figure out what they are about: who are they serving? Themselves, the science and its systems or society? The next step is to put together a marketing strategy: a positive and inspirational one that will attract public attention: one that puts the Sizzle into the Science!

The fourth speaker this afternoon was Oliver Morton, editor for The Economist. He took a bit of a different spin on the subject matter, and was trying to get his audience to think about their work in a different way. He took a very philosophical and artistic look at death. Using science fiction and art, he explored the meaning of death, creativity, art and life and how they all intertwine.  He wanted to highlight that SynBio , and conservation biology could be considered as art forms, creative sciences that has the potential to produce new life. He wanted to get the communities to ponder on a topic that has cropped up a few times over the course of the conversations: being stuck in the present. Their imaginations were limited by their preconceptions, and there is a need to break free from this in order for creativity to go forward.

Finally Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer in the STS department at UCL used an experiment from another scientific discipline to put forward the case for transparency of the sciences to the public, and for a radical democratisation of the scientific method. “Biology is Technology” is a phrase that is becoming ever more popular, and so it will have a much more direct impact on the public. As a result, there will be broader questions about the technologies, and so the dialogues will be extended. Jack asked the room to think about why they are doing this piece of research; what is its purpose; what are the gains; what else will it do etc. These are all valid questions that every scientist should be able to answer about their work.

My thoughts (from conversations and from memory, and from doing some thinking…):

This session was extremely interesting from my perspective as a science communication student. I’ve been learning all about the public perception of science, and how this very much depends on the communication between the scientists and the public. What this session did was to get each community to look inwards, at their own values and perceptions and ideas of what they are doing. And not just the communities, but the scientists themselves: WHY are they doing what they’re doing? What is the driving force?

The issue about branding the sciences was an interesting one, and one that definitely could benefit from a little Sizzle, like Ed mentioned. Both SynBio and Conservation Bio need to change their public image, but in different ways. ConservationBio needs to become more proactive, more forward thinking (even though some would argue that in order to do conservation properly you need to look centuries into the future….). SynBio needs to somehow distill some of the “hype” that has been circling the field, and turn it into more of a picture of reality, with some great opportunities for the future.

This leads to another interesting point that was raised during the discussions about ConservationBio. ConservationBio is insular; it hasn’t looked to the other scientific disciplines for help. This is an area where improvements could be made. By reaching out to communities like the SynBio team, new, creative solutions may come out of it. At a point where two entirely opposite communities with different values meet, some of the greatest diversity of ideas could be formed. Lets hope that both communities reach out to each other, to see what they can do together.

Marcus Schmidt’s talk makes a good case, and provides evidence for, the different values that people have all over the planet. Having such different values of nature means that conservation and synthetic biology will need to work together on a case-by-case basis, and take into account the local people (which has been done – Luke Alphey project with Denghe Fever).

Oliver Morton’s reference to Steve Aldrich’s comments on “being stuck in the present” felt, to me, to be more directed at the conservation community. I have found that the SynBio community is extremely creative, and they need to be in order for the science to progress and experiment and move forward. So was this a camouflaged hint for the conservationists to let go of their boundaries, and embrace the creativity to see what can be produced?

Stilgoe’s ideas of democratisation made me feel a little bit uncomfortable. It sounded as though he wanted to open up the scientific process to the entire community, let everyone in and have a look at what is going on, as it is being paid for by the public (through taxes). Although I think it a fantastic idea that scientists are working with other stakeholders to find out what the impacts of their work will be (exactly what this conference was about), I fear that unless a line is drawn, this would slow down the progress of science dramatically. Proper risk assessment is of course a great idea, and scientists in the field of SynBio are aware of this. Risk assessment will be different depending on who is doing it: SynBio researchers won’t have the same risk perceptions as the lay people. But if the doors were opened to them, the science would be slowed down to such a rate that progress would take decades.

The question of risk and trust seems to keep cropping up, and it still feels a little bit as though some of the ConsBio community doesn’t trust the SynBio community to be able to manage the risks well. Yesterday a comment was made that the ConsBio community was regarding the SynBio community as the teenagers in the room, monkeying around with things they don’t understand. The thing here is that this is exactly how science developed “back in the day”. Science was done by individuals or groups in their garages, and they were playing with new ideas and discoveries. This feeling of fear of the unknown has not stopped people in the past, why should it stop now? An example of IVF was used today by Stewart Brand to highlight that a lot of the fear felt at the time of this technology was not needed, was a waste of energy.

When it comes to risk, the idea of “rogue scientists” comes to the forefront of the mind; those scientists that have little care or worry that their work could have unintended consequences, or that they have deliberate and potentially harmful consequences. But the SynBio community does not worry about the risk of this happening, but everyone else does. What does this mean? That the SynBio people are too excited about the possibilities to see how they could go wrong, or is everyone else too afraid? Too nervous of those possibilities and them being used for “evil” means? It was said at the conference that the possibility of this happening was minimal, as the scientists know that if it does happen, they wil not be allowed to continue with their work. And as they are all passionate about this area of science, they wouldn’t even dream of it. Not only that, but they weren’t evil people!

Again, I’ve put down as much as I can remember/think of/have notes for here now. But I will keep adding to it as more things come to me.

Go to the orginal article here or listen below