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Tell Me a Story About Synthetic Biology

More Americans know about synthetic biology, according to a survey from the Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Some 22 percent of adults indicate they have heard a lot or some about synthetic biology—that’s up from only 9 percent last year. But nearly half, 48 percent, have heard nothing at all about the technology.

So if citizens aren’t familiar with a technology that researchers currently use to create antimalarial drugs and that major players in the energy industry want to use to churn out biofuels, you just tell them more, right? As Huston Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger points out, not necessarily. “Surprisingly — and this should sober scientists in the field — when the poll respondents were told more about synthetic biology, they became more concerned,” he observes.

public awareness of synthetic biology has more than doubled

The approach explained in the survey report is what science communication experts call the “deficit model”: explain how a scientific process works and hope that people will get behind it when they know more. As Rick Borchelt and Kathy Hudson explained here at SP:

The basic assumption behind these models is that there is a linear progression from public education to public understanding to public support, and that this progression—if followed—inevitably cultivates a public wildly enthusiastic about research. But this model of scientific engagement with the public obviously isn’t working.

The survey doesn’t argue for generating public support for synthetic biology by pursuing a deficit model, but its findings, as Berger makes clear, demonstrate the problems with the approach. In fact, after hearing a short explanation about the potential benefits of synbio (treating disease and cancer, generating renewable energy, reducing pollution) and the risks (unknowns, potential pollutants bioweapons, and ethical concerns), listeners often decided that the risks will outweigh the benefits:

informed impression of risks and benefits of synthetic biology

Looking at the survey and the recent New Yorker article on synbio side-by-side is a useful demonstration of how a concrete narrative can present the benefits of an emerging technology in an easy-to-grasp and positive light. Michael Specter ‘s story opens with a history of how scientists developed artificial artemisinin, a powerful treatment for malaria strains that are resistant to other drugs. The development of bacteria that manufacture the compound is considered the poster-child example of synbio benefits.

Specter then goes on to profile thoughtful scientists like Drew Endy, who are fully cognizant of the ethical implications of engineering life and want to engage policymakers and the public on the direction of research. This story highlights the fact that many brilliant people working on synethic biology are motivated by values—just as citizens concerned about the technology are motivated by values in forming their opinions of the work. Indeed 30 percent of respondents in the survey said that a top concern was that “it is morally wrong to create artificial life.”

So if values is a shared language, then it makes sense to tell more stories about the concrete achievements and real efforts to ensure the safety of advances in the field. In this case, talking about values in story is a lot easier than talking about values in a hypothesis.

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