Guest Post : Synthetic Biology: Taking care of the public image

Written by Prof. Antonio Diéguez

Universidad de Malaga 

The public image of science is usually subjected to distortions tending to blur the nuances and to generate monolithic assessments.  The mass media contribute to a large extent to the creation of disproportionate expectations in the next and spectacular benefits provided by scientific research, or on the contrary, to the creation of exaggerate concerns lacking in many occasions of a rational basis. This is the reason why any professional scientist with the required talent and vocation should currently assume the task of offering to the public clear and accessible information about the research underway in any field. In the present circumstances, the scientific divulgation cannot be a personal hobby of some scientists or an exclusive task of scientifically educated writers, but it must be a central aspect of scientific practice. Science needs a good public image for its survival –at least in the form it has had so far.  If the scientists do not provide determinedly and abundantly the socially demanded information, then the citizens will look for it in less reliable sources (Internet has plenty of them), with the consequent proliferation of bad information. Information is like money, the counterfeit one finally circulates better than the good one.

Synthetic Biology is a disciplinal field with a huge scientific and economical potential. Some central aspects of the aims and methods in the biological research have been already modified due to its influence. But probably it is its technological potential that could be more attractive for the public opinion. However, few things have been done for the scientific community in order to explain with clarity and precision what can be realistically expected in this respect. The public image of Synthetic Biology is now in its very beginnings. According to a Eurobarometer survey, in 2010 the 83% of the respondents in the European countries had never heard anything about it. Synthetic Biology will have (in some case it has already) decisive applications in biomedicine, in the production of biofuels, in the agriculture and food industry, in the chemo-pharmaceutical industry, in the creation of new materials, in the bioremediation of damaged ecosystems, etc.  But there are also some big potential dangers to be considered (uncertainty about the foreseeable effects, possible misuse by bioterrorists, eventual contamination of natural systems, increment of social inequalities due to a differential access, etc.). Given its similarities to the classic genetic engineering, it is not surprising that its incipient public image still appears closely associated to it, with the corresponding advantages and disadvantages.

Because of its short story as a developed research field (a little over a decade) and its enormous transforming potential, Synthetic Biology needs, more perhaps than any other biological discipline, a good divulgation of its actual aims and results. These aims and results, as well as those reasonably foreseeable in the near future, should be carefully distinguished of the aims and results existing only in the dreams of some researchers, as prestigious as they might be. Among other reasons because these dreams are located in a so distant future that any supposition about it would be merely speculative. In this sense, good divulgation should avoid any kind of sensationalism, for it is usually more harmful than beneficial for the scientific research. The involved scientists have a prominent role to play in this task, but the analyses coming from the social sciences and humanities are equally indispensable. Not to forget that it is about starting a process which in the long term might eventually lead to the control of a big part of biological evolution on this planet. This would make Biology the most powerful science in history.

Although there is still a long way to go in this analysis and divulgation task, there is some evidence that, for now at least, the well-informed people are adopting moderate and prudent attitudes about Synthetic Biology. An interesting report recently published in the United Kingdom about the citizen’s opinions concerning Synthetic Biology shows that these opinions are sensible and thorough enough to be taken seriously into account. The report is titled Synthetic Biology Dialogue.[1] It is not clear to what extent this result could be applied to other countries, but anyway the responses describe nicely the hopes and fears that Synthetic Biology can provoke in some reasonable persons with good information about the relevant issues. The report was carried out upon the request of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and it gathers the results of a number of workshops and surveys made between 2009 and 2010, with the participation of over 200 British citizens.

Summing up its content, the report claims that, after receiving some information from the specialists, most peopled consulted manifested a big interest in Synthetic Biology, and they think that the expected beneficial effects undoubtedly justified the promotion of researches. But they are equally in favour of a moderate external regulation able to supervise efficiently the research, without paralyzing it. This is seen as the better way to prevent the grave potential foreseeable dangers, especially the bad use of the results (bioterrorism) and the liberation to the environment of synthetic organisms redesigned in the lab. It is also remarkable the importance that those consulted gave to the necessity that scientists were more involved in the ethical reflections related to their works, and that this work was carried out with humility and responsibility, giving priority to the general interests over the particular ones.

This report introduces a little bit of good sense in a debate –that about the effects of Synthetic Biology– which has been left sometimes in the hands of technophiles with small political and social sensitivity and technophobes reluctant to anything that they could consider as “playing God” (a notion that, however, they have never defined satisfactorily). In any event, it seems quite clear that the public debate about Synthetic Biology is a social demand –many civil organizations and governmental institution have asked for it and foment–, and it will be a central debate in the coming years. It depends on all of us that the discussion is on the right track, but scientists have the responsibility of engaging properly in this public debate. For this aim, it would be essential that the research agenda does not get out of the real needs and worries of citizens. One of the things that could generate more inquietude is that scientists neglect the reflection and concern about the effects and applications of their own work, or that they only try to achieve their personal aspirations. As is rightly pointed out in the European Council report titled Preliminary Opinion on Synthetic Biology II [2],    “It is vital to recognise the importance of maintaining public legitimacy and support. To achieve this, scientific research must not get too far ahead of public attitudes and potential applications should demonstrate clear social benefits.” (p. 15). This public reflection should be, then, a priority. It would be a big mistake to think that this debate is harmful for the scientific research. Perhaps, it will not be capable of adding a big amount of new supporters to this field, but its absence would probably generate more mistrust than desirable.

[1] The full text can be found here:

[2] The full text can be found here:

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