standard New study on public attitudes to synthetic biology


Dr Matthew Kearnes and Professor Phil Macnaghten from IHRR were advisors for a new project on public attitudes to synthetic biology called Synthetic Biology Dialogue.  They provide an introduction to the project’s research and insights into public perception of risks associated with emerging technologies.

How will we regulate new innovations in synthetic biology? (J.Craig Venter Institute)


In a month when new proposals for public engagement on GM foods have hit the headlines due to allegations of political interference and bias, the launch of the Synthetic Biology Dialogue report is a testament to the capacity for techniques of “upstream public engagement” to enable public consideration of the possible ramifications of emerging areas of scientific and technological development.

Synthetic biology is an emerging area of interdisciplinary research that seeks to apply the principles of engineering design to biological systems and processes. Credited with attempting to create life from scratch, the recent announcement by the Craig Venter Group of the creation of the ‘first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell’ has made synthetic biology the focus of much debate and discussion. As with many areas of scientific and technological innovation this debate is characterised by competing claims of possible benefits and risks. For its proponents the field is full of promises with the potential to lead to new applications in areas as diverse as new energy systems and bio-fuels, new medical therapies, cellular computing and new forms of bio-remediation. Against this a number of reports have highlighted significant areas of potential social and ethical concerns together with calls for regulation of the field.

International research in synthetic biology is developing rapidly, centred on the development of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts and the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) held every year at MIT. In the UK, a number of interdisciplinary networks in synthetic biology networks have been recently established such as the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) built on collaboration between researchers at Imperial College London and the London School of Economic and Political Science (LSE).

In this context, the study being launched today reports on a dialogue process that involved members of the public in discussion with stakeholders drawn from the scientific community, government and NGOs. In all 160 members of the public were involved in the process in workshops and deliberative fora which took place in London, North Wales, Newcastle and Edinburgh. The report will suggest that while there was conditional support and enthusiasm for synthetic biology, particularly in the medical domain, there remained significant questions that included:

  • Who is driving these developments and why?
  • How do we know whether the claimed benefits would materialise?
  • Are we proceeding too quickly particularly when the long-term impacts are unknown?
  • Could the technology be misused and had these considerations been adequately considered?
  • Does the technology go ‘against nature’, and if so, would there be unforeseen consequences?
  • Are the views of the public being listened to?

'Synthetic life': Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium (J.Venter Institute)

In light of these concerns the report argues that the research councils, and other intermediary bodies, need to take a leadership role in the responsible development of synthetic biology research; through developing the capacities of scientists to think through their responsibilities; through ensuring that publicly funded research is informed by public values; through recognising that public concerns go beyond narrow and technical considerations of risk, and through reviewing current regulations and guidelines to ensure that an appropriate governance framework is in place before most synthetic biology applications are introduced.

These results are comparable to recent IHRR research on the social and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. For example, the DEEPEN project, which drew on a series of discussion groups and deliberative workshops in the UK and Portugal, sought to characterise public responses to nanotechnology and to understand the social and cultural factors that shape these responses. The project found that public responses to nanotechnology can be understood as being structured by five key cultural narratives, each of which represent archetypal stories deeply embedded in European culture. These are: ‘Be careful what you wish for’; ‘Opening Pandora’s box’; ‘Messing with nature’; ‘Kept in the dark’; and ‘The rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

Taken together with the today’s report, these findings suggest that lay responses to new and emerging technologies are complex and that more thought needs to be given to the way in which public attitudes are understood and measured. Public concerns and enthusiasms cannot be categorised as ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ and nor is it sufficient to assume that lay publics possess ‘attitudes’ that can be simply measured quantitatively. Rather, both projects suggest that lay responses to new technologies are informed by a range of underlying cultural resources that give social meaning to new technological developments.

At the very least the results of these two pieces of research suggest that we need to rethink the ways in which we think about the risks of new technologies. Current policy debate, for example, tends to rely on an assumption that public attitudes to new technologies are a product of a trade-off between perceived risks against perceived benefits. Both of these recent projects demonstrate the flaws in this thinking. The findings of both projects suggest that public views are conditional on a range of broader social, political and economic questions – ‘Who will benefit from new technologies?’; ‘Whose interests are driving new developments?’ and ‘Who is thinking about the possible long-term and cumulative effects of contemporary innovation?’

Methodologically this challenges the ways in which we interpret the findings of public dialogue processes, particularly the ways in which people talk about the risks of technologies. For example, together with Dr Sarah Davies, we are working on an analysis of ‘risk-talk’. What we are interested in detailing in this analysis is the function of risk-talk. What we have found is that rather than being an innate property of technological innovation, public discussion of risk has a narrative quality. Risk-talk serves a social function to place new technological developments into pre-existing and in some cases age-old storylines, and to make the unfamiliar knowable. In technical terms what we are suggesting is that risk here works as a ‘cultural trope’ that helps us to understand who will be responsible if things go wrong. The implications of this are that policy-makers and research institutes will need to think carefully about how they incentivise forms of ‘responsible innovation’.

The Synthetic Biology Public Dialogue project was carried out by the TNS-BMRB.  The full report is available online through BBSRC’s website:

Matthias Wienroth and Matthew Kearnes are also working on an ESRC-funded project, entitled Strategic Science: Research Intermediaries and the Governance of Innovation that examines research policy toward new and emerging technology.


  1. The report sets a stark challenge directly to the research councils, with the public groups asking them to change their definition of ‘good science’ to take into account social and ethical aspects. The test will come in the ways in which this message is received, understood, and acted upon (or ignored). The following quote from a Nature comment on the report suggests that the institutional response will simply continue to be more of what we’ve seen before…

    “But for synthetic biology in Europe, at least, it is dialogue or bust. Unless the public is on board, the field won’t develop here, where loss of public trust has halted entire technologies.”

  2. Helpful blog Matthew thanks. My first response to reading the Synbio Dialogue report is that we are singularly unequipped to respond to the challenges it poses!

    In addition I really think we should learn the lessons of nano and involve the businesses early on in this discussion. It is usually at the state of commercialisation that the issues become ‘live’ and so those connections need to be made much earlier in the process and the businesses invited to debate the issues. My much less erudite blog on the subject was stimulated by a feeling of deja vu when attending the Royal Society synbio dialogue, are we going to learn even some of the most basic lessons of the past I wonder?

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