Synthetic Society/Mohr on perception

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Public Understanding & Perception; Ethics (“Soothers”) Scott Mohr (Based on SSWB small-group discussion on 1/9/05)


A significant majority of the U.S. population (including many so-called educated people) suffers from profound scientific illiteracy. They are ignorant of even the most rudimentary scientific facts and principles and defensive about their ignorance. They find science dauntingly complex and it is socially acceptable for them to plead either disinterest and/or inability to comprehend it. This means that when a new field like synthetic biology opens up, this part of the public lacks the means to comprehend it. These people do, however, sense that it involves profound intervention in living systems, and in a version of the “precautionary principle,” at some point they are likely to demand that such research be banned. Faced with what they view as hopelessly complex, arcane and potentially dangerous activities, many (most?) non-scientists tend to retreat into simplistic, fundamentalist views of proper public policies: scientists are reckless, ego-driven adventurers who always push to cross the line between acceptable research and Promethean/Pandora-like moves to “play God.” Naturally this leads to negative views about public funding and to support for heavy-handed regulation.


To educate the public insofar as possible about the nature, meaning and purposes of synthetic biology – including both its promises and its hazards. By anticipating as many of the latter as possible, and explaining in layperson’s terms how researchers have coped with them in the past (and intend to do so in the future) we hope to reassure a majority of the public about the minimal risks of synthetic biology and the responsible nature of its practitioners. As part of this effort we intend to promote educational efforts at all levels and a philosophy of openness on the part of the research community that over time will defuse any suspicions about secret research. We also will encourage voluntary reviews and critiques of research agendas by watchdog committees that include representatives of local communities – both laypeople and scientists/engineers. Our watchwords should be education, openness and involvement. The ultimate goal is to formulate an approach that enables the technology to advance as smoothly as possible without impediment and in such a way as to garner broad public support and understanding. This would be best achieved if the public has confidence that its interests are adequately supported and that it has a meaningful voice in making policy decisions.


  1. A major, ongoing educational initiative is required. [Most people don’t even understand the DNA ‡ RNA ‡ protein paradigm. (Natalie)]
  2. The earliest applications of the technology will have a strong influence on public perception (and acceptance). [Monsanto’s introduction of “Roundup-ready” crops with terminator genes to insure ongoing market share is the cautionary tale here. (Ken)]
  3. Standards and protocols need to be well-thought-out in advance. [The recombinant DNA issues of a generation ago should be examined in this regard. (Scott)]
  4. Excessive hype about new technologies has a strong chance of backfiring sooner or later and should be avoided. [Nuclear power (with “electricity too cheap to meter”) provides one example. “Absolutely safe” Teflon is a second case. (Ken) Y2K remedies are another (Austin) and gene therapy yet another. (Scott)]
  5. The comparative simplicity and low cost of synthetic biology techniques makes their “dual-use” aspect a very serious concern. [This may be the most important point that requires thorough investigation.]
  6. Charitable (Gates Foundation) and venture-capital (Khosla) funding sources have begun supporting synthetic biology. [This suggests that elite perceptions (positive in this case) may precede – and differ from – the perceptions of the wider public. (Ken)]
  7. Public perception of synthetic biology will strongly affect the funding of research, especially by government agencies.
  8. A trusted (by the public) source of information about synthetic biology could play an important role in developing public understanding.


  1. How do we define synthetic biology? [A sensu stricto definition derived from the work of the Endy lab (and others using comparable approaches) probably is desirable for the time being, but when dealing with the public we should be prepared to address questions that raise the issues of continuity between such molecularly defined synthetic biology and broader (already controversial!) subjects like cloning, stem cells, etc.]
  2. How many synthetic biologists (laboratories) are there and how are they clustered (in terms of experimental approaches and design)? [This will be important to know as we try to define the field/subfields.]
  3. How do we distinguish between “genetic engineering” and synthetic biology (sensu stricto)? [The public for the most part has accepted major parts of genetic engineering – such as recombinant insulin, factor VIII, etc. – though the GM foods issue still raises great controversy, especially in Europe.]
  4. How do the behaviors (actions and words) of researchers affect public opinion? [What are the precedents among other technologies, e.g., genetic engineering, nuclear power, nanotechnology…. (Frank)]
  5. What lessons can we derive from Asilomar? [That conference addressed public concerns about genetic engineering – and imposed a temporary moratorium on some types of research.]
  6. Is synthetic biology more rational and careful than genetic engineering? [If that is true and can be convincingly argued, the public will be reassured. (Barry)]
  7. Were the early fears about genetic engineering unfounded? [If so, the arguments pro and con from that experience can be compared with current issues about synthetic biology.]
  8. What lessons can we derive from the GM foods controversy? [This ongoing issue probably comes closest to synthetic biology in terms of the need to address risk and the underlying psychological/political forces. Larry and Ken will have an opportunity to sample European opinions and attitudes about this on their forthcoming trip.]
  9. What are the most likely abuses of synthetic biology and how can they be minimized? [Reckless, thoughtless industrial exploitation? Malevolent acts by terrorists? We need to think through what the most likely “bad-outcome” scenarios are and what steps could be taken to prevent them. The public will certainly demand an answer to this question. (Scott)]
  10. What are the most likely beneficial outgrowths of synthetic biology? [A complete list of presently conceived-of good applications of synthetic biology (with their time-frame and likelihood of success) is important to give the public a perspective on the benefit side of the risk/benefit equation.]
  11. How do public perceptions influence public funding of research areas? [The major PR campaigns by NASA come to mind as examples, though something in the biomedical area would be more directly relevant. The lobbying efforts of the ASBMB and health-related foundations afford models.]
  12. What information do we have already concerning public attitudes to synthetic biology or related fields? [The Roper Center collects data on public opinion about science/technology for NSF and some of the comments on genetic technologies will probably apply to synthetic biology as well.]
  13. What kind of trusted source of information (a scientific society, an independent research center…) could be created to provide accurate, authoritative and minimally biased information for the public (including journalists and government officials/politicians)? [Are there any analogous bodies in other fields? In medicine? Advocacy organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, etc. seem to have high public regard.]
  14. What is the current state of journalistic coverage of synthetic biology, including websites? [We need to make as thorough a survey of the web as possible. We could also (electronically!) compile a set of press clippings. (Larry)]


The concept of synthetic biology rests on the idea that cellular systems are modular. They are composed of many subsystems that function in concert by means of multiple regulatory circuits. This immediately brings to mind the analogy of electronic circuits and computer hardware/software and this analogy has strongly inspired work in the field of synthetic biology. From the engineering perspective the task is to dissect the natural biological systems into their modular elements, then recombine these to produce novel functions and/or behaviors. From a more theoretical point of view, experiments in synthetic biology amount to the logical progression of research in biochemistry/molecular biology from the analytical, reductionist phase to the integrative, holistic phase. In the process, this work puts our molecular understanding of living systems to the ultimate, most stringent test. [Not surprisingly, at this early stage most of the parts apparently don’t work! (Austin)] The distinction from “old-fashioned” genetic engineering is that the logical goal of synthetic biology is to have a very large repertoire of well-characterized components that will enable almost limitless combinations to generate novel functions. Classical genetic engineering mostly deals with manipulations of single genes; synthetic biology ultimately amounts to building entire systems “from the ground up.” (Barry)


According to Professor George Annas of Boston University School of Medicine, bioethics and human rights overlap almost completely. He traces the origin of bioethics to the Nuremberg Principles as enunciated in the “Doctor’s Trial.” In that spirit:

Citizen Con: “I have the right to live on a planet not infested with monsters created by ego-tripping synthetic biologists.”

Citizen Pro: “I have the right to allow scientists to take reasonable risks in order to study things that might save my child’s (mother’s, father’s, grandparent’s, own…) life – and alleviate enormous amounts of human suffering.”

Random thoughts: Could we provide school children (at least middle school and high school) with materials (and perhaps even some guidance) to assist them in making reports on SB?