On the 27th of September we carried out an information- and survey day in the pedestrian area of Heidelberg and asked 100 randomly picked people the following questions. The questionnaire of the survey is partly based on the evaluations of the European Union on Biotechnology , expanded and adapted for our purposes.
By the help of this survey we wanted to get a feeling for how much the public knows, generally about biology and biotechnology and about synthetic biology. To really get a quite representative answer, we decided to carry out the survey in the pedestrian area of Heidelberg, because we wanted to prevent asking only a certain audience when interviewing friends and family. The results of the survey should help us to decide on which level we should write the background information in the wiki and in the information brochure, so everybody can really understand it. To get some impressions about our information and survey day klick here on the Photogallery: Info and Survey Day.
Our results show that the public in Heidelberg is quite well informed about the most basic background of biology and biotechnology. For example, 87,5% knew that ordinary tomatoes have genes (and not only genetically engineered ones). Only 50% of the European citizens answer this question right.
What we also can say is that the Heidelbergers still are quite sceptical towards biotechnology in general. Two thirds of the interviewed answered that they associate concerns or fear with the term genetic engineering (‘Gentechnik’). Only one fifth had positive associations like hope and confidence.
Unsurprisingly, only very few people - 5,2% - have already heard of 'synthetic biology' or can correctly describe what it means.
What really matters for us is that 83% of the surveyed people answer that they had tracked reports about biotechnology in the media. That means there is an interested public, everything we need to do is provide information for them they can understand and enjoy learning from. We also can see that the use of media is quite balancedly spread: Newspapers, the internet, magazines and television are all frequented from 15-20% of the people. Only the radio is not as often used. This means for us, we have to use different media to communicate.
 Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005:Patterns and Trends, Ref. 244b , Wave EB64.3, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb_special_en.htm
From the 23rd to the 24th of October we have carried out an online survey questioning 300 scientists of the Bioquant in Heidelberg to answer the following questions. The questionnaire of the survey is based on several studies ,, expanded and adapted for our purposes.
Field of research:
- Synthetic Biology
1. In the past 3 years, have you had professional contact with journalists from the general mass media (face-to-face, by phone, or by mail/fax/email)?
a. More than 6 times
2. What kind of contact with the media have you had? (Check all alternatives that apply.)
a. Been interviewed by a journalist
3. Judging reports about your field of work in press articles or other reports in other media, how do you think the science facts are represented: (1-5 accurate - bad)
a. The bottom line of the work is correctly presented.
4. Do you think your work has implications for society and/or policy-makers and regulators?
5. what do you think how many people know that “E.coli” is a bacterium?
6. what do you think how many people know what a “pathogen” is?
7. what do you think how many people know that “desoxyribonucleic acid / DNA” is the carrier of genetic information?
8. what do you think how many people can describe roughly what “synthetic biology” means?
The first thing to say is that only one third of the questioned scientists had contact with the media in the past years. This means, there is a big potential of people to encourage for science communication!
26% of the scientists have already written an article or book for the non-scientistic public - which means they were clearly engaged in popularizing their work.
The questions about the experience with reports by the media about scientist's work show, that the point of view of scientists towards the media is not entirely positive: Still, two thirds think that the bottom line of their work is presented correctly. But one third also opines that important facts where omitted. This is a very important conflict point between scientists and journalists: Journalists have to omit facts and details, to write a fascinating story, which many people will read. But most scientists would prefer their work to be presented completely - some details may be very important to them.
This is also a thing we experienced in the context of this project: There definitely were facts omitted in reports about our work. And when we read the reports for the first time, some of us were quite unhappy. Others were even shocked about what the journalists did with what they told them about our work. But you have to take into consideration, that the details and special facts do not matter to somebody, who has never heard of your project before and whom you want to interest for your research (and not give a lecture on the details). So as long as the bottom line is presented correctly, and there are no massive mistakes in the presentation of your work, we think to accept this lack of details is a fair thing to do to enable science communication.
This leads us to the next point: Nearly half the questioned scientists think that their work is exaggerted in media reports. Some may find this good (because it may help acquire sponsors), others may think it's bad because it is not realistic, but this is also one thing we have to accept (if it is not too extreme), in our opinion. Because the people working in media live from the audience bying their newpapers and watching their TV shows. So they have to arouse interest. And this can be done by exaggerating. And to be honest - is there anything in the media that is not presented a little bit in an exaggerted way?
Another important point for us to know was if scientists are aware of the fact that their work may have impact on policy makers and on the public. And we can clearly answer this question with yes.
After we have investigated the level of knowledge of the public, it was important for us to see how scientists asses it. And surprisingly, we can see a great discrepancy between the knowledge and the assessment. The public is much better informed than most scientists think. This is a very important finding, because the more the public knows, the shorter the distance is, scientists have to go to fetch the public at their point of knowledge, when they tell about their work. Maybe if scientists imagine this distance to be very long, they are not motivated to go this way. So this result is very positive and should motivate more to think about communicating science. [back]
 Science Communication, Interactions with the Mass Media, Science,Vol. 321. no. 5886, pp. 204 – 205, July 2008
 Science Communication, Report of the Royal Society, June 2006, http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=3180