Team:Heidelberg/Human Practice/Essay


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Science Communication: Information, Honesty and close Contact to the public


It’s the end of the summer vacations. Most of our friends, family and fellow students come back from trips to the sun-spoiled beaches of Southern France, from climbing the mountains of Switzerland or from other places mentioned in “1000 Places to see before you die”. Naturally “what did YOU do for the holidays” is the first question they ask “We worked in the lab for three months, genetically modified bacteria to sense and destroy pathogens” is our enthusiastic answer. And then we’ll look into helpless faces – in the best case! Some also show concerns and scepticism regarding the idea of genetic engineering and the aim, to create bacteria, which are able to kill others.

This leads to the wordy and sometimes exhausting part of the conversation: Explaining, what synthetic biology actually is, how the modification of the bacteria is done and that these modified bacteria do no harm to the environment and to us. Very often we have to justify our work with the reference to the practical medical use our system could have in the future.

Every scientist probably knows situations like this, in which you become aware of how few things the public (to which friends and family as ‘non-scientists’ mostly belong) knows about biology in general and biotechnology, not to mention synthetic biology in particular. This was the flash point for us to think about the communication of our work to a greater public in the context of the iGEM project. We wanted to find out how much the public knows and how they feel about biotechnology and genetic engineering, and how they use media to learn about it. Furthermore we wanted to ask scientists about there opinion towards media contacts and the publication of their work for a broad audience. This knowledge should serve as a basis for the next steps: to publish our work in the context of synthetic biology to the ‘people on the street’ in a way, that he’ll get interested in the new scientific field and is able to develop his own opinion about it. This should also prevent the formation of prejudices and negative associations connected with synthetic biology, which will be a real threat to our future perspectives as scientists in the future. We laid one focus on school pupils, because they will build the public of tomorrow. In Germany, the problems we face might often be a national peculiarity, but we think that the general problems we have to deal with are the same in most other countries participating in the iGEM-Competition.

Why should scientists publish their work?

One reply you get, if you talk about the popularization of their work to scientists, is: "As long as our colleagues understand what we are doing, the general publics does not need to understand our work". What really matters is that fellow scientists understand, what the work is all about – and that does not require additional devices.

We resolutely have to repel this opinion for several reasons:

First, one big attempt of many projects in synthetic biology is to create applications like improved food quality or new strategies for the generation of biofuels, drugs or medical therapies. These applications are aimed and have to be adopted not only by the scientific elite of a country, but also by the public. For example the benefits of genetic engineering and synthetic biology (we will talk about these two together, because at least in Germany the knowledge about the synthetic biology concept is close to zero, as you can see in our survey) in the field of medical applications is enormous. 15% of the commercially available drugs in Germany are made by recombinant techniques, and surely for the development of many other drugs, the techniques of genetic engineering are used as well. But if the average citizen goes to the doctor and gets some medication, he is in most cases not aware of this fact. In our opinion, this has to improve. Everybody should at least generally understand, how the things he takes as medication or eats as food have been produced and how they act in his body. And this is a right everybody should make use of and inform themselves, for the following reason:

Living in a democratic system, every citizen, be it a scientist or not, has the right as well as the duty to decide over laws, which strengthen or restrict certain parts of science and biotechnology. By electing parties and politicians with a publicised attitude towards scientific issues every voter influences the future perspectives of science. This can be through the decision over the funding of certain projects with tax money, or even more directly through laws concerning the borders of research. One important matter of debate in Germany are the restrictions on the usage of embryonic stem cells where only stem cells generate outside of Germany before a certain date are allowed to be used for research. To responsibly decide over such laws, one has to have a basic understanding for modern biosciences (the same is true in the current financial crisis where decisions are made to support broken banks with public money).

Adding to this, most basic research in Germany and elsewhere is funded by public money. So every citizen of the country contributes to this scientific research with his/her tax money and they have the right to understand on what their money is spent. And this is not easy. In contrast to the building of a bridge or a public swimming pool, the benefits of synthetic biology are often not directly obvious. An important research issue is to understand systems and create methods first. With this premises it is possible to invent applications later. But the connection between basic research and application is not always seen by the public and is at the same time not always demonstrated by the researchers.

Last but not least one important point, which also leads us to the next topic of public knowledge about bioscience: Ignorance easy leads to fear, especially if the own health or nutrition is concerned. One can see this in the public discussion about green biotechnology and the development of genetically modified plants. In Germany, there are many people that fear and reject green biotechnology so much, that they regularly destroy the genetically engineered plants on proving grounds to inhibit research in this field and thereby destroy tremendous previous efforts of the concerned scientists. Prominent persons like the Prince of Wales do not hesitate to talk about their generalized concerns about green biotechnology, even if most of the statements are unproven and highly debatable:

"And if they think its somehow going to work because they are going to have one form of clever genetic engineering after another then again count me out, because that will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time." (Prinz Charles, 08.2008, Daily Telegraph)[2]

To be honest: In our opinion, a critical and unprejudiced discussion about possibilities and risks of green biotechnology between supporters and opponents of green biotechnology is not possible at the moment in Germany, and we assume this situation to be true for many other countries, too. One main reason why we think the popularization of synthetic biology is so important, especially in this early state of the research field is, that we have to avoid making the same mistakes that happened with green biotechnology and lead to this situation of prejudices and factoids. For this aim, an intensive communication with the public is needed, so the following discussion about synthetic biology is based on profound knowledge rather than on prejudices. One recent study of the Research Center Jülich in Germany, published in Nature, showed, that the circumstances for this task are positive: More scientists feel that they benefit from work with the media and popularizing their work than it would have been assumed.[3],[4]

What the public thinks

To get a feeling for what the public in Heidelberg knows and thinks about biotechnology and synthetic biology, we made surveyed 100 randomly picked pedestrians in Heidelberg. Survey Public

The results of the survey should help us to decide at which level we should write the background information in the wiki and in information brochures, so everybody can really understand it.

What we learned is, that synthetic biology aims to "make artificial life/animals, for example frog bacteria". You wonder what that might be. We too. If we find out, maybe we manage to make some. In clear words: Most people in Heidelberg have no idea, what synthetic biology means. Some people are very inventive in trying to find an answer, as you can see above. But only few made good guesses, like: "Synthetic biology may be a research field that aims to create artificial life.". To quantify this result: Only 5,2% of the interviewed persons described synthetic biology right. We already assumed a result like this when we set up the survey and therefore we focussed on topics concerning genetic engineering as the more well-known basis of synthetic biology - so we would get any answers at all.

Alarmingly, most interviewed pedestrians do not connect positive feeling with genetic engineering: 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.

The basic knowledge about genetic engineering was better than the European average: 87,5% knew, that ordinary tomatoes have genes (and not only genetically engineered ones). Only have of the European citizens answers this question right. [5]

The above average general knowledge in Heidelberg might be due to the circumstances as a university city with a huge amount of students as citizens and with many scientific institutes, rendering Heidelberg not representative for the German or European public. Therefore we are aware of the fact that we have to fetch the people at a much more basic point of knowledge than our survey results might suggest.

Of course there is a great difference of knowledge between the public and scientists about synthetic biology and its basics. This is no wonder, since the biosciences are an ever-growing research area – there are so many different subjects and details, that even a scientist often hardly understands topics outside his or her field. Then how can we expect this of a non-scientist? We have to be aware of the fact, that synthetic biology, even if it may be the middle of our world is only a small area of the biosciences and a seeming minute part of the whole scientific field. So somebody who did not study biosciences may only have learned something about it at school or through the media. Considering the enormous amount of information school children have to learn in their different subjects, and that has to be dealt with by the media, it is not surprising, that the public in general has little knowledge about the basics of biology and biotechnology. That can only mean one thing for us as scientists: If we want to make the public understand what we are doing, we have to fetch them where they are. That means that we have to explain our work in very easy words without losing, the scientific aspect. It is also highly important, that we do not try to influence the audience in their opinion: We have to talk about the chances as well as the risks. This needs great responsibility and honesty from the scientists towards the public.

What scientists think

From the 23rd to the 24th of October we carried out a survey questioning 300 scientists of the Bioquant in Heidelberg. We wanted to investigate their experience with the media to see, if there is a basis for science communication. Survey Scientists

The first thing to say is that only one third of the interviewed scientists had contact with the media in the past years. This means, there is a big potential of people to encourage for science communication!

The questions about the experience with reports by the media about scientists' 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 omitt facts and details, to write a fascinating story, which many people will read. But most scientists would prefer that their work is presented completely - some details may be very important to them.

This is also something we experienced in the context of this project: There were definitely 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 in 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?

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.

How to improve this knowledge and present synthetic biology and our project to the public

The questions we asked us were:
• How can we contact the public?
• Which groups do we want to talk to?
• How do we raise interest, which is the basis for all communication and mediation of knowledge?
• How can we explain our project in a way, that everybody can understand it, and also that there are no prejudices or fears raised?
• How can we create awareness for the benefits, costs and risks of our research for the public?

In general we do not think that there is a communication standard which is right for every situation and project. We made the experience that the best thing is to use as many media channels as possible, because the public also uses various media to inform itself.

Since we already have a platform in the internet to inform about our project, which is the iGEM-wiki, we wanted to expand it in a way that not only biotechnologists, but also interested laypersons can understand, what we did over the summer. Therefore we created Phips the Phage to guide interested persons through our project. Phips helps to find background information about the theory of our project and synthetic biology. Phips as an icon especially should address young people with its comic style.

With Phips the Phage, the iGEM wiki for the first time serves as a platform to provide background information on synthetic biology and not only the scientific details. The concept we follow with this approach is not very frequently practiced, you could call it risky, we prefer to call it bold:

We aim to integrate the information for non-scientists into the information for scientists, because we do not want to separate the public from our research - not even from the documentation of our research. But since we know that most of the scientific details will not be understood by non-scientists, we have to provide background information. We organized the arrangement of this information in way that somebody who is interested in reading our project descripton, but does not understand everything at first, can directly follow the links to the Phips the Phage page and can find the information he/she needs to understand most of the scientific part. So the optimal way of using our internet portal would be from scientific information to background information and back to scientific information again - now with the chance to really understand the documentation of our project. We can not say it enough times: Only with a profound understanding somebody can build his/her own opinion. And this is what we want to enable interested non-scientists to do. Therefore, in our opinion, it is not enough to give them some information clearly put together for non-scientists. Because as we said, we want to be honest. And one can get the best and purest impression of our scientific work in directly reading the documentation of it. Of course, everybody is free to pick the information he/she is interested in from the one we provide - but at least we want to give everybody the chance to get as much and as pure and honest information as possible.

Furthermore, to also address to a greater audience in Germany and not relying on the internet, we collaborated with one of the biggest newspapers in Germany, the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). They have reported about our project, about iGEM and about synthetic biology already in one articles and a reporter will accompany our team to the Jamboree, which will be featured in a big article thereafter. Additionally, information on our team was broadcasted on radio interview with Ruperto-Carola and on two television reports with Campus TV and Prometheus TV.

We created a brochure about these topics, available for download in German and English on our website and distributed it at schools and scientific meetings.

To directly address school pupils, the future citizens, we carried out an open day for school classes telling them about synthetic biology, iGEM and our project. To get hands-on experience of what we are talking about we also let them do experiments in the lab, so that they could directly experience what biotechnological research is like.

We invite everybody to link to our Phips pages for general information on these topics. Also we provide the material to carry out the open day with school classes on the topic of synthetic biology. [ back ]





[4] Science Communication, Interactions with the Mass Media, Science,Vol. 321. no. 5886, pp. 204 – 205, July 2008

[5] Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005:Patterns and Trends, Ref. 244b , Wave EB64.3,