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Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 9.1: Emerging technologies part II -- synthetic biology!

Were back from spring break (learning things is hard & we need lots of rest & time to recover as we go along).

Time for  "Science of Science Communication 2.0" session 9. Reading list here, & study/discussion questions below.  

Have at it!


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Reader Comments (17)

Really interesting questions.
As a disclaimer, I am not only a long time reader of this blog; I am also a synthetic biologist and am making a working model, cell by cell and synapse by synapse, of the brain.
My real answers are detailed and much longer than I will type right now. Contact me for details.
Study from the White House.
I would assume that the White House wants clear and definitive answers across the political spectrum. They would then do with these results what they wanted. I would ask them what they wanted to know. I would worry a lot about whether the survey respondents knew what synthetic biology is and how to get responses to the survey that did not just represent political orientation without thought. I would be especially sensitive to respondents who were not part of either political base. I would find out what people knew about 'synthetic biology' as a term and what it would take to change their opinions on it. I would focus on biology where I could and be very careful about inadvertently spinning the questions so that I spun the answers. I would include survey designers, professors, and biologists in the question design and analysis.
If the OSTP liked the results and wanted to give me $25,000,000 for 36 months, I would panic first. Then I would make sure that I knew what the OSTP and the White House needed in the way of results. I would expand their minimal requirements into a more robust, scientifically and politically, set of studies. I would probe not just 'synthetic biology' but also slightly broader issues such as altering biology in general to suit mankind. I would study the risk of new biology. I would make studies whose results would nominally conflict with each other. I would use pollsters, lawyers, scientists (especially biologists), business leaders and even entertainers. I would want the results of the studies to be, if not definitive, at least really useful. I would also make sure that the studies delivered the results that OSTP needed when they needed these results.

If this request were serious about doing the studies, I would talk with a lot of colleagues and have a reasonably detailed initial proposal for internal use done in a couple of weeks.

March 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

You might take interest in the fact that a similar study has been directed in Germany, see:

The study is in German only, its findings are roughly that around 80% of the about 2500 interviewees associated synthetic biology with risk, danger and interventions in natural processes but were more likely to have a positive view on it once it was related with possible outcomes for cancer research or renewable energy.

March 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHanna Engelmeier

Ha. Good questions. If it was the White House asking, I would assume that their motivation is almost entirely political. In other words, they want to know the public's likely POLITICAL reaction to various stances the White House might take regarding synthetic biology. While I agree with most of what Eric Fairfield wrote, unlike him, I would assume the White House would be very interested in responses to the survey that represented political orientation without thought. It's their staple, their meat and potatoes as it were. I would also want to study the way attitudes could change as the question "what is synthetic biology?" became more and more clear, again, very politically relevant. I agree entirely with Eric Fairfield that great care must be taken about how the questions are designed.

However, I would at this point question my own motives. Anyone with any experience in this sort of thing knows that if the govt. says "wow", then the money flows. So do I want to give them what they want or do I want the money to flow? The two are hardly ever the exact same thing. If this is a competition and a number of different people have been asked to do preliminary studies, then to the extent that I do not focus on making the White House say "wow" is the extent to which I am less fit in this competition. I can take the moral high ground and increase the likelihood that I will be left out of the money flow (and serious consideration of my work), or I can go for the "wow" and buy my wife a new car and send my kids to a private school and be famous. Hmmm.

PS @Eric Fairfield - what would be your definition of "synthetic biology"?

March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

I agree with your points on the politics of 'synthetic biology' and the White House. I would want to know a lot more about the White House' request so that I could figure out how to play my submission.
As to 'synthetic biology', my simple definition is the insertion of DNA sequences into existing organisms where the DNA sequences come across as entirely manmade or the creation of DNA sequences and hence organisms from genes created on a DNA synthesizer. My actual biological definition is much longer and more nuanced. The boundaries between 'natural' and 'manmade' are much greyer than people who are not molecular biologists seem to think.
Some of this greyness might be politically valuable, again a long conversation with the appropriate people.

March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Eric - Thanks for the definition. I had a feeling, but wasn't sure. I view synthetic biology as another step in natural evolution. The DNA has "figured out" yet another way to propagate and evolve and humans are (presently) its agent. I think the "invention" of synthetic biology will be as important and far-reaching as the "invention" of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction allowed more rapid adaptation without which large, long-lived, intellegent organisms could not exist. I wonder what the latest "invention" will produce?

March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Synthetic biology should produce more rapid adaptation, just as having a brain (which I study) does. Evolution will be able to take place on time scales much shorter than a generation.

March 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Late to the party... I've posted a reaction paper here.


Single study-

At this juncture, it is probably more useful to model the general reactions people have and the associations they make when they learn about synthetic biology, rather than simply polling their support for the technology. I think the starting point would have to be a further qualitative study, to better understand the types of concerns people have. Existing qualitative studies, I think, have not fully picked apart objections that include:

* concerns about unknowables (to coin a phrase, both known unknowns and unknown unknowns)
* longterm effects
* human and scientific hubris
* immoral applications by bad actors
* security
* unnaturalness
* violations of nature or of God’s dominion
* specific applications that exceed society's moral norms
* potential of technological advances to change the very locus of our morality.

I’m particular concerned with the need to explore the public’s feelings on moral limits. So far studies of the public’s moral objections to synthetic biology has focused on intrinsic moral objections (it is wrong to usurp God’s position as creator) rather than extrinsic moral objections (certain applications would be morally problematic). This seems strange given that as a society we have already collectively recognized some biotech applications as unethical – most notably, human cloning. It therefore seems imperative to explore public opinion on the subject, and try to separate measures of intrinsic and extrinsic moral objection.

Suite of studies -

I would propose a series of quantitative studies that would seek to model a situation in which citizens learn about synthetic biology, and then seek establish the frequency of the ideas and opinions expressed in the qualitative study.

Participants would be given a basic description of synthetic biology, and would then be asked to agree or disagree with the statements based on qualitative findings, such as:

Synthetic biology is unnatural.
Those who practice synthetic biology are playing God.
Synthetic biology scares me.
Synthetic biology just feels wrong.
If we start using synthetic biology, we may not be able to control the consequences. (With variations for environment, human health, security.)
I’m concerned that we don’t know what the long-term effects of synthetic biology will be. (With variations for environment, human health, security.)
Synthetic biology holds great promise.
Synthetic biology is exciting.
Synthetic biology could improve people’s lives.

It would be useful to pair these questions with a five-point measure of respondents’ support for synthetic biology, to try and determine the relationship between support strength and various attitudes.

I think it could also be useful to ask a series of questions that attempt to get at the way people make risk-benefit analyses about synthetic biology. This may also have an interesting bearing on their level of support. (As Dragojlovic (2012) points out, a key further question to arise from that study was, how do we consider risk-benefit trade-offs in way that accommodates value-based risks?)

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTamar Wilner

I agree with Tamar. You want to know what associations people make— and whether those associations vary systematically with any cultural variables. I think you'd also want to learn more about what (if anything) people have heard about synthetic biology or more familiar conceptual components of synthetic biology, and in what context/from whom. (Doctor? Pastor? Radio host? Science programming? TV crime drama? Sci-Fi novel?)

I was pleased to learn that there has already been more research done along these lines than I would have guessed!

April 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterScott Johnson

@Tamar Wilner - I think you have given a very detailed and well thought out response to the questions, but there are questions that I have that I think are relevant, and are not answered in your response.

The elephant in the living room is the use of synthetic biology as a weapon. While your answers are fine for an ordered, stable, isolated, intellegent society, I think we need to address how people's attitudes would change when confronted with the possibility of having to deal with a group with, let's gently say, a different set of moral imperatives than our own. The use of nuclear technology as an analog comes to mind.

Also, I think you are forming your response as if it were to be a peer-reviewed paper. The assumption was that it was the White House requesting the study, and therefore the judges will not be your peers, but rather policy makers who are employed by and report to elected politicians.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Two things.
1. I agree that 'synthetic biology' would be evaluated from a political viewpoint not a peer review viewpoint.
2. I deliberately did not discuss 'synthetic biology' or other biology as a weapon. Such a discussion, to me, does not belong on any site that can be found by search engines. Also, such a discussion is very long and complicated, scientifically, politically, and militarily.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

But we are not discussing the nuts-and-bolts of biosynthetic weapons and I agree we should not be. (personally, I can't, I know little about it). Doing some net surfing, I see from Wikipedia and Amazon, for example, that there is a "biopunk" movement of "bio-hackers", along with a (purported) statement by Bill Gates that if he were a teenager today, he would be a bio-hacker. Things have moved along more than I imagined.




What we are discussing is the public's attitudes towards synthetic biology, and its political consequences, including how those attitudes might change when they become more aware of what synthetic biology is about, including a bio-arms race. The White House wants to know.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

Asking the 'public' what they think about 'synthetic biology' when the term is just a scary noise or about 'a bio-arms race' (just another scary phrase) seems less useful than it would appear. As the public starts to assign meaning to these phrases and assimilates these phrases into their own zeitgeist, the public's voting behavior is expected to fluctuate wildly. If I were a politician I would want to know the public's current response to these phrases. I would really want an assessment of how the public vote once the phrases had acquired the standard cultural accretions. Basically, I would want to know whether these phrases had current and ongoing traction in voting behavior. Then I would follow some of George Lakoff's suggestions about what to do next.

April 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

Well right now, you are right, they are just scary noises to most people. But wouldn't part of the study be to check attitudes, give a quick education, and then check attitudes afterwards? We would have to be careful about introducing our own bias in that "quick education". That includes overly ignoring or stressing the unsavory uses of synthetic biology.

I'm not sure what you mean by "acquired the standard cultural accretions", but I will guess, and say they are the public's attitude after they have been "educated" by the media and the various talking heads? So that would be what we would try to anticipate. That would be an even harder job to do without bias.

Also, what do you think George Lakoff's suggestions would be?

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

You got it right about talking heads.
As to Lakoff, it might depend on whether the study was to learn about the public's current perception of these noises and educate them a bit or whether the study purely political and the object was to use phrases like 'synthetic biology' to drive voters to vote for a White House approved Democratic candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. If the object is to drive an election, then things get tricky. Republican candidates are not associated with synthetic biology and changing the genome to promote health. Democrats are. You could try the standard scare tactic of 'We're all environmentalists here. Shop at Whole Foods, Eat ancient grains. Vote for us.' but there are easy counters to that rhetoric. So the question seems to be the original question. Why does the White House want to fund this study? Why is the study supposed to last the length of time that it is? How can the funds be used not only to satisfy the White House' short term political goals but also to gain some insight into the process by which people assign meaning to new terms.
For instance, since I am a molecular biologiist, 'synthetic biology' strikes me as this year's buzzword for chemical reactions that have been studied and used, under other names, for millenia. The term is hiding more than it is revealing.

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

@Eric Fairfield - Here we get back to our motivation. If we go for a direct answer to the question, as truthful as we can make it, then we would try to eliminate bias as much as possible, and give an answer that was equally valuable to either a democrat or republican administration, but if we are trying for the money, we might want to deviate from that somewhat.

I am choosing the first option, assuming that what the White House needs is information and I think if it is bias free, the political orientation of the White House will be irrelevant. And of course they will want to use the information to drive an election, none of our concern if we are choosing the first option. They will no doubt use our study to "spin" things in their favor, but the question of how to do that, I think, would be also none of our concern.

George Lakoff strikes me as an interesting person. He seems to be very aware of the process of cultural cognition and the tendency of partisans to "poison" a dialog, but then, without apology or missing a beat, will go into a detailed exposition about some subject that comes mostly from the left point of view, as if it were the product of his insight.

Your characterization of Republicans as less interested in changing the genome to promote health may be correct. As they might say, they are less interested in government intervention in domestic affairs, but that was my point in introducing the bio-weapon aspect. They are more interested in countering extra-domestic threats and I wonder if their attitudes would change when confronted with this real, or about to become real, aspect of synthetic biology. Both sides would presumably be interested in both aspects, if only to anticipate their opponent's behavior. They would simply deal with or "spin" or "frame" the information in different ways. To do this, both sides could take inspiration from George Lakoff, but I think only the democrats would put George himself on the job.

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

I agree with your chosen option. How do we get the White House to write us a check to do this project?
As to Lakoff, if I were doing this study and were independent or conservative, I would hire Lakoff to get his insights. I would ignore the strongly left leaning parts of his philosophies. If I hired him, the left could not use him against me.

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

LOL - tell them the sky is falling and unless they get a handle on this we're all gonna die. You know, the usual.

April 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

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