Figure: Children making DNA ladders out of plasticine as part of a Science, Art and Writing (SAW) project on the theme of synthetic biology.
*Building foundations for an open perspective on synthetic biology research and innovation*
Jenni Rant, Joyce Tait
"Most present day scientists are extremely specialized in their respective fields and hard-wired into a peer review system that forms an integral part of research. Regulations to limit negative impacts of their research together with guidelines to ensure that research is carried out ethically are pervasive. Scientists collaborate on projects that bring complementary expertise together and are well equipped to share factual, accurate and relevant accounts of their research within the scientific community. The global communication network, increasingly driven by social media, enables the latest findings in research to be shared at an almost synaptic speed with recipients who perceive this knowledge in diverse ways. One could assume that the translation of research into a language accessible to a broad audience would be easy, contributing to maintaining informed public assessment of research and innovation, and also encouraging a more general interest in science as part of society. However, the reality has been patchy communication that is often reactive, triggered by recent developments and potential negative publicity rather than carefully considered proactive engagement. The recent measles outbreak serves as a powerful example of how messages from a single scientific paper published in 1998 caused a ripple effect leading to public concern, reduced uptake of vaccination and a general mistrust of scientists and government organizations. The paper has since been retracted (Wakefield et al., 1998; The Editors of The Lancet, 2010) but the implications demonstrate how society processes, disseminates and reacts to information. When a new area of scientific advancement emerges from basic research, communication in a wide variety of forms will be key to framing that technology in the minds of members of the public, affecting market potential and the regulatory systems derived through the political process. Restrictions imposed by the UK government in 2004 for the cultivation of a herbicide-resistant maize variety were deemed too unfavourable for economic viability even after Farm Scale Evaluation trials showed that it caused less damage to wildlife than conventional varieties (Mason, 2004). In Europe discussions on the future governance of new technologies such as synthetic biology frequently refer to the genetic modification (GM) crop experience, where negative public framing of GM technology, driven by a pressure group campaign with uncritical media support, has proven very resistant to change, despite strong and consistent evidence of the benefits of GM crops and their relative safety compared to the pesticides they replace. The prospect of another polarized public debate of the type that has surrounded GM crops had already convinced policy-makers and scientists to pay early attention to public dialogue on synthetic biology (Bhattachary et al., 2010). Communication processes that are balanced and evidence-based will be increasingly important in the framing of new technologies or the re-framing of existing ones...."