Ethics is an important issue to consider in the new field of synthetic biology. In order to gain more insight into the Dutch public opinion we decided to create a survey. The results of our survey suggest that in general people in the Netherlands are most concerned about the safety issues, however, they do trust researchers and developers to consider them. Surprisingly there appears to be no difference in these matters between people familiar with synthetic biology and those unfamiliar with it.


The survey contains questions about the ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology and also about the ethical issues surrounding our project. We wanted to reach a mixed public in order to get an idea of the Dutch public opinion on the ethical issues of synthetic biology and our project. We did a convenience sampling so we handed out our survey among family, friends, secondary school pupils and fellow students. We have chosen for this sample construct because it is not expensive and it is easy to apply. We added a link to our survey on our wiki-website. In an attempt to exclude non-Dutch respondents we included the question “do you live or work in the Netherlands?” to our survey. Since we thought that it might make a difference if the participants already knew what synthetic biology was, we included the question “do you know what synthetic biology is?”. Being religious or not was also thought to possibly influence the opinion of the participant about for instance the playing God issue, so a question about religion was included as well. Just as age and gender could make a difference and therefore questions about that were included. We wanted to approach the Delphi method for brainstorming, also previous described by (Zwart, SD, et al.2006) in the Netherlands and recently used in the EU synth-ethics meeting, to gain more insights in ethics. Central in this method is the fact that participants can give their opinion anonymously and without consequences. The idea behind it is that if someone can speak freely this will open up the discussion. Although we did not organize a discussion, we did try to mimic this by including an essay question in the survey in which we asked the participants to give other ethical and safety issues surrounding our project. Since the survey is anonymously and we also aimed to ask all kinds of users to fill it out this survey approaches the open discussion method. The questions are based on the four ethical issues of synthetic biology described by (Bhutkar, A2005), safety, security, playing God and intellectual property. All the respondents were shown a cover letter with information about the aim of the survey. The participants could decide to stop at any moment during the survey. After analyzing the data we send a debriefing to the respondents with the conclusion about our survey. For the confidentiality of the respondents we used the program ‘Examine’. In this program all the participants have a random number as ID. Also we have minimizes the number of people who could see or handle the data. The questions consists mostly of theorems, which were translated to a Likert scale afterwards.


The survey was opened from 11-09-2009 until 07-10-2009 (27 days) and was completed by 262 respondents, 147 male and 115 female. The educational level of the respondents was mixed. As can be seen in figure 1 the different educational groups are all represented. There is a small bias to the educative level university. So the survey is, however, not a completely representative sample of the Dutch population, but it is still a good suggestion for the Dutch public opinion. We took this into account when we did the statistical analysis and choose, therefore, to do non-probability tests. We have chosen the ‘Mann-Whitney’ test for two independent samples, by questions with more than two independent groups, we use the ‘Kruskal-Wallis H.’ test. The power of the Mann-Whitney test was determined and appeared to be high enough. Both procedures are testing equality of population medians among groups. Sometimes if the data looked normal distributed (we have checked this with boxplots), we used an ANOVA two-tailed with the post-hoc ‘Bonferroni’ All test are done with a confidence level of 95% (α=0.05) (Salkind 1991).

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Figure 1: Educational level of the respondents of the ethical survey of the iGEM team Groningen 2009

Inferential statistics

‘’Difference between different levels of education’’ Grouping the university (biology), university (non-biology) and university (engineering) shows that the data can be biased towards the university level educated respondents. There, however, does not seem to be a difference in response between the different educational levels towards the ethical issues of our project, one exception being the response towards the risk of bio terrorism. The university level educated respondents see less risk of bio terrorism of our project than do the lower level educated respondents. (p=0,001) There does also seem to be a significant difference in response to the question “how do you feel about bacteria being manipulated for research” between respondents with educational level secondary school and university (biology) (p=0.014, two-way ANOVA with post-hoc bonferoni). University students are more positive towards manipulating bacteria for research then secondary school pupils. This can also be seen when a correlation test is done. The spearman’s rho correlation test was chosen because we use categorical variables and the data is normal distributed. A (weak) correlation was found (R=0,215 and p=0,001) between level of education and openness towards manipulating bacteria. Respondents with a higher level of education are more positive towards manipulating bacteria.

Difference between religious and not religious It was predicted that being religious or not could influence the opinion of the respondents towards the playing God issue of our project. No difference, however, could be detected (p=0.96, two tailed Mann-Withney test). Both religious and non-religious respondents did not thought that using GMO’s for water or sludge cleaning is unethical in the sense that researchers are playing God (figure 2).

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Figure 2: Frequency table of the responses towards the question do you think using GMO’s for water or sludge cleaning unethical in the sense that researchers are playing God against being religious or not.

Difference between knowing and not knowing what synthetic biology is

Half of the respondents (51,1%) did not know what synthetic biology is, 48,9% of the respondents did. It was hypothesized that there would be a difference between respondents that know what synthetic biology is and those who do not, in how they feel about GMO’s being used in application. This, however, did not appear to be the case form our survey (p=0.236, two-tailed Mann-whitney test).

Difference between male and female

If male and female respondents were compared there appeared to be a difference how they feel about GMO’s being manipulated for research. Here a one-tailed test has been performed because it was presumed that women are, in general, more caring then men. A significant difference between the genders with a p-value of 0,0005 was found showing that women are more thoughtful about the usage of GMO’s for research then man.

Difference between older and younger respondents

It was also tested if age make a difference in how the participants feel about the ethical issues of our project. One significant difference was found between participants older than 50 and the group aged between 21 and 30. The older group (>50) appeared to be more afraid of misusage of GMO in cleaning water or sludge for bioterrorism than the younger group (p=0,022)

Descriptive statistics

No differences were found between other groups so the following results can be considered the same for all groups. The respondents were asked what they thought of bacteria being manipulated for research. The majority, 89.7%, answered “good” and only 5,8% answered “not good” because it can be dangerous or researchers are playing God. So making GMO’s does not seem to be considered unethical, using these GMO’s in practice was also not considered unethical, 93.5% was positive about it. Safety for the environment and human health was, however, a concern for 24,4% of the respondents. 69,1% of the respondents found, security and usefulness for society, a condition for the usage of GMO’s. The respondents were more critical about the usage of GMO’s for a specific application, in water or sludge cleaning. A majority of the respondents, 50,8%, thought that the usage of GMO’s can be dangerous for the environment or human health so this should be considered before usage. 29% of the respondents trusted the researchers in considering the safety and make the application more safe. Security of GMO’s for applications in the water and sludge cleaning is an issue that concerns 23,7% and they feel that this deserves some thought. Another 36,6% of the respondents also thought that security is an issue, however, there is always the risk of mis usage. The remaining 33,2% of the respondents did not think security is an issue in this application. Another important ethical issue according to (Bhutkar, A2005), the playing God issue, does not seem to be a concern for the usage of GMO’s in water and sludge cleaning according to the respondents of our survey (92,4%). The fourth ethical issue, the intellectual property, was also considered for using GMO’s in water and sludge cleaning. Although 26,3% of the respondents thought it should be possible to patent the application of the iGEM team Groningen 2009 because it is important for development the majority (57.3%) of the respondents only agreed with patenting the whole system and not the DNA itself. 11.5% of the respondents were against patenting this system in which GMO’s are used (fig 3).

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Figure 3: The four ethical issues, as described by bhutkar, considered for the project of the iGEM team Groningen 2009.

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Figure 4: This figure shows what the most important ethical issues is in our project according to our respondents. The four issues, safety (A), security (B), intellectual property (C) and playing God (D) are derived from

The survey included a question, which ethical issue was considered the most important for our project, two answers could be given. In the above figure it can be seen that most respondents, 40%, thought safety is the most important issue. Also in combination with other issues safety is considered to be very important. Also security is thought to be a risk in water and sludge cleaning, by 30% of the participants. As a second choice safety and security (A and B) are the most chosen answers. This shows that intellectual property and playing God play minor roles in the ethics of our project compared to the risks in safety and security. These are clearly the issues that should be taken into account in a possible application of our project.


The results of our survey suggest that in general people in the Netherlands are most concerned about the safety issues, however, they do trust researchers and developers to consider this in case GMO’s are used in application. Also the majority thinks that there is a security risk by using GMO’s for our project in a possible application. Less educated and older people would indicate a higher security risk than a higher educational level and younger people.

In general manipulation of bacteria for research is considered good. Women, however, are more thoughtful about it than man. People with a higher level education are more open towards using bacteria for research than do lower level educated people. Unexpectedly we found no difference between people who did know what synthetic biology was and those who did not. So it appears that one is not more anxious about something because of a lack of awareness. Altogether comparing the four ethical issues of Bhutkar, safety, security, playing God and intellectual property, for synthetic biology in general and our project in particular shows that synthetic biological research is considered ok as long as done carefully and safety and security issues are considered.