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Underlying Philosophy - Public Perception
Personal notes

The ethical side of scientific discoveries is very interesting. Are we ready to do things we plan to do? Is the majority of people voting for or against, sufficient enough to accept or decline real life application of scientific discoveries? In the movie, "I-Robot", the huge dilemma of the main character is of the most important for me. Not only in terms of science but even in terms of everyday decisions. "Does believing you're the last sane man on the planet make you crazy? 'Cause if it does, maybe I am." [(c) I,Robot].

Can we accept something if only one person is against it? Why are we so sure that he is not the only one who sees all the truth? But at the same time, maybe he is just insane... Maybe ethical issues for him are just the methods for solving his personal ambitions? Or something else even more pragmatic. Where is the truth?

During my iGEM project I didn't get any answers to those questions. I just confirmed for myself that those questions are there.


We are very proud of this Gold Medal, the Valencia Team gave us for helping them fill in their survey.
Synthetic biology is a controversial practice from many ethical and societal standpoints. The unnatural processes involved, the biological and environmental safety of engineered microorganisms, malicious intent—these are all hot issues surrounding this sphere of research and it is up to us, the synthetic biologists, to address these issues and perhaps to attempt to raise public awareness of what we get up to in the labs and the effects of our scientific endeavours. Our team designed a questionnaire targeted primarily at friends and family, to see where synthetic biology stands among the circles we mingle in. Furthermore, we believe that much of the negative perception of synthetic biology stems from lack of knowledge about it—for this reason we saw it as our duty to make small, yet significant changes through explaining our work to others either personally, or through our university wiki.

Finally, our team helped to trial and evaluate DEMOCS (deliberative meeting of citizens)—a game designed for the purposes of engaging people in the dialogue of public policy issues, in particular issues of synthetic biology and genetic engineering. DEMOCS is a game which is intended to raise awareness about these issues, in particular among school children, and it presents matters such as commercial interest, ownership and safety of biological activities. Our team designed a small sample of virtual version of DEMOCS and provided ideas for further development, available here, which you can play to see how up-to-date you are in the debates on synthetic biology! Our team is proud to have been able to witness, and even play a small role in ethical history in the making.

Below is the survey our team presented to the public, which was made available online here.


Our team gathered 100 responses from people of different professional backgrounds and belief systems. First of all, a little about our population samples:

43% of survey takers had a scientific background
37% of survey takers had a humanitarian background
95% had proceeded to, or completed, an undergraduate degree
50% were Christian, 26% atheist and 4% agnostic
Although the sample we have targeted is not strictly representative of the world’s population and with the results we obtained we were able to find out the following (all images are clickable for better resolutions):

Trivia: 75% of people with a humanitarian background answered that they knew about synthetic biology but had not heard the term before

20% of Christians had not heard of synthetic biology

It was encouraging to find out that the great majority of survey takers had heard of synthetic biology; nonetheless, the fact that 21% were unaware of this technology indicates that more efforts need to be made to introduce and explain it to the general public. Our team is of the opinion that lack of public knowledge about science hinders scientific development, as has been demonstrated by the negative connotation attached to genetically modified food in the UK because this has not been properly explained to the public.

It was surprising to find out that more people were happy for synthetic biology to be used for medical purposes rather than environmental. Perhaps unsurprising was the finding that the least number of people were happy for this technology to be used for food purposes.

We were happy to find out that a great majority of people were not opposed to synthetic biology. As 76% of the people who answered Not Sure to this question were from a non-scientific background, it is likely that they fall into the category of people who are not familiar with advances in the field of genetic engineering.

Trivia: The two people that answered Yes to this question were of Christian background; however, due to small population samples, this is likely to be a mere coincidence.

It was very encouraging to find out that the majority of people had great faith in synthetic biology. Now it is up to us to live up to their expectations!

This answer demonstrates that most people are concerned with the Environmental and Health effects of synthetic biology, as well as unknown consequences of new technology. This shows that we need to take great care to make our research safe, and to be able to demonstrate and prove its safety in a transparent, unbiased way.

It is also clear that in general the responses above indicate that a great concern surrounding synthetic biology stems from the unknown aspect of its effects, perhaps suggestive of the fact that this technology should be thoroughly trialed and tested in the laboratory before it is released and applied in the environment or elsewhere.

Interestingly, religion was ranked as the least important concern.

Answers 8 and 9 demonstrate that, although people have high faith in synthetic biology, they make it clear that this technology should remain in the “right hands”—that is, in the hands of specialists. Perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting DIY genetic engineering kits anytime soon?

And finally, to the most important question....

Although the answers are divided on this question, we were very excited to find out that the majority of people answered that they would be happy for our genetically engineered microorganism to be released anywhere for detecting landmines. Only a small percentage of people answered that they would not be happy for it to be released (including the two who are opposed to genetic engineering!). If and when our system proves to be a feasible and effective method of mine detection, our team would make it an absolute priority to work transparently and safely. After all, as with any new technology, no one really knows what the long-term effects of our actions will be, but by working safely and responsibly, we can attempt to ensure that these effects are only positive.
Edinburgh University iGEM Team 2009