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Human Practices

Political Awareness



Background and Aim

Good scientific communication is essential for the general public to make good decision regarding new technology. Sensationalism can damage new developments unnecessarily and permanently. It is however extremely challenging to fully inform the public as science advances so rapidly much of it passes the general public by unless controversy arises. It is therefore important to ensure that those with who represent the public and have their best interests in hand are well informed. This is why we decided to contact local MPs. Not only are they legislators they also fulfil a vital role in communicating to the public and can provide a voice of calm during periods of sensationalism. As elected officials they are still subject to the will of the general public but it is also important that they do not get swept along with popular opinion which can be incorrect.


Our aim was to find out how much members of parliament know about synthetic biology and what their views of it are. We also wanted to find out what they think the views of their constituents are as they work closely with the public and as elected official are subject to their views.
We decided to find this information by phone interview as an online or paper questionnaire can seem impersonal and with their busy schedules was likely to be ignored.


There is a briefing document prepared by the government for MPs available online:
This provides the MPs with basic knowledge of the field of synthetic biology. We were interested to find out how they useful they found this format and if a face to face approach was better.


Political Results

Having sent out over 30 letters we were able to conduct phone interviews with two local MPs. Christopher Chope Conservative MP for Christchurch and Alan Whitehead Labour MP for Southampton Test, both kindly agreed to be interviewed.


Christopher Chope had little prior knowledge of the field of synthetic biology as it falls outside of his primary interest of transport. He strongly emphasised that MPs have a large workload and it is rare to have an extensive knowledge outside their area and constituency interests. When a matter arises in their constituencies however, they rapidly become experts reading up on material and asking knowledgeable colleagues in the field. If the matter is not a local issue they usually defer to the relevant department or MP.
He was generally positive about the implications of synthetic biology but believes parallels could be drawn between it and GM. Uncontrolled release could be a problem but most of the time the public are not concerned unless that effects them directly. The comparison was also used that building a large production plant, which utilises synthetic biology could be looked upon in a similar way to modern incinerators, which often cause NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes.


Alan Whitehead had considerable knowledge of the field of synthetic biology due to its connotations for potential sources of renewable energy and bio remediation. He had read the parliamentary briefing document and likes the format as they often have good external links which make them interactive.
He was also generally positive about the area but felt that certain ethical issues may arise in the future. The majority of public have fears surrounding the interaction of modified organisms with the natural environment. He thought there was considerable confusion about how the field overlaps with GM and the concerns that are associated with that. He also said that the perception of the public was strongly influenced by the science fiction genre as opposed to the reality, which deals with microorganisms.


Although the level of knowledge differed considerably, some key similarities can be drawn. Both agreed that MPs are unable to have total knowledge of all areas of modern life, however if the issue does arise at a local or national level they ensure that their knowledge is both thorough and unbiased.
They both agreed that they do not have time to seek out colleagues every time and so often resort to reading material, of which there isn’t too much around which would be considered accessible/
Both strongly associated synthetic biology with genetically modified crops and the social and ethical implications of environmental release. They also indicated that the media concern doesn’t reflect the concern, which the public feel and tend to exagerrate it.


Both Alan Whitehead and Christopher Chope agreed to attend an informal strategic briefing on synthetic biology. We also opened this event to other MPs from the local area. Unfortunately due to staff illness and the political party conferences we were unable to hold this before the iGEM jamboree, we have scheduled the event for mid November. After the event we will publish the findings and reactions online.




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