Printed: 2020-08-06

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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What do people think about synthetic biology?

Andrew Maynard

2020 Science

September 13, 2010

The fifth Hart survey of what American adults think about emerging technologies like nanotechnology and synthetic biology has been released by my former colleagues at the Woodrow Wilson Center - the first since I left the group earlier this year.

Each summer for the past five years, the Wilson Center has commissioned Hart Research Associates to poll around 1000 adults via telephone on what they’ve heard of nanotechnology, and what they think about it.  In 2008, we started to introduce questions on synthetic biology.  With three years’ worth of data on synbio, it’s still too early to quantify trends.  But some indications of where awareness and perceptions are going are beginning to emerge.

This was going to be a potentially interesting year for the survey, given J. Craig Venter’s announcement earlier this year of the first living and reproducing organism with an artificially constructed genome earlier this year.  I say potentially, as it’s hard to tell from the figures whether this event had a significant impact on the data presented - while 24% of adults polled recalled hearing something about the breakthrough, there was a smaller increase in the number of people who’d heard about synbio between 2009 and 2010, than there was between 2008 and 2009.

The full report from the survey can be accessed here, so I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of the findings.  But I did want to highlight one or two things that caught my attention.

Awareness of synthetic biology

Since the first survey including synbio in 2008, awareness of the technology has been increasing (see below).
Percentage of people polled who had heard a lot, nothing, or something about synthetic biology. (“Heard something” includes people who had heard just a little, something or a lot). Source: Hart Research Associates.

The percentage of people who claim to have heard a lot about synbio is slowly increasing - it was 2% in 2008; 7% this year.  The percentage of people who have heard something about the technology (from a little to a lot) is also increasing.  Interestingly, the biggest jump was between 2008 and 2009, going from 33% to 52%.  Despite Venter’s breakthrough and reasonably extensive news coverage surrounding the event, there was only a five point increase in awareness to 57% this year.  Of course, its hard to say anything quantitative about three data points.

For comparison, here are the data for nanotechnology awareness, going back to 2006:

Percentage of people polled who had heard a lot, nothing or something about nanotechnology. (“Heard something” includes people who had heard just a little, something, or a lot). Source: Hart Research Associates.

Apart from a blip in 2008, a similar trend is seen.  Between 2008 and 2010 there was a 6 point increase in the number of people who had heard a lot about nanotechnology - up to 13% from 7%.  And the percentage of people who had heard something about the technology (from a little to a lot) was up from 51% in 2008 to 67% in 2010.

Given the emphasis placed on nanotechnology over the past ten years by government in particular - we are approaching the tenth anniversary of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative - the trends here might look a little paltry.  But without benchmarking questions and more detailed probing, it’s dangerous to place too much value on these data. 

As a very quick and dirty benchmark, last year’s Pew poll on science and the public asked the question of 1005 people “What is the name of the woman who surprised audiences with her singing talent in the TV show Britain’s Got Talent?”  (The poll was conducted just after Susan Boyle hit the headlines big-time).  66% of respondents got the answer right - similar to the number of people with some awareness of nanotechnology or synbio.  But 24% of people asked either didn’t know or refused to answer.  And 4% thought it was Oprah Winfrey!

Of course this comparison doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny - but it does show that even with a widely reported event that captures people’s imagination, only around 60% - 70% of people in a telephone poll demonstrate awareness.  It makes the percentages of people who have heard at least something about nanotechnology and synbio look not that bad!

Perceptions of risks and benefits

For the past three surveys, respondents have been provided with a simple description of synthetic biology, and two simple statements on potential benefits and risks.  The order in which these were read to people was alternated to avoid bias from how the information was presented.  Here’s what was read out:

Synthetic biology is the use of advanced science and engineering to make or re- design living organisms, such as bacteria, so that they can carry out specific functions. Synthetic biology involves making new genetic code, also known as DNA, that does not already exist in nature.

I would like to read you statements about the potential benefits and potential risks of synthetic biology and get your reaction.

The potential BENEFITS of synthetic biology include developing new micro- organisms to treat disease, including cancer, more effectively and to create new and less expensive medications. It also could be used to make new organisms that could provide cheaper and cleaner sources of energy than today’s oil-based fuels, and to detect and break down environmental pollutants in the soil, air, and water.

While the potential RISKS of synthetic biology are not known, there are concerns that man-made organisms might behave in unexpected and possibly harmful ways and that they could cause harm to the environment. There also are concerns that, if these organisms fall into the wrong hands, they could be used as weapons. Additionally, the ability to create artificial life has raised moral and ethical questions about how life is defined.

Following these statements, people were asked whether they thought the benefits of this new technology would outweigh the risks, the risks would outweigh the benefits, whether risks and benefits would be about equal, or whether they were not sure.

For the past three years, the split between greater risks, greater benefits and risks and benefits being about equal has been reasonably even (see below) - suggesting a level of ambiguity remains here.  Although the data are too sparse to be quantified, there is an indication of a trend towards thinking that the benefits might be greater, or at least equal to the risks - but this really needs more time and probing to see whether it is significant.

Perceptions of the relative risks and benefits of synthetic biology (percentages of respondents). Arrows show trends between consecutive years. Source: Hart Research Associates.

Other observations

A couple of other things jumped out at me from the survey:  The first was that, based on the questions asked, there was a marked preference for using synthetic biology to develop new flu vaccines rather than to accelerate livestock growth.  When presented with short future-use scenarios, 59% of respondents were positive about the vaccine application, compared to 20% who liked the idea of enabling animals to be used for food to grow more rapidly.

This isn’t really surprising - people are generally more accepting of medical treatments than having their food messed with.  But I wonder whether the data also reflect how the questions were presented.  Both are hot-button issues, which come with a lot of preconceptions, concerns and baggage - my fear is that they way the questions were posed ended up highlighting existing concerns over disease and food, rather than examining how a new technology might change things.  It would be interesting to see more research in this area, especially in probing how people feel about a technology like synbio improving their lives when emotive contexts are removed from the equation.

The other thing that jumped out at me was a question on potentially banning synthetic biology research. This is what people were asked:

Which comes closer to your point of view?

  • Synthetic biology should move forward, but more research must be done to study its possible effects on humans and the environment
  • A ban should be placed on synthetic biology research until we better understand its implications and risks.

63% of respondents supported further research; 33% a ban.  If I was supporting or involved in synthetic biology research, I would be worried if a third of the population thought it should be banned.  Even though the majority of respondents supported research, 33% is a lot of people!  But again, I wonder whether the data are reflecting the question more than current attitudes.  The reason I say this is that the second option doesn’t make much sense, and as a result forces people into taking mental shortcuts when making a decision.  Why doesn’t it make sense?  Because you can’t do safety research on something that doesn’t exist.

Nevertheless, this question over how people think synthetic biology research should progress should probably be explored in more depth, if the technology is to lead to successful, safe and socially acceptable products.

The full report from Hart Research Associates can be downloaded here.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


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