I was sitting on my couch, watching the latest episode of one of those shows described in the previews as “the most explosive drama of the year.” In it, a cult leader finds and steals the bones of an ancient priest, extracts the DNA of a viral pneumonic plague, synthesizes a new form of the virus, and sends his infected disciples to wipe out humanity. Thus, the audience learns that an aspiring terrorist apparently needs little more than a bone saw, a mortar and pestle, and a few test rodents to carry out his plan. (That, and the convenient conversion of Y. pestis into a virus.)
In fairness, I enjoyed the episode; it was entertaining. However, it highlighted real concerns the public has about Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio), genetic engineering, and synthetic biology. Ironically, the episode aired just after I had spoken with David Rejeski about these topics and how scientists can communicate their work more effectively.
The Embedded Approach
Rejeski is the Director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program (STIP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a non-partisan think tank that uses “independent research and open dialogue to inform actionable ideas for Congress, the Administration and the broader policy community.” Together with former STIP intern Jessica Mazerik, Rejeski published the Guide for Communicating Synthetic Biology in September of this year.
Rejeski came to the Wilson Center in 2000, after several years working in the White House. His early work was on a program focused on nanotechnology, which shifted to the Synthetic Biology Project around 2008. He says that STIP is designed to work mostly on emerging technologies, which allows it to “get ahead of the curve, thinking about policy, governance, and risk management before there’s massive polarization [on an issue].” The approach is to “get very involved with the community. It’s an embedded approach – biologists would call it persistent coevolution – we evolve with the community we are trying to understand and influence. ‘The team is serious about this, and Rejeski himself has DIY equipment in his office that includes a PCR machine and 3D printer.
Messaging and Public Perception
Over the years the STIP team has tracked public opinion and perception of synthetic biology, as well as DIYbio, through ongoing national surveys and focus groups. Not surprisingly, the public has concerns about potential applications for synthetic biology, ranging from food safety to bioterrorism. Additionally, there is some confusion about the term “synthetic biology,” adding to the challenges for scientists and the public to get on the same page. When I asked Rejeski about underlying issues in synthetic biology, he said, “there hasn’t been a consistent message, either from the government or the scientific community. Synthetic biology is a much more bottoms up approach, which has advantages for potentially stimulating innovation, but it also suffers from the fact that there is no clear, consistent messaging. Everybody is out there delivering their own messages.” He suggested that a messenger has not emerged, a problem compounded by the lack of “general consensus about what synthetic biology is [and] what it is not.” Without a clear understanding of the limits, applications, and language of synthetic biology, it is perhaps not surprising that we hear talk about possibility of, say, an engineered pneumonic plague grown in a lunatic’s basement. “There are a lot of strange mash-ups that have happened…like articles about the H5N1 issue that [were] linked to messaging about do-it-yourself biologists and synthetic biology…[The public] hears about synthetic biology within a larger article that might mention alarming things like pandemics or bioweapons…once those connections are established, it’s hard to change them, so who gets in front of the public early, and with what message, is really important.”
Indeed, Rejeski believes that other groups in society “have taken over the messaging” on synthetic biology, “and they are much more adept than scientists at getting [ideas] out to the public and into the press.” And of course, not all of these ideas are necessarily scientifically sound. He spoke about framing, the packaging used for a idea that affects how the idea is perceived, referencing the research by UC/Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff that “framing precedes policy.” In short, scientists can and should do a better job framing the issues surrounding synthetic biology in order to help promote positive policy and regulation.
Finding the Right Messengers
What does this mean practically for scientists? First of all, focus groups carried out by Hart Research on behalf of the Wilson Center have shown that the very term “synthetic biology” is often received negatively. Of course, the name is pretty well set, but Rejeski says that “scientists need to get over trying to tell people what synthetic biology is, and talk about how it is going to be applied and why people should care.” There is also a need to differentiate it from “stuff that happened before,” and avoid conversations that might link synthetic biology to ‘third rail’ issues like stem cells, cloning and GMOs. Public trust of scientists is generally high, which gives researchers significant amounts of “trust capital” that must be protected (i.e. not abused) and used to educate and engage.
Using this reservoir of trust will take work on the part of the synthetic biology community, and, again, requires some consensus on messaging. Importantly, synthetic biologists need to talk about and decide who among them can not only talk about the science and its applications, but also do it well. Rejeski points to synthetic biology initiatives that have lacked a dedicated communications person or team. “You can’t run a major project and not have anyone responsible for communicating with the public. You won’t have a consistent message.” When someone with outstanding communication skills turns up, the scientific community should “grab them and figure out how to make use of them.”
When asked what scientists, individually or in small groups, can do to interact more effectively with the press and policy-makers, Rejeski pointed to recognizing that outstanding communication skills in the context of interacting with a scientific audience don’t always translate to interacting with the public. Therefore, seeking out training from experienced communications experts can be extremely helpful. Finding where to get this training isn’t trivial (universities may offer courses, and there are workshops available), but Rejeski feels it is worth the effort.
The Benefits of Being Unconventional
On an individual basis, finding any opening to talk about synthetic biology is valuable. For example, during the days of the nanotech program, STIP spent a lot of time looking at the cosmetics industry where nanotech was being used in sunscreens and lotions. “We did a number of shows with NPR that we taped at the local department store at the cosmetics counter,” said Rejeski. “Then, we actually got an article into Elle magazine, whose writers did a phenomenal job talking about how nanotech was being used in cosmetics [and] we spent a lot of time with the Economist getting a four page special in on nanotech included in one of their issues.” Unusual though they may be, these nontraditional outlets provide avenues to talk to audiences that are affected by the technology but may not otherwise have the information. Rather than always focusing on getting the material into a specific scientific magazine, Rejeski wants to see scientists finding creative ways to reach the end consumer of a product. He mentioned STIP’s work with Consumer Reports on developing coverage of nanotechnology in consumer products. We also talked about scientists proactively taking their work to the media (potentially with the help of a science writer), rather than waiting to be found. He mentioned a researcher who submitted an article about global diabetes to the New York Times and said “we need more people like that, people that are passionate about an issue and willing to commit time and energy to reaching a larger public audience.”
What about places to go to see or hear great, accessible science communication? “I still like Science Friday,” said Rejeski, “and there is a local NPR show in Washington called Tech Tuesday that devotes a whole hour to discussions about emerging technologies and related policy issues. This may sounds crazy but I’ve actually been very impressed with The Big Bang Theory on television. If somebody would have predicted ten years ago that you could create a science sitcom that reaches 15-20 million viewers witha weekly dialogue on black holes, string theory, and other complex topics from a cast including a astrophysicist, mechanical engineer and neuroscientist, nobody would have believed it. The show uses a PhD physicist as a science consultant and has featured an appearance by Cambridge university physicist Stephen Hawking. It doesn’t get much geekier than this.”
The lesson for synthetic biologists then is to work towards consensus on the issues at hand, while being creative and maybe a bit unconventional in finding new ways to provide an accessible message. It’s something to consider next time you find yourself in front of the TV, wondering how the FBI managed to stop a worldwide plague in under nine hours.