"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much" - Helen Keller
Wiki and additional collaborations
Apart from the collaborations, we also cooperated in a partnership during the entire project with iGEM team BOKU Vienna. Because of the successful partnership between BOKU Vienna and TU Eindhoven last year, we decided to make contact again to discuss the opportunities for a new partnership!
This year, BOKU Vienna focuses on a climate change related project, which they named Pichitecture, attempting to create a sustainable building material through harnessing carbon fixation.
For additional information about the the iGEM BOKU Vienna 2022 and their project, please visit their their wiki page.
After we reached out to one another, we planned a first online brainstorming session to discuss the opportunities for a partnership. It became immediately clear that our project ideas differ a lot on scientific basis and application. This however triggered us to become more creative on the remaining possibilities. We discovered that it would be very interesting to collaborate on Human Practices. Both teams would like to dig deeper into ethics and the opinion and knowledge of the general public about synthetic biology. While our projects differ significantly, the ethical considerations are equally important in all fields, be it medicine or architecture. After the first round of brainstorming we settled on the following point of interest: surveying the opinion of the general public and, surveying opinions of expert supporters and opponents of synthetic biology.
For Human Practices we believe it is important to not only involve communities that may be interested in or benefit from synthetic biology and our projects, but we also would like to include parties that may be left out or are negatively impacted if our projects succeed. Moreover, we think it is crucial to delve into possible misuse of synthetic biology and how our teams could anticipate to minimize the impact of these concerns. To get these relevant insights from multiple perspectives, we tried to engage experts and to involve the general public. iGEM team BOKU Vienna and iGEM team TU Eindhoven both interviewed experts that are entirely pro synthetic biology and experts who see potential danger and risks in the use of synthetic biology to solve global crises. Moreover, we used online and in-person surveys to gauge the knowledge and opinion of the general public on synthetic biology and its applications.
Our goals: The goal of the surveys is to firstly gauge the knowledge of synthetic biology among the general public. Whereas, first we need to assess the current knowledge before we as iGEM teams can effectively increase the knowledge on synthetic biology where this is needed. We want to know whether the general public think they know what synthetic biology is and what their sources of information for their knowledge on synthetic biology are. Secondly, we wish to obtain their opinion on the impact of synthetic biology, be it positive, such as solving global crises, or negative, such as unintended consequences of widespread use.
Additionally, we survey demographic data like age and prior education. We are interested in whether these factors could contribute to people’s subjective assessment of the factors mentioned above. By means of their input we hope to answer two research questions:1. Does the level of education of the general public has a positive influence on the knowledge about synthetic biology? 2. Does age affect the opinion on synthetic biology from the side of the general public?
After a round of brainstorming, we set out to write out questions we would include in our survey. Our goals are quite simple: making a short, digestible survey with direct, easy to answer questions. Thus, we chose to pose the majority of our questions in a multiple choice format, as well as a Likert Scale format for the questions posed to gauge the subjective assessment of the factors mentioned above. These questions were marked as mandatory as they are paramount to our hypotheses. In this batch, we also included a question on how the survey has reached the participant, online or offline (the reasons for this shall be explained in the Methods section).
Additionally, we included short open questions to supplement our research for possible exploratory and qualitative analyses. These questions included an inquiry into the person's sources of information on synthetic biology, whether they believe to have encountered a product of synthetic biology in their daily life (and if yes, encouraging to name examples), and whether it is important to them to know whether a product has been created with methods of synthetic biology before consumption/purchase. As these questions encourage yes or no responses, with yes responses usually leading to elaborations, we can use them for both quantitative and qualitative analyses. Finally, we included an open question to encourage our survey participants to leave comments and feedback, so we could keep track of the quality of our survey.
In our survey, we settled on exclusion criteria, that being that the potential participant is a minor (in our respective countries that means being under 18 years of age). The "Age" question included a < 18 category, and the respective data was excluded in further analyses.
Survey questions were filled into a Google Forms template, and multiple choice questions, as well as one open question (“Can you briefly describe your sources of information regarding synthetic biology? (1 to 2 sentences)”) were set to mandatory. Filling out the form didn’t require any identifying information. The formulated questions were also translated into the language of the team’s home countries, German and Dutch, respectively. The surveys were spread via two general paths: online and offline. In the online setting, the teams spread the survey links to their social circle, over social media, and other channels such as Facebook groups, etc. As this approach would reach a predominantly young, online demographic, the offline path was chosen to potentially offset this bias. Besides, this gave the teams the opportunity to speak to the general public personally and get their upfront reaction.
In offline surveys, team members went out on one/several days to approach people and ask them to fill out printed out copies of the survey or fill it out on their phone while answering the question “How did this survey reach you?” as “In Person”.
The final collected data set included n = 202 participants, which were reduced to n = 197 due to exclusion criteria. The results described in the following section are, unless explicitly mentioned, drawn from this number of participants.
How old are you? While the majority of our sample is rather young, we still managed to reach beyond our age-groups. In this and in further analysis, the respondents who are 18 and under have been excluded based on previously stated exclusion criteria.
Regarding the correlations: To follow up on our hypotheses, we decided to perform Spearman correlations to see if various demographic descriptors like age or education correlate with various opinions on the topic of synbio.
Our analysis is shown in Figure 3:
Regarding the statistical results:
Q:How old are you?
While the majority of our sample is rather young, we still managed to reach beyond our age-groups. In this and in further analysis, the respondents who are 18 and under have been excluded based on previously stated exclusion criteria.
Q: What is the highest level of education you have completed?
As expected, we reached mostly students. However, we were happy to see all educational levels represented.
Q: How would you rate your knowledge on the subject of synthetic biology?
The majority of respondents had little to no knowledge on the subject.
Q: In your estimation, the global impact caused by synthetic biology is...
The majority of respondents estimated the global impact of synthetic biology to be largely positive.
Q: Synthetic biology can be used to solve humanities big problems.
The majority of respondents evaluated the following statement largely positive.
Q: The potential of synthetic biology is highly exaggerated.
The majority of respondents evaluated the following statement largely negatively.
Q: The ethics of experiments in synthetic biology are not explored enough.
The majority of respondents evaluated the following statement neutrally.
Q: The consequences of widerspread use of synthetic biology are not adequately considered.
The majority of respondents evaluated the following statement neutrally.
Q: Have you ever encountered products of synthetic biology?
The majority of respondents stated that they believe to have encountered products of synthetic biology in their life. The respondents who answered "yes" were encouraged to specify where in an open question.
Q: Where have you encountered products of synthetic biology?
This open question was evaluated in two ways - the responses were grouped into umbrella terms to calculate percentages and visualized in form of a word cloud.
About the definition of synthetic biology: We made the decision to create a word cloud to represent the definitions that the general public assigns to synthetic biology. The responses were provided in either English, Dutch, or German. We decided to display the responses in the original language in order to preserve the definition's meaning during translation and to highlight the global nature of our survey.
When we designed our survey, we expected education and age to influence people’s opinions and knowledge on synbio. While education did indeed correlate with a better self assessment of one’s knowledge about synbio, age has been shown to be a contributor to more negative opinions on the potential and impact of synbio projects.
This draws focus to an often neglected perspective - the importance of education at any age. Education about synbio isn’t something to be covered by educating the coming generations, educational efforts to the general public should include concepts and projects focussed on adults and the elderly who may have struggled to keep up with the quick changes on the scientific horizon. An informed and scientifically literate public is more important than ever, and it is on scientists, young and old, to spread scientific communication to communities beyond their profession.
We sincerely hope that these results further demonstrate the need for future iGEM teams to work on outreach material targeted at older generations as well as communities often left out of scientific discourse due to occupational differences. In future work, it would be amazing to see similar analyses focussed on underrepresented communities.
To understand the different views regarding synthetic biology, our teams first brainstormed who would be suitable to interview. We determined that to get the overall view we should interview experts that have different expertise and views regarding synbio. Besides their differences, all experts were required to have common knowledge about synthetic biology and some knowledge regarding ethics and/or psychology. Besides, we wanted to use the different nationalities that our teams have and therefore interviewed experts from the Netherlands, Belgium, America and Vienna. The different experts that we interviewed and their backgrounds are shown in Table 1.
Our Goals: The goal of the expert interviews is to get a professional view on the multiple ethical aspects of synthetic biology and its use. We have included experts in the field of biosecurity & bioweapons, philosophy in synthetic biology, GMOs in agriculture, property rights of genetic resources and biotechnology.
By engaging these experts we would like to answer the question; How do the opinions of experts in different fields and with different interests confront each other?
Hypothesis: Since we aimed to involve experts with different norms and values, we expect that their opinion on ethics in synthetic biology is not always the same and are sometimes conflicting.
Method: We interviewed all experts in the same way by means of a semi-structured qualitative interview of approximately one hour and compared their answers. We included questions to discuss their definition of synthetic biology, their perception of ethical discussions concerning synthetic biology and its cause. Moreover, we discussed possible consequences of the use of synthetic biology and how our teams could use communication to minimize these concerns. Lastly, we gauged their opinion on the use of synthetic biology to solve global crises.
The results of the expert interviews are shown in Table 2. Answers to each question by the different experts are summarized in this table, except for question 1: “What is synthetic biology to you and how would you best define/explain it to a person who does not have any connection to the field?” The answers to this question are visualized in a sentence map (Figure 2). The sentence map provides an excellent visualization tot the differences in the definition of synthetic biology that the experts give during their respective interviews.
From the table we can observe that different experts have a different view on the ethical aspects of synthetic biology. However, all experts answered question 2A “In the conversation surrounding synbio, one has to approach projects with a variety of ethical considerations. Why do you think that is?” in a similar way. All five experts think this is mainly due to the fact that people feel uncomfortable with the new technologies in synthetic biology because they do not understand them. In addition, Dr Stairs believes this also due to religious reasons and the fact that you modify living organisms.
Concerning question 2B "What, in your estimation, are the main ethical questions that remain unaddressed and not sufficiently discussed?” there’s some disagreement between the experts. While Mauritz and Micheal believe that ethical questions regarding synthetic biology are already discussed too much, Judith, Koos and Kevin believe that ethical discussions regarding dual-use of synthetic biology, the risks of GMOs for the environment and the access to genetic resources is not addressed sufficiently.
In addition, there’s some nonsimilarity between the answers of the experts to question 3 “ There is always a conversation of the potential harm of misuse, but very little time dedicated to communication of positive impacts. What, in your opinion, could be the reason?”. Michael,Judith and Kevin do not agree with the statement in the question as they believe there are also a lot of technologies that receive online positive attention and from which mostly positive results are communicated. On the other hand, Mauritz and Koos explain that because of organizations such as Greenpeace and insufficient communication by scientists themselves.
Although all experts agree that Synthetic biology can have a role in solving world crises (question 4: "What is your opinion on synthetic biology as a tool to solve global crises?"), not all think that synthetic biology can solve all of them or can solve them completely by itself. As such, Koos, Judith and Michael believe synthetic biology could help solve world problems, but it depends on the application. Moreover, there are more technologies necessary than only synthetic biology. On the contrary, Mauritz is somewhat more optimistic and believes that synthetic biology can be used to solve problems in many fields. Lastly, almost all experts shared a different take home message with us as can be seen in the Table 2.
We can conclude that experts with different expertise in ethics of synthetic biology have a different view on the current ethical discussion in synbio, the way of communication on the trends in synthetic biology and the potential of synthetic biology solving world crises.
No quantitative conclusion can be drawn since only five experts are included that are not randomly picked. We deliberately tried to include experts with a different view on synthetic biology to compare their reasoning. Therefore, the outcome can be different if you include experts from different fields related to synthetic biology. Moreover, because the interviews were semi-structured, qualitative and held by different interviewers (in probably slightly different ways), no statistical analysis was possible. On the other hand, by including experts with different opinions on purpose, it yielded some interesting insights.
Our teams both really enjoyed working together on the human practice related partnership. This resulted in a partnership and collaborations that extended this goal. Combining our logos to also visualize our partnership on both our wiki’s is a mere example. This combined logo was also formed by the 2021 teams that also enjoyed their collaboration and we therefore felt that we should keep up this tradition.
After we analyzed the results of our joined human practice research, we aimed to publish the results. As was concluded from the results of our human practices partnership, educating the general public about synthetic biology was found to be an important tool to increase the trust and eventually effectiveness of synthetic biology. After a brainstorm by both our teams we thought it would be a great idea to immediately start doing this ourselves. To achieve this we decided to publish a week long different parts of our partnership, the way in which we performed this research regarding synthetic biology and ethics, the results and our conclusions. All was published both on the social media of both teams. An example of our posts can be seen here.
Our Goals: Educate our followers regarding ethical considerations of synthetic biology and the way one can perform qualitative and quantitative research on such topics. This series of posts was specifically aimed at students and current/future iGEM teams.
Our Methods: For a timespan of 7 days, each day our team posted on social media some part of our human practices. This rough schedule can be found in table 3 and was made to ensure that we divided the research into understandable and short pieces of information that would attract the attention of our followers. Besides, we made a combined color scheme for all posts to emphasize the collaborative part of the partnership. We made the social media posts ahead of time to be able to finetune any necessary alterations.
Both teams experienced the partnership as very useful and fun. Although our projects have a complete distinct application, we found multiple topics to collaborate on. The main thing we benefited from was each other's experiences. It was very fruitful to discuss general struggles you experience within your own iGEM team. Often the other team recognizes the struggle and already has solutions for it. The information sharing therefore helped us to overcome challenges faster and to learn from each other’s mistakes and achievements. Secondly, the partnership combined expertise of both teams to fill the skill gaps. For example, iGEM BOKU Vienna had a lot of experience in drafting surveys and statistical analysis, whereas iGEM TU Eindhoven had a large network of experts to discuss ethical aspects of synthetic biology and its dual-use. Because we structured the partnership very well; a general planning, strict task division, weekly agendas and strict deadlines, both parties knew what they had to do and what to expect from the other team. Moreover, it prevented piggyback behavior. Lastly, it was also enjoyable to meet another iGEM team that is in the exact same situation. It was exciting to discuss and support each other’s progress and to fantasize about the Grand Jamboree in Paris. We already made a deal a deal that we would meet-up in Paris.
After the success of the Partnership between Vienna and Eindhoven of this year and last year, we decided we will make the Partnership a tradition for the iGEM teams of Vienna and Eindhoven in the future!