When I went into the World Congress breakout session today on "A Global Perspective on Synthetic Biology" I thought I would get a mixed bag of presentations that would fall both within my communications perspective and those that would be more of a scientist-to-scientist talk.
Indeed that was what I got, but as we recently developed our own project on Synthetic Biology I was determined to take it all in and squeeze out what I could.
As it turned out there was a lot to talk about. It was interesting to note how the panel defined Synthetic Biology in terms of an engineering exercise. Like an engineer designing and developing the production of an Airbus, Synthetic Biology takes the engineering approach to design using parts, devices, and systems where the characteristics of each are standard and reproducible. Only the product is a lot smaller than an Airbus and they are working on biological systems.
Like any engineering cycle Synthetic Biology goes through developing specifications, designing the project, modelling possible outcomes, implementing the work, and finally testing and validation. And that is where I think the public starts to get a bit twitchy about the whole subject.
Synthetic biology. Engineering approaches to biological systems. Biological parts. Reproducible outcomes. Standards. As Eleonore Pauwels, the wrap-up speaker on the panel, noted from her work at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars  public perception can lean towards views of biologists playing God, worries about an altered definition of life, and the fear that technology is leaping ahead of policy and regulations. Not really a surprise when scientists talk about biological systems as an engineering problem - the public starts wondering what researchers are up to.
The engineering analogy is an interesting way to frame synthetic biology and it the panelists used it well. It is an approach I have heard before and no question that it has helped me understand the science - but it could become a headline that won't go away.
Eleonore's presentation covered the research she has been involved in around the trends in media coverage of synthetic biology. European and U.S. press coverage has increased eight or nine fold between 2003 and 2007 and while there are differences in points of view depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on, there did seem to be a couple of themes. One was the concern over biosafety and the other was that openness and transparency is considered important no matter where you are.
As the Center's report notes, “If Synbio is to deliver it will need broad public support and that will require much more engagement than has happened to date.” (Mark Henderson The Times, October 27, 2007 ) It was clear from the discussion that ensued as the panel was winding up, that scientists from academia and industry want to find new methods of public engagement about synthetic biology while avoiding some of the public perceptions that have come up around GMO's.
It isn't an easy challenge and the biotech industry needs to give it a lot of thought. How to frame their work while maintaining a transparent and open attitude. As we tackle our own Synthetic Biology project at Genome Alberta, the challenge won't just be a thought exercise or a research project. I'm open to ideas, thoughts, and even a few challenges from anyone involved in the field.