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Focus on Experts – Q&A

We asked two experts who were involved in the recent Synthetic Biology dialogue, Professor John Ward, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and PI of Synbion, one of the ‘Networks in Synthetic Biology’, and Professor Paul Freemont, Co-director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London, about their participation and experiences of the dialogue.

Describe the role you took in the dialogue session

John Ward: I was invited to a workshop to give a short talk on what I did in my research and what Synthetic Biology is, and might do, to benefit us all. There was time for questions immediately after my talk, which were quite wide ranging and pertinent. I also joined in with some of the small discussion groups, and tried to answer questions. The day really kept me on my toes.
Paul Freemont: I attended the final workshop, so the group had already been exposed to the concepts of Synthetic Biology. My role was to make initial comments on several films shown and be present at breakout sessions to answer any queries or clarifications.

What did you find most valuable from your involvement in the dialogue workshops?

JW: Having to describe both my research and that of others in words that the general public can understand is a challenge. It’s easy to slip into jargon that even other scientists don’t understand, so thinking carefully to describe Synthetic Biology in clear and straightforward terms was difficult at first. The participants latched on to the ideas in Synthetic Biology very quickly and it was good to hear what they thought was the most important challenges that we should be focussing on.
PF: These dialogues always make me acutely aware of the privilege I have in being able to carry out exciting public-funded scientific research. The public are extremely keen to learn about technology and science and, in particular, how it could impact on their lives.

In what way did the experience affect your views in respect of your scientific work and how the public are able to deliberate on these issues?

JW: It’s made me look at some of the work I am doing and planning, and think about the implications of it. There are some big challenges in the world today and Synthetic Biology could address some of these. I am much more appreciative of the value of public dialogue and with face-to-face meetings, it’s easy to discuss quite complicated scientific research. If the public have the facts and the science explained in ways that they can understand, then they are able to have informed judgements on issues of Synthetic Biology.
PF: It has made me more aware of my responsibilities to communicate more of my research in a way that is understandable and meaningful. It continually surprises me that we have an extraordinarily intelligent general public, where high level debate can be carried out on the most complex of issues.

How easy was it for you to participate in the public dialogue workshops? (What could make it easier for you to participate in the future? Funding, recognition, time etc.)

JW: It’s become an important issue in the Research Councils to engage with the public, hosting school parties to our laboratories, participating in science fairs etc. But it’s hard to find the time when we are still doing all the other jobs (teaching, admin and research). Yes, a greater recognition of public dialogue and the investment of time it takes would be great. Having said that, my university is beginning to include public dialogue as one of the criteria in staff appraisals.
PF: I see this as a major part of my professional activities and feel strongly that all publically funded researchers have a responsibility to communicate their research to the broader public. When asked, I will always try to accept any public dialogue invitation.

Do you think greater recognition of the potential role of scientists in public dialogue would be a good thing? If yes, how might that best be realised?

JW: I think the Research Councils are starting to use scientists to participate in public dialogues and I think that they could try and use more scientists in each workshop that they do. For example, I was not able to sit in on all of the small group discussions as there were several going on simultaneously. I suppose Government, as well, could make more use of the tremendous resource experts have in every field of science, establishing scientists as a key part of any debate.
PF: Yes, I fully support this, but everyone is busy and over stretched, including the broader public. I would like to see more community activities at local authority level taking up the baton, including schools and further education colleges. I can see a role for all local organisations (scouts, church, WI, local charities etc) for promoting science and technology understanding, as the appetite is clearly evident and the increased awareness can only be good for our society.