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Listening or explaining? Avoiding a deficit approach to public engagement in Synthetic Biology

In a speech in April on synthetic biology, Science Minister David Willetts stressed the importance of keeping in mind public concerns while developing the technology.

Public engagement in synthetic biology has been closely watched by those in the field. Lessons have been learned from GM and nuclear power; synthetic biology represents an opportunity for Government and scientists to put these lessons into practice. A key criterion will be avoiding the so-called deficit model of engagement. The hypothesis of this model is that if only people knew more about sciences, such as synthetic biology, they would be more supportive. The Jenkins report of 2000 argued that this model underpinned much of the work carried out in the area of the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ and that “it is widely assumed that one of the roots of public mistrust of science is ignorance.”

Jenkins and others have discredited the deficit model in relation to science in general and synthetic biology in particular (see, for example, polling to this effect in the US, and the section on ‘the impact of feeling informed’ p.12 in Ipsos Mori’s public attitudes to science survey for 2011). Although some argue that the thinking behind this model is still too prevalent in science engagement, there has been an encouraging level of public dialogue surrounding synthetic biology and a recognition, by Willetts and others, that the public must be listened to as well as being informed.

However, while people are increasingly aware of the need for more two-way dialogue, there is still a danger that public dialogue and engagement are seen as a ‘solution’ to public concerns. The title of a  recent blog post on the Guardian website reporting Willetts’s speech – ‘How do synthetic biologists keep the support of the public?’ - reveals this attitude.

It may be that engagement does sometimes encourage greater public trust in new technologies. As reported before in the Dialogue Bulletin, people’s perception of risk can decrease when they feel more in control; increased public engagement can have a role in this. However, while people might hope that public engagement will increase support and trust, this is not a motivation for public dialogue. A highly informed, engaged and rational citizenry may come to the conclusion that certain scientific developments are too risky or unethical, or that developments should only be carried out by certain people under certain conditions. Furthermore, rallying public support can be an appropriate motivation to engage with the public. However those involved with dialogue believe that it is essential that Government and scientists should listen to public concerns because it is right to do so in a democracy, even when citizens are not supportive of new developments.

To achieve the full benefits available through dialogue with the public, scientists must approach public engagement not as a marketing activity to ensure public support, but as a learning exercise for them as well as the public. As synthetic biology continues to develop, all the feedback has indicated that the public wants this listening to be continued.

For examples of public dialogues surrounding synthetic biology, see Sciencewise/BBSRC’s report or you can take part in an open consultation by the Nuffield Foundation on biotechnologies.