Engaging with Synthetic Biology at the Ecsite Annual Conference 2015 “Food for curious minds”

Which participatory initiatives have been undertaken in the field of synthetic biology (SynBio) so far? What is the impact of these engagement activities? Which roles do science centres play in the dialogue on broader societal implications of emerging technologies? These and many more questions were addressed in the session on public engagement with synthetic biology, which was held on June 13, 2015 during the Ecsite Annual Conference in Science Museum MUSE, Italy. The session began with opening remarks by Liesbeth de Bakker (University of Utrecht, the Netherlands), who pointed out the current challenges associated with SynBio to the attendees, for example potential risks and ethical issues, as well as the lack of a clear definition. The session brought together experts in various backgrounds, namely David Sittenfeld (Museum of Science, Boston, USA), Patrizia Famà (Science Museum MUSE, Italy), Markus Schmidt (Biofaction, Austria) and Mikko Rask (University of Helsinki, Finland).

Public engagement activities with SynBio in the US

David Sittenfeld presented SynBio engagement activities in science centres and museums in the United States, which were and will be organized in the framework of the MSPES (Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science) SynBio project. A primary aim of this project is to bring the broader public, scientists and engineers together to engage with and explore the field of SynBio, as well as to learn from each other by sharing personal and societal values and priorities. A special kit will be developed and distributed to 200 science centres around the US which will help to make complex issues of SynBio more accessible to wider publics. The project will evaluate the impacts of these conversations on scientists and public audiences.

Challenges for science centres and museums

Patrizia Famà gave an overview of an engagement activity in the Science Museum of Trento - MUSE, Italy. This activity is developed as a part of the EU-funded project Synenergene. The project aims to foster Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) in SynBio. The hands-on activity is developed around the topic of vanillin molecule and demonstrates how synthetic biology products are entering a number of everyday consumer goods. The activity allows the participant to simulate (in the form of a puzzle) the biotechnological procedure by which vanillin molecule can be obtained. Furthermore a scientist’s interview and the point of view of the company, producing SynBio vanillin, are exposed to the public in order to allow a comprehensive vision of what synthetic biology is.

Experimenting with fictional realities of SynBio

Markus Schmidt presented the BIO·FICTION Science Art and Film Festival, which took place in Vienna, Austria in 2014, also as a part of the Synenergene project. This three day event provided a creative mix of expert lectures, film screenings, talks and panel discussions, art performances and live demonstrations of do-it-yourself biology projects. All stimulated lively discussions about the broader implications of this emerging technology.

Innovative public engagement initiatives in the EU

Mikko Rask (University of Helsinki, Finland) discussed some preliminary results of the project PE2020 (Public Engagement Innovations for Horizon 2020), which aims to identify and analyse innovative public engagement tools and instruments. The project focuses on the development of capabilities for governance of research and innovation and has already mapped approximately 76 mechanisms and 250 public engagement initiatives.

The short discussion afterwards focused on the question of how to foster upstream public engagement with science, technology and innovation (STI) issues, especially when the research is still in its very early phase or when potential applications are not on the market yet. The actual practices of such engagement can be quite challenging, as there are many problems, for example how to find the focus, when dealing with complex and broad issues, or how to convince citizens to participate. The speakers voiced the need to initiate innovative and experimental approaches in fostering dialogue between various stakeholders in the field of STI. The discussion benefited from the broad disciplinary diversity of the speakers and the participants’ interest in the field of SynBio.

Tags

  • #Synthetic Biology
  • #Synenergene
  • #ecsite2015

Annual conference