21 June 2010
ByAppeared in BioNews 563
According to the most extensive public survey yet, the British public are at ease with the idea of synthetic biology - but only if it is responsibly regulated.
The survey - 'Synthetic Biology Public Dialogue' - was commissioned by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with the aim of aiding the research councils on how to proceed with funding research in the field of synthetic biology.
'We want the science to flourish, but we also want it to be accepted', said Professor Paul Freemont, Co-director of the UK Centre for Synthetic Biology. 'We want the public to engage with it, understand it and also to influence it'.
Although initially uneasy with this level of public input, Freemont admits that after giving some thought to the matter, he believes it is a 'good idea'. In the same vein, Dr Brian Johnson, author of the report, points out that no scientific advance has ever been as potentially world changing as synthetic biology, thus extensive public consultation is imperative.
The survey revealed that the public were happy for synthetic biology research to progress so long as it would bring benefits. The public also said they wanted scientists to have respect for the material they were working with, and they wanted factors such as social values and scientific merit to be weighted in decisions when awarding grants for research.
The term 'synthetic biology' has caused some concern amongst the scientific community. 'Having the word 'synthetic' next to the word 'biology' does provoke a reaction in people that can be negative', said Freemont. Freemont felt this was particularly as some believe that J Craig Venter's recent creation of Synthia - recently reported in BioNews - cannot properly be called artificial life.
Roland Jackson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, believes changing labels would be wrong: 'Craig Venter did artificially create that cell…The concept of the synthetic and the natural are difficult oppositions for the public and scientists need to be aware of that…But I don't think they should be over-sensitive to it. They should say what they mean and mean what they say and I think the public respects an honest and open approach to this'.