Team:BCCS-Bristol/Human Practices/Marketing Campaign/Public Perception


Public Perception


An understanding and consideration of the public perception of our work is crucial to the success of advancements in synthetic biology. Successful and positive public relations are vital to ensure that our research and its applications are not dismissed in amidst sensational reporting, or under- or over-played causing mistrust or fear. Ultimately, without public support and education, products and services built using this new technology may not be developed and released for use, forfeiting a multitude of potential benefits.

Directly as a result of the human practices section of the iGEM competition, much data has been collected gauging public opinion. This, combined with other studies, indicates the status of the field in the public consciousness and highlights work that needs to be done to educate and inform people further.

As the purpose of our public information leaflet is to consider the effect on local communities to the release of our organism, we have attempted to glean a better understanding of the opinions held by non-experts, by also considering the role of the media in scientific reporting. By identifying approaches taken by the media that have caused controversy in the past, we hope to construct clear and truthful materials to inform and interest the public in the wider synthetic biology debate.

Further research could be conducted into the genetic modification debate, of which we have only scratched the surface, exploring other nationalities’ viewpoints, regulations and activist groups. We also acknowledge that the surveys conducted by the many iGEM teams were done so in different countries and cultures and of different levels of scientific understanding: from the general public to lecturers and professionals, however they have provided an insight into the varying opinions.

iGEM survey analysis

There are some recurring themes in the conclusions drawn by iGEM teams that have conducted surveys of public opinion. Questions posed by many different teams have explored public and scientific opinions of synthetic biology and its implications, and they have made recommendations based on their findings. Issues have been identified by previous teams when presenting synthetic biology and research to people uninvolved in iGEM, and a summary of the 2005-2008 team findings has been produced by the Valencia 2009 team [1].

Some of the issues relevant to our campaign are listed and considered here:

  • the need for more public information
  • careful communication requires input from the scientific community
  • safety and security are a major concern
  • current opinions of synthetic biology

We will attempt to address these issues in our public information leaflet, as the main purpose of our approach is to produce a careful response to public opinion whilst providing information about the potential of our synthetic biology research.

More public information is needed

Further motivating our advertising approach, several teams have concluded that more public information is required.

  • ‘there should be more information for the general public about new technologies’, (Valencia 2009 [2])
  • ‘general public knowledge of science is democratically necessary for ethical decision making’ (conclusions of Heidelberg 2008 summarised by Valencia 2009 [3])

These conclusions suggest that public information at present is not sufficient, but also that to make good decisions, the public need to be involved as a stakeholder and as such they need to be well informed to make the best decisions possible.

Additionally, the synthetic biology community has been found to be majority supportive for public information. TUDelft 2009 found that 61% of the community agrees that scientific advances should be communicated to society [4]. Our campaign is designed such that our own team can bring our research into the public domain, communicating fairly and openly the potential uses (and challenges) of the field, and also providing further reading.

This willingness on the part of the synthetic biology community to engage with the public could indeed enhance the image of the field as a whole. Valencia 2009 observed a trend for ‘people with a greater awareness of synthetic biology [to] believe that it is potentially more beneficial and less dangerous than uninformed people’ [5]. This suggests a more favourable response from the public when more information has been made available to be considered.

Our response

Teams are concluding that there is a need for more public engagement of science, and synthetic biology in particular. This directly motivates our advertising campaign as a tool for introducing the public to the many possible avenues of research. By explicitly addressing the motivation for the research, the potential benefits of technologies being developed, and the regulations in place, we hope to encourage informed debate.

Careful communication requires scientific input

The issue of the accurate and fair communication of scientific advances was highlighted by TUDelft 2009 [6], who suggested a combined approach from journalists and the scientific community towards unbiased reporting to avoid controversial headlines.

There is further evidence from GM reporting, that will be considered later, that misreporting can be damaging to an entire field of research, and must be avoided. The way in which findings are presented is influential, and care should be taken such that research is not distorted into sensational reporting. Promoting research however also often requires journalism skills to reach the public.

Our response

Our campaign has been formulated such that it does not rely on outside reporters to create a marketable story. By being framed as a public information leaflet to be given out in the community, it can be directly influenced by those scientists developing it and less likely to be misreported by being used for sensational headlines. By remaining as a hypothetical campaign, obviously created by students and transparently theoretical application, it can be used as material for science fairs and similar to spark an interest in the debate.

Of course, if this were a real product and advertising situation, our leaflet might be considered biased by whichever company had produced our beads. Our approach would then include appeals to trusted organisations for support of the morals of our product and endorsement, to lower mistrust in our product and advertising material.

The importance of safety and security

Safety and security were suggested to be of greatest public concern by Groningen 2009 [7], and Edinburgh 2009 [8] have also expanded to identify environmental and health effects and the unknown consequences of new technology as the most concerning aspects. The need to approach safety in a transparent, unbiased and careful way is acknowledged by both teams.

The effect of previous coverage on forming the public perception of the safety of genetic manipulation will be explored later – from these survey results, it is clear that concerns need to be allayed about synthetic biology contaminating the environment, causing harm or being misused.

Additionally, it has been found that 89% of those surveyed were happy for environmental application and only 45% for food by Edinburgh 2009 [9]. This is assumed to be relating back to the history of reporting of GM foods and the associated scares. Our beads will be applied to the environment, and are not intended to enter the food chain. Further investigation is needed to ensure that our beads will in no way interact with plants, and also to assess their impact on organic crop status.

A practical approach to proving safety of synthetic biological technology is that 91.5% of Calgary 2008’s sample were in favour of regulation [10]. Regulations are in place in the UK and EU, and need to be communicated effectively to relieve fears and win support for the use of engineered organisms.

Our response

A strong emphasis needs to be given to safety and security in our materials, addressing fears of potential misuse and accidental damage that may result from the use of our organism. It should be clarified that using these beads does not result in a GM crop and attention should be drawn to the testing process. Explanation should also be provided detailing the barriers between our product and the ecosystem: the weak strain chosen, and their encapsulation.

Opinions of synthetic biology

The majority of people are not opposed to synthetic biology, according to the Edinburgh 2009 team survey, and would approve the release of their organism. [11] This suggests a positive attitude to synthetic biology, when framed in the context of a specific project for release, with obvious motivation. It could be noted that using the phrase ‘synthetic biology’ may not conjure a similar distrust as ‘genetically modified’ has come to represent. Just twenty percent of Freiberg 2009’s interviewees responded that they would buy genetically modified food. Reasons not to were given as:

  • unknown consequences for human health such as cancer or allergies
  • threat to “natural” biotopes and plant species
  • loss of flavour and lack of need for such genetic modifications, because all essential food is already present on earth [12]

These relate to the general fears about safety and security: ensuring no damage will be caused to health or the environment. We also need to provide reasons for why our product is necessary or better than the alternative.

Edinburg 2009 found a significant number of the non-scientific people they surveyed to be unsure about whether they approved of synthetic biology – 76%. Their conclusion was that these people are likely unfamiliar with genetic engineering advances [13] reinforcing the idea that more informed people believe that it is potentially more beneficial. This again motivates increased public engagement and awareness.

Our response

The motivation for our product needs to be clear and persuasive: listing clearly the environmental benefits and aim of reducing the use of excess fertiliser. Surveys suggest that there is a negative attitude to ‘genetically modified’, whereas there is not sufficient information for as many people to have an opinion on ‘synthetic biology’.

Some lessons to be learned from genetic modification

If the public are to accept our hypothetical product or any other similar technology, we need to be careful in the way the information is presented. As already suggested, there appears to be at least some general public distrust of genetically modified organisms, and a lack of knowledge about synthetic biology and its potential applications. Being wary of some of the ways in which GMOs have been criticised will hopefully lead our campaign to be viewed less controversially. Some examples from GM publicity that are considered to have adversely affected public opinion are highlighted here, and ways to avoid a similar situation suggested.

Avoid over-stating potential and underplaying controversy

Previous advertising campaigns by GM seed producing companies attracted scorn in the late 1990s by suggesting their technology would improve the world hunger situation. Attacked not only for the features of their crops that disrupt traditional farming by forcing fresh seed to be bought each year, their claims concerning feeding the world have been unpicked as a naive message. [14] [15]

An article in the Observer from 2009 quotes a slogan from a Monsanto ad from 1998, attributing some of the blame for the dividing opinions on GM through overplaying it as being the solution to the world’s hunger problems. “Worrying about future generations won't feed them, [...] Food biotechnology will. [...] While we'd never claim to have solved world hunger at a stroke [...] biotechnology provides one means to feed the world effectively." [16] The article also details that the Advertising Standards Agency concluded that Monsanto had ‘exaggerated its years of safety testing [and] [...] not made clear academic opinion on GM technology was divided.’

By providing a message that could be interpreted and reported in this way, this advertising approach has encouraged the view of naivety on the part of biotechnology companies to the actual role of their products, coupled with mistrust generated by their reportedly dubious ASA result. This report and similar fuel the perception that the primary purpose of GM is to line the pockets of the big companies through misleading the public and overstating its claim as the relief of a major world problem.

Our response

Efforts need to be made to avoid making sweeping claims and generalisations about synthetic biological technology and specific product benefits. Instead we need to provide accurate and informative statistics and explanations to substantiate claims.

We have environmental motivation for our product, which can be presented in the context of the wider problems of pollution and carbon emissions: it is designed to reduce nitrogen use and can be used on any scale. It is not intended to displace any other products directly, as there do not appear to be any chemical alternatives currently available.

As we are unsure about the size and construction of our hypothetical ‘company’, so claims cannot be made in reference to company size/monopolies.

Our researched target market is the UK arable farming community, and we must bear in mind that other countries and cultures have different media coverage, regulations and attitudes. We intend our product to reduce costs by saving fertiliser, rather than claiming subsequent gains, such as increasing profits or yield from the same amount of fertiliser. The safest approach is to remain with the basic claim of reducing excess nitrogen fertiliser use.

Mistrust fostered by the media

Scare stories – misreported research, unclear labelling of products and tenuous comparison with other health scares, amongst other things – have led to public mistrust of biotechnology, and GM in particular. In some cases the lack of scientific input into the stories is partially to blame, in others it is clear that more public information is needed. There are three examples that we will consider, although there are many more.

Firstly, scare stories that have been since discredited have still played a part in forming public opinion on a subject. As part of his crusade against ‘bad science’, Ben Goldacre in a 2007 Guardian article reinforced the point raised by the TUDelft 2008 team in reference to the involvement of the scientific community public communication. In response to subsequently discredited research linking GM potatoes with health risks, Goldacre notes that “during the two days after the GM "Frankenstein foods" story broke, [...] not one of the news articles, opinion pieces or editorials on the subject - in any British newspaper - was written by a science journalist, and because the work was unpublished, no one could comment on the science anyway.” It is important for us to communicate our work effectively and accurately to avoid misinterpretation by non-experts.

Secondly, mistrust of the biotechnology industry seems to have been borne in part out of revelations of unknowing consumption of genetically engineered products. Although regulations specify that any intentional use of GM ingredients and accidental amounts of approved GM ingredients above 0.9% must be labelled [17], media reporting has brought the GM labelling debate to the public attention by implicitly suggesting their consumer rights are being violated by inadequate labelling. These include stories such as:

  • “We're used as guinea pigs for GE food”, (headline), Western Morning News (Plymouth, UK), November 25, 2008
  • “Six out of 10 respondents also fear they are eating GM foods unknowingly, and, according to the Food Standards Agency, they are probably right.”, The Guardian, 2 September 2004

For our product therefore, it is important that we have a clear message about what our product is and does and its impact or otherwise on crops.

Thirdly, a balanced GM debate has not been encouraged by the invocation of other health scares in reporting. For example, a ‘Wales on Sunday’ article dated August 17, 2008, considering Prince Charles’ stance on GM crops included a reference to BSE: “There have been food scares before - look at Mad Cow Disease.” [18] Other emotive statements such as “GM could be the biggest environmental disaster of all time” are also being attributed to the Prince. In our case, it will also be necessary to address our use of bacteria in relation to the recent E. coli outbreaks at petting zoos.

Our response

Sources for statistics need to be carefully checked to avoid perceived or actual bias. In our case, estimations will be used for advertising materials as we have no figures for trials – appropriate references will be made in supporting portfolio.

We need to explicitly mention that our bacteria are genetically engineered and explain how and why they are safe. Avoiding references to previous health scares implicitly such as the recent bad publicity of E. coli is needed to prevent association with illness.

Perceived trustworthiness of sources

It has been asserted that “GM promoters (e.g. industrial and governmental) are not particularly well trusted”. [19] As our campaign is currently hypothetical, it does not fall into either of these categories, instead being a part of a scientific research project. If we were to release our leaflet as an information campaign, it would be worth considering endorsement from more trusted organisations to gain credibility and trust. According to Costa-Font et al [20], many studies have broadly classified the following sources into being more trustworthy than the biotechnology industry and government:

  • Consumer organisations;
  • Environmental groups;
  • Scientists;

with Europeans’ most trusted stakeholders being:

  • doctors
  • university scientists
  • consumer organisations and patients’ organisations
  • scientists working in industry
  • newspapers and magazines
  • environmental groups
  • shops
  • farmers
  • the EU

Our response

It will be important to consider the presentation of promotional materials so they are not dismissed as untrustworthy. It could be beneficial to identify environmental groups concerned with emissions and in favour of public debate about GM and synthetic biology to support the campaign. Quotes from university staff could be considered.


As part of our new approach to human practices, we have collected conclusions made by previous iGEM teams using surveys of people from around the world in order to build on the work that has been done before. The surveys have been revealing, highlighting areas for us to focus on when creating our materials. These issues will be considered in turn and justified with the presentation of our leaflet on the next page.

As human practices gains momentum - participation having been growing the past few years - there will be more information to guide the production of publicity materials, building a stronger foundation from which to address public uncertainty.


[1] Valencia 2009
[2] Valencia 2009
[3] Valencia 2009
[4] TUDelft 2009
[5] TUDelft 2009
[6] TUDelft 2009
[7] Groningen 2009
[8] Edinburgh 2009
[9] Edinburgh 2009
[10] Calgary 2008
[11] Edinburgh 2009
[12] Freiburg 2009
[13] Edinburgh 2009
[14] The Independent, accessed September 2010
[15] Global Issues, accessed September 2009
[16] "We'll never trust GM until we break the power of Monsanto: Rather than ceding control to biotech companies, the government must take full charge of food policy", Catherine Bennett, The Observer, 16 August 2009
[17] Food Standards Agency, accessed September 2010
[18] "FOOD FIGHT", Steve Dube, Wales on Sunday, August 17, 2008
[19] Gene Rowe, How can genetically modified foods be made publicly acceptable?, Trends in Biotechnology, Volume 22, Issue 3, March 2004, Pages 107-109, ISSN 0167-7799, DOI: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2004.01.007
[20] Montserrat Costa-Font, Jose M. Gil, W. Bruce Traill, Consumer acceptance, valuation of and attitudes towards genetically modified food: Review and implications for food policy, Food Policy, Volume 33, Issue 2, April 2008, Pages 99-111, ISSN 0306-9192, DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2007.07.002

MotivationProduct SpecificationPublic PerceptionMaterialsFuture Work