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Avoiding unnecessary controversy

Fiona Fox advises how to handle the media

Synthetic biology poses a conundrum because of its double-edge ability to both wreak biological havoc and perhaps wean civilization from dirty 20th-century technologies and petroleum-based fuels.1

Synthetic biology, much like GM crops, human-animal embryos and nanotechnology, has all the necessary ingredients to turn into the kind of scare story so beloved by the UK’s tabloids.

When it comes to the media, here are my top five tips to avoid synthetic biology becoming the next GM.

Brief early and brief often

The untold story of the debate over research on human-animal hybrid embryos is that, by the time the government announced their intention to ban the research, every key science and health reporters were fully briefed on the complex science involved.  Journalists had met the leading scientists on several occasions at background briefings at the Science Media Centre, and had understood the potential applications as well as the limits of the approach.

So when is the right time to brief news journalists about new developments like synthetic biology that have the potential to raise public fears?  Now!

Brief on the benefits

Nobody is going to opt for a new technology if it only brings a long list of new risks without any benefits.  Polls show that the reason the politicians and the public opted for human-animal hybrid research was because of the potential of that technique to help understand and treat currently incurable diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neuron disease. 

Scientists need to brief on the benefits in order to allow people to decide if they are prepared to bear the risks.  If synthetic biology offers new and better ways of producing biofuels and mass producing drugs cheaply then we need to hear about that.

Brief on the risks

There are still many scientists who still feel that information about risk should be handled with care, slipped out while no-one is watching and generally avoided if possible.  Wrong! 

First, someone is always watching; and there is nothing worse for a scientist than seeing a single-issue protest group taking a piece of new research from a website and touting it round to their favourite, non-science journalists.  The scientists who are working on developing GM and synthetic biology are best placed to look for risks and communicate their findings. 

When Professor Ken Donaldson from Edinburgh University found that nanoparticles had some asbestos like effects on the lungs of rats, he published in Nature and briefed the best science journalists on his findings.  Because he briefed them the caveats and qualifications were emphasized and the resulting story was balanced and accurate. 

See every threat as an opportunity

Scientists should used high profile attacks on their work as an opportunity to get their voices heard. 

New research on the media’s coverage of hybrid embryos shows that the highpoint for coverage of scientists’ messages came in the days after angry attacks from the Catholic Church catapulted the row into the headlines.

Champion the specialist reporter

Despite what some scientists would have you believe, the UK’s science, health and environment reporters are amongst the best in the world.  They fight the good fight with their non-science editors and argue tooth and nail against rubbish stories.  If we start giving them the best background, the best stories, the best graphics and the best scientists on synthetic biology now, there is a good chance that this new and exciting branch of science and engineering will continue to be covered by journalists who understand the risks, benefits and promise of this new technology

1 Rick Weiss (17 December 2007), Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms, Washington Post

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Fiona Fox
Fiona Fox is Director of the Science Media Centre
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