As a professional scientist, who has immersed himself in academic research for the last twenty five years, I found the opportunity to take part in a public engagement exercise on synthetic biology a challenging and difficult invitation to consider. However, after careful consideration and with pure curiosity, I decided to participate and entered the Royal Academy of Engineering one evening in March earlier this year.
My brief was to prepare a 10 to 15-minute presentation introducing the new field of synthetic biology, highlighting its potential future applications. The audience would be 16 people of different ages, gender, ethnicities and background. None had heard of synthetic biology, nor had they degrees in science.
How could I possibly summarise a new field of science in which engineers work with molecular bioscientists to produce biologically-based ‘parts’ for systems and devices, by modifying DNA – usually bacterial DNA?
Before my talk, I became extremely nervous. This was very unusual, as I give many presentations at international conferences all around the world to fellow professional scientists and I don't usually get nervous. The thought of briefing the public felt as though I was opening up my professional self to severe scrutiny by people I had never met and knew nothing about what I did. However, as soon as I began speaking, I noticed how alert everyone was and I realised that I had a very attentive audience (unlike professional scientific audiences who are often looking at their email or working on their laptops!). The evening then developed into group discussions and closed with a series of questions.
Having now completed my first public engagement exercise, what have I learned? Firstly the public I engaged with were extremely intelligent and quickly formulated good ideas once they had the basic information. They really surprised me by their interpretations and made me quickly realise that ‘the public’ have a huge thirst for knowledge. They are excited about science and technology and are keen to learn as a much as possible about the benefits of such technologies from professional scientists.
Interestingly, everyone at the meeting I attended noted that the media will inevitably distort the field of synthetic biology in order to promote stories. Although the level of cynicism was refreshing, it was at odds with the fact that we all buy, read and listen to the news media.
The other notable issue was the very measured viewpoints based on the benefits and potential risks of the technology. I am now beginning to think that what is often portrayed as the ‘public’s view’ is actually the often exaggerated, and perhaps less objective ‘media’s view’, or the view of minority pressure groups who capture and retain the media’s attention for some reason.
Fully signed up
After this experience, I now fully realise how important and personally rewarding public engagement is. To describe a complicated piece of science in a way that people can understand is very challenging, but has the added reward of an attentive audience who are extremely interested in what you have to say.
My only advice to anyone who is preparing to engage with the public is to never underestimate the intelligence of your audience and thus not to try to dumb down the complexity of your subject matter; rather, find ways to make it more accessible and enjoyable. My audience wanted to be subjected to complex scientific concepts, as it stimulated their thinking and discussions.
I am now fully signed up to public engagement. I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of professional, publicly-funded scientists to inform the people who ultimately pay for their research.
The report on this public engagement is Synthetic biology: public dialogue on synthetic biology, (June 2009), Royal Academy of Engineering. Available at www.raeng.ac.uk/synbiodialogue