Spider silk made by goats, meatless meat brewed by yeast or animal-free leather produced by bacteria. For many, these inventions may sound like science-fiction, but they are real products available thanks to synthetic biology (synbio). A scientific field that remains unknown for most of the population, and we know what happens when scientific innovation moves faster than society or simply isolated from it: miscommunication disasters like the GMO-clash occur. Although synbio has received a good acceptance in the media so far, a great effort needs to be done to ensure public acceptance.
At Rafts4Biotech we aim at improving industrial bioprocesses using synbio and thus we are also committed to raising public awareness about this discipline. To do so, we count on the support of Scienseed, experts in science communication. Whether you are a researcher working on synbio, a biotech owner exploiting a great idea, or just a fan of this field, check out Scienseed’s list of 10 things you should consider to avoid a miscommunication pitfall.
- Understand different audiences
We all react differently to new information and ideas, even more when we are introduced to ground-breaking concepts like Synbio and its ability to engineer life. This is because of our mental models, a psychological representation that defines how the world works for us based on our perceptions, culture and experiences. These models are a wonderful chassis to build upon in our communications, as they can help us speed up understanding. This is precisely what we exploit when we use metaphors: we leverage on things our audience already knows to explain a new but similar concept.
But this only works if the new information fits perfectly into our mental puzzle. What happens when this new information collides with our model? As we have seen with anti-vaccines or anti- GMO movements, the bad news is that people dismiss, deny or refuse the new information.
In addition to our experience, our ethical, cultural and religious context also play a big role in shaping our mental models, and even more so when it comes to potentially controversial topics like synbio. This, together with all its derived economic, environmental and social implications leave huge room for discussion. A debate that will be conditioned not only by the mental models of your audience but also by yours!
If you are talking to an audience with a different mental model, don’t worry, not all is lost. You just need to keep this in mind to frame your message and tailor it according to your audience.
- Select words according to them
Words matter. They matter a lot. So much so that even the name synthetic biology could use a rebranding. The word “synthetic” in this context is meant to have its best connotation, highlighting the potential that synbio has to engineer new living systems. But for those outside the field, the term can be very loaded and represent something artificial, unnatural or fake. Definitely not something they’d like to see right next to the word biology. To avoid this word, some prefer to simply call it “engineering biology” building upon the established public trust on engineers. Sounds like a good alternative, however, this term doesn’t seem to be taking roots among the scientific community so far.
If words matter when labelling an activity, imagine the role they play when explaining what it is all about! Researchers are used to reading technical publications with things like “A mutant strain was created to express X and Y”. But these are two no-goes in a row for the broad audience. While “mutant” is an objective and neutral scientific term used to refer to all those strains that differ from wild types (more technicalities!) this word carries commonly a negative connotation outside of this context. Something monstrous or extra-terrestrial. How do you deal with this? You could use the word “variant” instead. Also, one should avoid using the verb “create” as some publications have demonstrated that it negatively influences public perception of synbio. Instead you can use other way more positively perceived words like construct, design or engineer.
- Frames that are bigger that just words
There are frames that are bigger that just words and that can condition how our audiences perceive synbio by context.
For example, environmentalism, a concept that is always associated with good practices, could be helpful to engage with most of the public. In fact, a great number of synbio projects focus on how to help humankind to remove different pollutants or to diminish our carbon footprint. Thus, including synbio as a nature-friendly practice could affect positively to its acceptance.
Other frames could be more complex. For some audiences the biotechnology frame, linking synbio and their economic or technological value, will be a plus; but for others it will be a reason for distrust. Thus, being aware of your audience is key before thinking how to frame your synbio communications.
For the toughest audiences, we still have an ace up the sleeve: sharing a powerful goal.
- The goal is very important…
Scientists talk about what they do, how they do it and finally why they have done it. Normally in that order, which may not be the best order in controversial topics. If we start by telling what we do, and this “what” does not fit the mental models of our audience, our communication may be hindered. We need to empathise with our audience, and this is normally achieved by sharing the same “why”.
Get people on board by clearly explaining to them what you are using synthetic biology for. You may be doing basic research for the sake of answering some of the most fundamental questions of biology, or maybe exploiting some of its biotechnological or medical potential to manufacture a product or a drug. There may be different opinions about what is or isn’t “legit” to do, but if you show that you are working in an honest and responsible way to tackle the most important challenges that our society faces, you should be able to get people excited about what you are doing.
- …but do not oversell
Transparency is a key word at this point. If you are reading this post its because you think synthetic biology has an incredible potential. But let’s be realistic, all that glitters is not gold, and there is always a weakness or a limitation to any innovation. Try to always convey a balanced and credible message being clear about the meaning of your results, the timing for a discovery to be applied, the risk of getting lost in translation etc. When talking about products, promote the benefits of your synbio invention but be clear about other derived impacts and allow the consumer to make an informed choice. Don’t be afraid to engage in discussion. Don’t try to hide the flaws because they could turn against you.
- The organisms used matter
Synbio is all about engineering life, and thus the type of living system that we use to do so can highly impact the public perception. As a rule: “the smaller the better”. Lucky for us given that most of the synbio research is done on microorganisms! Like in animal experimentation it’s a matter of evolutionary closeness but also about reputation. Some bacterial strains like E. coli still have to fight to change theirs, but in general our long tradition consuming bacterial-derived products like vinegar, cheese or yogurt, improves the perception that people have towards these microbes. On the other hand, yeasts may be some of the better welcome model systems so far. And it is not surprising. Bread, beer and wine have tilt the balance in their favour for a very long time. Animal and human cells are another great engineerable living system mostly used for medical applications, but views start getting divided on this field. The type of animal, the type of cell and, of course, the purpose that we mentioned above are crucial in these cases.
When it comes to plants or animals. most of the approaches still fall in the category of “genetic engineering” as they only modify one or a few genes rather than designing the whole new organism, but if you work with these higher organisms you should be a little more careful. The longstanding debates about animal experimentation and GMOs clearly affect public perception in this scenario. Anyhow, each organism will have specific features, limitations and applications that will define the organisms of choice; and openly talking about these reasons can contribute to changing established impressions and fostering acceptance of synbio.
- The messenger counts
The message is not enough when it comes to communicating efficiently: the messenger also plays a very important role. It is essential to be and come across as a trusted source. But trust is something that takes long to build, and it needs to be maintained over time. How? There are many things that come into play. Expertise is a very positive point when it comes to building trust, so researchers and academics have a head start in this context. But if this is your case, don’t get too comfortable, because trust can be fragile. A trustful messenger should also be a skilled communicator. Get to know your audience and the insights of the media, speak clearly and practice: communicating can be learned. Avoid controversy by communicating often, being honest, asking questions, listening and, when necessary, agreeing to disagree.
- The fear of the unknown: Anticipate and manage risk
New technologies are often associated in our minds with risk or uncertainty, feelings that are not very appealing. We need to contextualise, and stress that everything in life has an inherent risk associated. A bigger or smaller chance of something to go wrong. When it comes to research, this chance highly varies depending, for example, on the organisms that we work with or the applications of what we do.
The scientific community is aware of this and thus research institutions, R&D centres and biotechs are subject to strict biosafety and biosecurity rules. It is essential to provide open and transparent information about these procedures and regulations; and telling your audience what you do to manage and reduce risk. Demonstrate that you are working responsibly and in line with all the biosecurity and biosafety legislation.
- Study your feedback
A few years ago, science communication used to be a question of mass media, and thus, it resulted in one-way communication. Your piece of information was featured in a newspaper and the opinions of the readers were only seen, if at all, in letters to the editor.
As Internet use grew, many other new formats came out, such as blogs and social media, that allow the public to respond to our messages directly and thus their feedback became visible. Do not lose the opportunity to check the feedback thoroughly. It is of invaluable help to better understand the mental models of our audience.
- What measuring the impact includes
Time to combine all the ingredients for successful communication. And now, what do you do? What does this mean after all? Communicating may sound like an easy task, but as you saw, there are many things that come into play. If after all your efforts something went wrong, don’t panic! It is time to spot the gaps in the communication process. And, to do so, this quote from zoologist Konrad Lorenz is very helpful:
What is thought is not yet said, what is said is not properly heard, what is heard is not properly understood, what is understood is not always accepted, what is accepted is not always applied, what is applied is not always kept.
Depending on your goal, maybe being heard is enough, but normally we need to be at least heard, understood and accepted. Try to identify the weakest links, this will be key to achieve success in your following communications!