Team:TU Darmstadt/Human Practices

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The idea of the Human Practices is to look beyond the daily lab work, reflect about our project and to take it to the outside world. Often, it is observed how one’s project is perceived by society to therefore be able to evaluate its chance of success.
Especially in dialogue with society, it is of great interest to get a broad range of views with detailed information to evaluate current situations and possible strategies. Unfortunately, this kind of research comes with huge effort and expenses concerning preparations, execution and analysis. Additionally, the number of people surveyed has to be high enough for the results to be significant, which is not doable for a student team.
In order to still be able to evaluate how our project is recognized by the public we decided to interview politicians as representatives of people in the general public. As decision-makers for laws, regulations and funding in their respective state they play an important role for the future of synthetic biology. They also carry important topics into the general public and thus influence them. In addition to that, they do also have a good impression of the general opinion of their voters concerning certain topics.

The Procedure

The core idea was to depict the politician’s opinions concerning synthetic biology. Getting to know their attitude towards the topic and introducing our project and aims should help us assess weather our idea is implementable on a political level. To also survey the opinion of the voters we used the proximity of the politicians to their respective electorates. The question is if the politicians would introduce our project to their voters as a good example of sufficient safety measures in the field of synthetic biology. To gather the maximum amount of information, the interviews were held in a way that the interviewees could answer as freely as possible.
To ensure that our approach is scientifically correct in the field of sociology the questionnaire had to be standardized and the interviewers had to be specifically trained to hold all interviews in the same manner so that every interview could be held under comparable conditions. To ensure we did it correctly we consulted Dr. Klees, an expert in poll-taking and in addition to that, a social studies student joined our team in order to support us with the evaluations.
As a tool for standardization, our questionnaire contained a detailed introduction with sufficient comments for the interviewer on how to behave during the interview. By employing these strict guidelines, we were able to ensure that the interviewer does not forget to list all the important information or influences the interviewee due to lack of experience or nervousness.
After the introduction in which iGEM was briefly explained, we proceeded with the questions which were devided into 4 parts: general questions about genetic engineering, specific questions concerning the different kinds of genetic engineering, the introduction of our project in particular and asking the interviewees about their opinion on it.
In the conclusion part we extended our questions to find out about the politician’s voters’ opinion and asked whether projects like ours could have a positive effect on their electorate and cause them to be more open-minded about synthetic biology.
In our case, every area of questions contains openly and closed posed questions. This approach is rather unusual for such a low number of interviewees. This procedure was executed so that other teams could ideally re-use our questionnaire and interview under the same conditions as we did, or just slightly change it to survey whole groups of population.
The interviews have all been held in the premises of the interviewee and were fully recorded. The resulting transcripts are in our possession, but will not be published due to privacy rights. The data can be assessed on demand in our lab on site, though.
The questionnaire itself has been published and is accessible and reusable for everyone. For better understanding of our preparations and making it easier to use our questionnaire for your own needs we are providing the questionnaire and a guideline of our preparations.

The Results

Studies have shown that society in general is skeptical about genetic engineering. Quantitative studies in Germany show that over 40% clearly think genetic engineering is rather hazardous towards society[1].

Within our interviews, we hoped that by presenting our project to the politicians we could manage to better their attitude towards synthetic biology into a more positive and open feeling. We chose politicians because they represent their voters and can also pass on information to their voters. Our hope was that with a more positive view towards this topic the interest and the will to learn more about it could be increased. And with increasing knowledge the topic of synthetic biology will be discussed more often and in daily life which will eventually lead to a progress in the public.

The most challenging part about the evaluation of such open interviews was to decide on how to interpret the answers to our questions. Often, this is an approach in which the results are not predictable at all. This can be advantageous in a way that it provides a base of opinions which help design standardized questionnaires on this topic in the future. Thus, our research is a very explorative one in this field.
Our Interviews are, in this manner, guiding towards more target-oriented interviews and studies and can thus be considered a pilot study.

In our first discussions we expected the following:
First of all, we thought that no politician would know the different kinds of genetic engineering. Also we assumed that, in German society, the majority of the politicians would have a negative attitude towards our research.
However, as customary for explorative research, we were very surprised by our results.
To start with, we met politicians who were familiar with biological research, studied it themselves or came in touch with genetic engineering in other ways.
It is striking that, even though every different party was skeptical towards our project and genetic engineering in general, the politicians with higher basic knowledge were more open minded towards our project. We also noted that the interviewees’ attitude became more positive after we explained our project. Especially after introducing the different kinds of genetic engineering with respective examples a more differentiated perception was noticeable.
This shows that especially the question ‘Do you think that presentations or information about scientific projects such as ours can change the position of the electors of your party in a more positive direction in terms of genetic engineering?’ can be answered with a “yes”. In this case it is of importance that this task is performed by people from a different field of study as they know how to explain scientific work in a way the general public is able to understand. A science student is used to expressing her- or himself in a scientific way. In the scientific world this is a must, but it is hardly useful to present and explain a topic or project to people who do not get in touch with the technical jargon on a daily basis. It makes it more difficult to understandably explain a complex project like ours and therefore makes it much more difficult to create acceptance in the public.

A very big concern the politicians mentioned during the interview, which we would never have thought it even existed, was that our project could be exploited economically. We want to cite Mrs. Foerster-Heidmann of the Green Party: „The risk is, that scientific progress will be shifted into commercial use and thus lose its regulations. The only thing that will count is the commercial success, while societal guidelines, standards and wishes are getting irrelevant. “
This means for us as synthetic biologists that there has to be more enlightenment concerning this topic in general but also from the respective companies.

Another very interesting finding was how the interviewees perceived our project. On one point, they saw no potential of danger because we are ‘only students’. That could mean that they see our research as serious research, at the same time though, they seemed to accept us more since we do not pose a threat to anyone.
Thus it would be necessary to get someone with a scientific or political reputation to support our project, to convey more seriousness to our research, however, possibly lowering the acceptance of our project again. This is in controversy to the iGEM idea though. On the other side, this could be used for systematic education about genetic engineering by students for society.

Fundamentally, statistics show that genetic engineering is perceived very differently depending on topic and application. A poll of the IfD Allensbach shows that genetic engineering used for developing cancer treatment meets a positive attitude with 96% of people asked, whereas 74% reject the idea of changing the human genome to increase intelligence[2]. Of course these topics are controversial under molecular biologists, but the important question is which intention stands behind the research and if it meets good intentions, so that it can be explained to the general public in an understandable manner.
But we have to add on this point that experts from the biotechnological industry found a great economical potential in our project. Especially for working fields where you have to survive in a fierce competition it is necessary to have an efficient anti-theft protection.

Now how can we summarize all this?

The human practice part of the iGEM competitions is a factor that should not be underestimated. It is of great importance, as research is only really useful if its findings and resulting methods are accepted by society. When we want to excite people for our research and the field of biology in general, we need to make sure we talk about it openly and present it in a way everyone can understand. Just when that happens we can really chance the world with the people and not without them. Thus it is of extreme importance that humanity scholars, media designers and natural sciences students work together to have all the necessary tools for working with society as a whole. Only if they are taught about the chances of genetic engineering in a comprehensible manner, we can research the way we do it now in the future as well. Our project would have probably been received better if the interviewees would have known more about the topic. In our case the reaction was simply incomprehension.
Due to that fact and the statement of some politicians that a chance of thinking will needtime we have to focus our project towards the industry for the moment. Of course also talked to experts from the biotechnological industry. In their opinion our project has a great economical potential. Especially for working fields where you have to survive in a fierce competition it is necessary to have an efficient anti-theft protection.
We can fit the mechanism to different aminoacids so it could be a good solution for different companies. Finally, we hope that our project will drive the focus of the synthetic biology more to the topic of safety. We wanted to do a first step in that direction and hope that more teams will follow our way in the future.

During our enquiry for statistics we found that there are next to no differentiated surveys about the different kinds of genetic engineering. Green genetic engineering has the largest amount of polls, also the data about the market share of drugs produced by GMOs is sufficient, but still there are not enough polls about using GMOs for industrial purposes. Special areas like basic research or synthetic biology are missing completely.