The research field, which is subsumed as “synthetic biology”, promises sustainable microbe-based solutions with relevance to today’s major environmental and societal challenges. However, hurdles in the emergence of such microbe-based technologies involving synthetic biology are not only technical but also social given, for instance, questions around public acceptance and barriers to innovation. We thus investigated these aspects more closely and found, in summary, the following insights vis-a-vis the multi-faceted phenomenon of acceptance.
Generally, the “fear of the fear of the public” is a central concern of researchers and innovators. Here, fear of negative perceptions, whether by the public on its own or through their interaction with regulatory authorities, politicians, and the media can prevent the further development of promising technologies, or perhaps forestall the consideration of certain promising avenues. One central factor for acceptance (or rejection) of new technologies is awareness of the technology. For synthetic biology, however, awareness is not only limited but has remained so for at least the past decade, e.g. in Germany and the United States. Moreover, we find that, while most (media) attention of new technologies, including synthetic biology, is driven by the prospective risks, the prime channel for influencing its acceptability might lie with its potential benefits. In this respect, attempts to assuage concerns about the riskiness of synthetic biology, inter alia, could unintentionally link the two in the minds of the public. Taking steps toward a more proactively positive portrayal of the potential of these new technologies, including for society at large, thus emerges as crucial.
In a wider view on new technologies and their relationship with society, we find that consumer decisions to support or reject could be influenced by expressions of support (or not) by actors along the value chain. Indeed, the type of actor which is important itself depends on whether individuals are asked if they support or reject the novel technology – with farmers, e.g., found to be more important for the latter.
Accordingly, such insights also resulted in the development of the novel concept “interdisciplinary invention ecosystem”, which stresses the multifaceted influence of stakeholder groups. Applying this lens to the emerging situation at the Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, we managed to distinguish key drivers for the emergence of the synthetic life sciences and illuminate differences in how they are perceived and valued by all stakeholders, i.e. researchers, students, administration, and industrial partners. Among others, strong proactive positive communication (i.e. by experts) and the potential opportunities of the new technologies for science were defined as essential.
The resulting definition of a Go-Zone, featuring those aspects deemed to be both important and changeable, enabled us to formulate suggestions for initiatives that could immediately support emergence (and broad acceptance) of the technology. Finally, by adopting the ecosystem lens, we revealed the specific importance of administrative actors, notably, by helping to establish coherence and a common guiding vision between the disparate stakeholders. Our interdisciplinary efforts within the framework of the CombiCom project have thus addressed both, essential technological challenges as well as socio-economic implications of synthetic biology. It appears crucial to understand how societal barriers and other success factors impact the emergence of synthetic biology. Insights can be used to foster potential acceptance but also to improve the applications and products, that are being developed, as well as future commercialisation of synthetic biology-associated products.
Prof. Stefanie Bröring
Dr. Chad Baum
ILR – Technology and Innovation Management in Agribusiness
University of Bonn