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Master’s Education for a Competitive World (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12064).

Communicating Synthetic Biology

A misunderstanding of swine flu hurt pork sales. People sued the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), fearing that the Large Hadron Collider would swallow Earth in a black hole. An advertisement for dress slacks that contained the word nanofibers engendered protests against nanotechnology. The public, the team believes, needs to be better educated about cutting-edge science so that it can better separate imagined risks from real ones.

The group suggested funding new “audience research surveys” to discover current public concerns and beliefs about synthetic biology and related fields. This research should allow scientists to recognize possible problems in how they frame their research. These surveys would also help researchers as they work with science communicators to develop new means for distributing lay descriptions of latest research to keep the public accurately informed. If the field hopes to attract younger generations, researchers’ use of outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia will be essential for communicating the results, implications, relevance, and excitement of new research. For example, the group suggested that graduate students publish lay summaries of major scientific papers in a public Internet source. Along these lines, the team encouraged researchers to collaborate with media and university press offices to increase the chances that their research receives accurate and prominent reportage.

As a final means to address possible public concerns, the team suggested actively developing a code of ethics for synthetic biology researchers, drawing on existing protocols regarding similar kinds of research, such as genetic engineering. An active approach to creating this code by gathering a summit of diverse stakeholders would help mitigate fears and also encourage funding for this new field. This summit might also provide a means to avoid reactionary government policymaking, which could inhibit the field’s growth.



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