Getting the public engaged and educated about synthetic biology is one of iGEM's core values and goal. The following are things the Columbia NYC iGEM Team did to go about achieving this goal:
Surveying the Land
The team wanted to get a preview of how our idea would be perceived by the general public. To this end, we created an online survey, the goal of which was to get a better understanding of what the general public knows about GMOs and probiotics. The survey was structured to gradually give more information about GMOs and probiotics, measure initial comfort levels with these concepts, and measure their willingness to support them afterwards. The people who took the survey ranged from 18 to 50+ years old and had an education background ranging from high school to advanced profession degrees. The survey can be found here. Please feel free to continue to contribute to it and expand our dataset! In addition, we acknowledge the fact that our sample size may be skewed towards people who are already interested in synthetic biology based on how we advertised it (through the team and personal forms of social media), but the information gleaned from the data we collected is still rather useful.
So, what exactly did we find out from our survey? Well for one, as the graph to the right shows, on a scale from 1-5 with 5 being the most comfortable, 58.3% of people have a comfort level less than or equal to 3. This confirms our suspicion that most people are not all too comfortable with the idea of GMOs. From here, we tell the survey taker that genetically modified bacteria are used to produce insulin and a range of antibiotics to demonstrate a useful function. With this, as the pie chart to the left reveals, 14.5% of people stated that they are more supportive of GMOs, but for the most part (79% of the sample size), people's opinion remained the same and 6% of the people were more opposed to it afterwards. This tells us that it is going to take much more than the fact that GMOs already have some useful functions in society to have them support new applications of synthetic biology. Thus, it is important in the future to consider what synthetic biologists should do to garner more support for their cause and to assess what the public fears and support about GMO.
When asked about probiotics, the results show that 27.4% of the population do not know what it is. To help inform our survey takers, we explain that probiotics are live bacteria that are shown to be good for one's digestive health by supporting the beneficial bacteria in the gut and can be found in food such as yogurt, kefir, and miso. Given this information, 85.7% felt as if they have a better understanding of what probiotics are. When asked how comfortable they were with consuming probiotic from a scale from 1-5, 71.4% reported a comfort level greater than or equal to 4 as shown on the right. This seems to signify that people are more inclined towards consuming probiotics because of the benefits it can give and its more natural nature.
In order to get a better understanding of what people were concerned about, we had them choose topics they would want to learn more about (see graph below). It is clear that people are most concerned about the potential impact GMOs have on the environment, how GMOs would affect the body, who is benefiting monetarily from GMO developments, and how they would be regulated. Thus, the survey has allowed us to learn what the public wants to learn about GMOs and probiotics and although we have not been able to follow up on this survey, we have a better understanding of how to approach and educate the public about these issues in the future and this is an extremely important first step.;
Further Engaging the Public
In addition to the online survey, team members also went out to talk with people directly to facilitate conversation about synthetic biology between the general public and those involved in the field of science. One such opportunity for this involved volunteering at the New York Hall of Science "Building with Biology" pilot exhibit. This gave members of our team the chance to talk to children and their parents about synthetic biology. One of our biggest take-aways was that children were much more open to the idea of using engineered bacteria in their day-to-day lives while their parents were much more reluctant to support such developments. This leads us to believe that the next generation will be more inclined to support advancements in the way we think about bacteria. However, in order for this to happen, children need to be more exposed to and educated on the possibilities of synthetic biology.
Furthermore, interactions with the public have shown that as they learn more about synthetic biology, their interest in the subject increases. This is also due to the trend of apprehension and anxiety regarding synthetic biology stemming from uncertainties. All in all, our team concludes that education is the key to get the public excited and interested enough to support synthetic biology for all that it can be.Sam explaining our project to the security guard at the building of our lab in the wee hours of the night.