Team:HKUST-Rice/Practices ExploratoryResearch

Exploratory Research

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Presently, there is insufficient knowledge involving stakeholders’ opinions on NPK biosensors. This observation is relevant to stakeholders not familiar with genetic engineering principles. The study of stakeholders’ perceptions on microbial NPK biosensors offers new insights into this problem. We use an exploratory research approach in an attempt to answer the following questions:

  1. What criteria govern selection of NPK detectors?
  2. What are the expectations regarding the sustainability of microbial NPK biosensors?
  3. How do stakeholders’ perceptions of microbial biosensors change with different settings?
  4. What are stakeholders’ perceptions of the safety of microbial biosensors?

Methodology on analysis

This exploratory research used interviews to query the perceptions of the participants. To validate the data collected, we used a post-positivist paradigm (Guba & Lincoln, 1994), triangulation (Denzin, 1994), member-checking (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and the audit trail (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Target Groups

The sample was drawn from Hong Kong and included potential users of the proposed device, researchers, and government officers; many participants demonstrated knowledge of research in genetic engineering and its possible applications. The ultimate intent of the research was to provide a paradigm for understanding how people perceive the in-field application of microbial biosensors. The findings from this research could enable researchers to address appropriateness and safety concerns. Furthermore, these findings could enable stakeholders to decide whether to apply microbial biosensors in their field. If the stakeholders choose to use microbial biosensors, further research could help establish guidelines for promoting awareness of the pros and cons of the application of in-field microbial biosensor.


Figure 1. Interviewees’ perceptions on the in-field applications of NPK microbial sensors.

Participants’ perceptions demonstrate common themes that are consistent with the literature review. Such themes encompass perceptions regarding testing methods to aid in management of soil and water quality, soil management in organic farms, and local and international regulations on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The paradigm above illustrates interviewees’ perceptions on the in-field use of NPK microbial biosensors. Most stakeholders agreed that a biosensor possessing the expected characteristics would lower operational costs, reduce manpower, and decrease time to obtain results. Upon realizing that the device was genetically modified, stakeholders began to consider how the desired biosensor could be practically applied in their respective fields. Stakeholders reflected on potential risks and benefits associated with using the proposed microbial biosensor.

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Perceptions of HK stakeholders

Most stakeholders’ perceptions are unified by common underlying themes; the majority of stakeholders have no intention to use the proposed device for the following reasons:

  1. the biosensor is useless in their field,
  2. the biosensor is unable to achieve economic, social, and environmental sustainability,
  3. the biosensor is an inappropriate device in their field,
  4. the biosensor is not suitable to be used in their workplace, and
  5. the perceived risks of the microbial biosensor outweighed the original perceived benefits.

  1. The Expected Achievements in Sustainability
    1. Achieving Eco-Environmental Sustainability

      Stakeholders were asked about how the use of microbial NPK biosensors could help them to utilize available resources efficiently and responsibly.

      Local organic farmers believed a microbial biosensor should be cheaper than contemporary soil testing methods. The device should also be renewable so as to minimize operational costs. These farmers believed a microbial NPK biosensor should also constantly monitor the fluctuation of soil nutrient concentrations.

      In maintaining the water quality of Gei Wai, a traditional Chinese tidal shrimp pond, Ms Nag-Yee LAI, a WWF-HK reserve officer in Mai Po, shared the same views towards the device that it should be economically viable.

    2. Socio-Environmental Sustainability

      Ms LAI also perceived the NPK microbial biosensor as a possible tool in understanding the ecology of Gei Wai, as the device would be useful for the surveillance of algal bloom by understanding the ecosystem of the Mai Po reservation zone.

    3. Achieving Socio-Economical Sustainability

      Ms Christine CHIU, a biosafety specialist in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, perceived the microbial biosensor should be affordable. Valuing the work ethic of researchers and designers the most, Christine shared a holistic view towards biosafety of microbial biosensors; users should be held accountable for safeguarding human health and the ecosystem.

  2. Perceived Usefulness
    1. Effectiveness and Efficiency

      Local organic farmers perceived the microbial NPK biosensor as an insufficient measurement because it can only detect specific compounds. They believed an effective microbial NPK biosensor should give a complete profile of the nutrients. Speed is not a concern for most of the local organic farmers.

      Prof Hon-Ming Lam, an agro-biotechnologist, pointed out the applicability of an effective microbial biosensor. For the possibility of using a microbial biosensor to measure soil ionomics, he perceived it would be inefficient since current physical methods are good enough. A similar view is shared by Mr CHAN, the operator of iVeggie hydroponic farm in HK; he doubted the efficiency of the microbial biosensor to detect ion concentrations (compared to automated detection facilities in his farm).

      As for N and K detection in marine environments, Dr Tin-Ki TAM, a technician at the HKUST Coastal Marine Laboratory, worried about the detection environment, in which innumerable factors present would interfere the accuracy of biosensing.

      A conservation officer valued efficiency in generating and processing data for analysis of nitrate and phosphate concentrations in the traditional tidal shrimp ponds, due to limited available manpower.

  3. Changes of Perceptions

    Stakeholders were informed about biosensing involving the use of GMOs. Most stakeholders had reservations or negative perceptions regarding this application.

    1. The Appropriateness of Settings

      Overall, the stakeholders were most concerned with the appropriateness and suitability of using GMOs or a GMO-containing device in their field. Some organic farmers believed the application of in-field devices containing GMOs violated the principles of organic farming.

      Considering his background in a natural reservation zone, the conservation officer hesitated and pointed out the possibility that the GMO-containing device would be treated as inappropriate in reservation zone.

    2. The Perceived Risks

      Even if the proposed device could be appropriately used, stakeholders questioned the esoteric character of in-field GMOs. They were aware of the risks of using GMOs in their field, and they sought balance between perceived risk and utility.

      All organic farmers were hesitant to adopt an in-field microbial biosensor in order to avoid any possible accidents.

      A chemist from the Hong Kong Drainage Service Department suggested using an NPK microbial biosensor for in-the-tank detection; he believed the quantity of microbes in the device would be small, and leakage could be handled by a disinfection system (though leakage may occur after disinfection).

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Future Research

The conclusions drawn from the results offer a well-founded point of departure for future studies. Possible topics include:

  1. An investigation of what proportion of the general population perceives biosensors as a risky endeavour with respect to the agricultural goods they consume, especially food products.
  2. Projected cost differences between field-tested soil sensing devices--the proposed microbial biosensor compared to a chemical-based test kit.
  3. A study on differences in time between sample collection and useful results for both the proposed microbial biosensor as well as traditional chemical soil detection methods. How important is this time point to the stakeholders?
  4. The implications of microbial biosensing technology on the existing agricultural workforce. Would the implementation of the proposed device reduce the need for additional manpower? In other words, how does the use of a microbial biosensor affect perceptions of job availability in the agricultural field?
  5. The role of precision agriculture in current farming practices. Could a microbial biosensor be applied to improve these large scale measurements?