COSY - Communicating Synthetic Biology
In progress from 01-01-2008 to 01-03-2010
Project manager: Helge Torgersen
Today, scientists have to address the public, yet scientific insights about post-genomic biology are difficult to communicate. The public is more interested in risks and benefits, social and moral implications of possible applications. To make ‘a story’, scientists and journalists therefore link science to popular images, while the coverage often remains at the ‘gene-for-this-and-that’ level. The public interpret the content according to their everyday knowledge, with odd results at times.
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Problems of science communication are not new. Public Understanding of Science, for example, aimed at conveying factual knowledge to the public to improve acceptance, but failed to take into account that the message gets transformed in public discourse. In contrast, modern theories of communication emphasise this fact but often remain abstract. Empirical media analysis show how scientific findings are being covered, while social psychology analyses how lay people interpret them with the help of everyday knowledge.
We propose to combine approaches and to study communication processes in real time, taking a new field, synthetic biology (SB), as an example. The term was coined for the synthesis of complex, biologically based systems with functions not existing in nature. Applying an engineering perspective, it promises to fulfil perspectives dangled in post-genome research, carrying the potential to ignite the imagination of a lay audience. While there is considerable attention in the US, SB is not yet prominent in Europe, but we expect it to gain momentum soon. As a new field not yet determined by value judgements SB provides an opportunity to investigate knowledge transformation processes “life”.
In part 1 of the project, knowledge transformation processes are investigated experimentally. SB is being presented to volunteering journalists (quality press, tabloids, radio, tv) using conference summaries etc. The journalists write reports, and small groups of lay people (with different educational status, age, profession) read and summarise them. Journalists and scientists will finally be confronted with the products. In part 2, we will analyse communication processes in interviews and focus groups with, i.a., scientists and regulators, and in school projects where students generate media reports and video clips. Part 3 will check similar transformation processes in the coverage of other issues in post-genomic biology in popular scientific magazines, radio/TV programs etc. In part 4, based on our results and informed by knowledge popularisation theories, we will develop a general framework for analysing the communication of post-genomic biology. Gender aspects will be addressed in particular.