The UK’s first public dialogue on the emerging field of synthetic biology, published in a report today by the Academy, has found members of the public expressing great interest in the prospect of designing micro-organisms that can help to manufacture medicines and biofuels. Some areas of real concern exist about the potential release of modified bacteria into the environment to clean up contaminated land and about any proposal to create or modify higher life forms or humans.

Earlier this year, People Science and Policy (PSP) conducted two public dialogue meetings on behalf of the Academy with a group of 16 people to discuss synthetic biology, of which there is still very little awareness among the general public. PSP also commissioned ICM to conduct a telephone omnibus survey of 1,000 adults in a nationally representative survey across Great Britain.

Synthetic biology is a new research area, underpinned by both engineering and science, which aims to design and engineer biologically based parts, create new devices and systems and also redesign existing natural biological systems. Or, put more simply by one of the members of the public taking part in the study, “re-engineering biology/organisms to perform in a way specified by scientists and act in a particular and predictable way to improve an area of application”.

In the telephone survey, 63 per cent of respondents supported work on creating new man-made organisms that could produce medicines or biofuels. This support appeared to hinge on the potential of such artificial organisms to make useful products and the dialogue meetings showed that this was related to people’s experience of similar processes, such as using yeast to make cakes.

A substantial number of nationwide-representative survey respondents were concerned about the technology, with four in 10 people (39%) thinking the creation of man-made micro-organisms is worrying. There was particular resistance among the dialogue participants to the concept of deliberately releasing artificial organisms into the environment to tackle pollution. Participants were keen to see proper regulation of synthetic biology in a way that keeps up with the technology effectively but does not stifle its development.

More work will be needed to investigate some of the survey and dialogue results. For example,. men on balance were more favourably disposed towards the technology than women and there were intriguing regional differences in opinion, with apparently far greater support and interest in Scotland. Further research might also explore how people decide whether they think something is alive and whether they see synthetic biology micro-organisms as being alive.

“We carried out this study to begin to explore people’s hopes and concerns for this technology and provide a snapshot of public opinion in the UK about the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, which can only develop responsibly if it is accompanied by a rigorous programme of public consultation and engagement,” says Dr Lesley Paterson of The Royal Academy of Engineering.

“We don’t want to make the same mistakes that were made in the debate on genetically modified crops. As with any new technology, synthetic biology offers potential benefits but also poses societal, ethical and regulatory challenges. More in-depth consultations are already being planned by bodies such as the research councils and we hope that this initial survey will provide a valuable basis for their investigations.”

Synthetic biology dialogue report (979.61 KB)

Notes for editors

  1. This public dialogue on synthetic biology was carried out to complement the Academy’s inquiry into the field (Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications) published in May 2009 and available at  www.raeng.org.uk/synbio (750.75 KB)
  2. The study was commissioned by The Royal Academy of Engineering and conducted by People Science and Policy Ltd (PSP). This report gives an early and preliminary insight into public perceptions and reactions to synthetic biology and the ICM Research Ltd survey provides a baseline measure of awareness in Great Britain which will be useful for comparing changes over time.
  3. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  4. People Science & Policy Ltd (PSP) is a public policy consultancy that specialises in public and stakeholder engagement, strategic consultancy, research and evaluation.
  5. ICM interviewed a random sample of 1005 adults aged 18+ by telephone between 17th and 19th April 2009. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at  www.icmresearch.co.uk

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636