Team:Imperial College/Public Engagement

Outreach and Education

How did we approach Outreach and Education?

The outreach events below were based on our science communication framework. We recognized that discussion of socio-ethics, as well as looking at the potential of patterning applications, maintained audience interest in and approval of our project.

Communications Strategy Guide

Following the Communications Strategy Guide (CSG), and in particular, the Science Communication Framework, we targeted 3 main audience types for our outreach efforts. These audiences include academic staff and students at Imperial, members of the public with no relation to synthetic biology and children/teenagers. Each outreach effort was optimized for its target audience and effort was taken to optimize for circumstances around the outreach effort. Lastly for most of our outreach efforts, feedback given was in either written or verbal form. More information on the CSG can be found here.

Public Opinion Survey

We also wanted to gauge whether the public would approve of widespread applications for our project in the future. Surveys that were done to better characterize public opinion of our technology and synthetic biology in general showed no statistically significant correlation between knowledge of synthetic biology and support of its use. We therefore adapted our outreach to focus on bioethics and better show the potential beneficial effects of implementing our technology. With these conclusions in mind, we decided to host a socio-ethics discussion to better address the ethics of controlling life, as well as an art exhibition that would better visualize these potential beneficial effects. More information about our surveys can be found down below.

Our survey tested whether people that are more knowledgeable about the science behind biotechnology are generally more positive towards GMOs. We included 66 participants in our survey. Our survey was conducted at multiple different locations in central London, including the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and Exhibition Road in South Kensington. Our survey was divided into two parts: in the first, we asked scientific questions on the area of biotechnology, in the second part we asked whether the participants are in favour or against certain future applications of our technology.

During data analysis, the participants were divided into knowledgeable/unknowledgeable and Favourable/Unfavorable towards GMOs. A chi-square test was performed that showed no statistically significant correlation between background knowledge on GMOs and acceptance of biotechnology.

This result showed that our upstream engagement should focus directly on the ethical concerns around our project rather than purely educating around the science behind GMOs. This defined our entire human practices and outreach strategy. Our findings led us to host a socio-ethics discussion on these issues. The insight gained during the survey also fed into the creation of our science communication guide - focusing on the ethical concerns of the audience rather than solely on explaining the science behind the technology. Our art exhibition is also aimed at changing the perception around our technology rather than focusing on the science alone.

Next, we analysed how the general public perceived the use of electrical control in our project. This was important to us as electronic control of biology has negative connotations throughout science fiction -with Frankenstein's monster in Shelleys' goth novel the archetype. Data analysis showed that mentioning electronic control in discussion of potential applications had no statistically significant effect on support for our work.

The next step was to analyse whether acceptance varied between potential applications of our technology. Data analysis showed that the type of application does have a statistically significant influence on acceptance.

Art Exhibition

Following the conclusions that members of the general public are more interested in the potential of our project than its inner workings, we decided to showcase the potential of our project visually through an art exhibition. We commissioned several artists to create art pieces for us. We will be displaying some of these pieces at the Giant Jamboree and brought several of them to the New Scientist Live Fair. Images of the Art Exhibition can be seen here.

New Scientist Live!

We exhibited at the New Scientist Live! Fair in collaboration with the team at Oxford. At the event, we performed outreach for synthetic biology in general, as well as discussing our specific project with the public. This outreach event was done in collaboration with the Oxford iGEM team. Images of outreach at New Scientist Live! are included below.

A great start to a great day of collaboration between Imperial College and Oxford!

A good start for outreach on synthetic biology

Alice Boo, from the 2016 Imperial iGEM, team visits us at New Scientist Live!

Shiv, Lidia and Amrit hard at work!

Shiv, posters and outreach

Controlling biology, one synthetic biologist at a time!

Board Game

We designed a board game called "Divide and Contaminate" to highlight key concepts in synthetic biology. The goal of the player is to populate a tile-based board with a special strain of E. coli, adapted to the unknown environment of the tiles. We hope that players, especially younger ones, will appreciate the concepts of modularity, metabolic burden and the impact genes have on cell physiology. These concepts are key to grasping more complicated concepts in synthetic biology for younger people and may get them interested in or aware of the potential of synthetic biology. The rules as well as printable components for the game are available in a PDF below.
Rules and Pieces

Socio-ethics Discussion

In response to the need for dealing with bio-ethical considerations of our project, we hosted a socio-ethics discussion in collaboration with the synthetic biology society at Imperial College London. We discussed the socio-ethical implications of synthetic biology as a field, as well as with specific regard to our project. There was a considerable audience turnout (more than a hundred) at the event. We had our team split up to engage in socio-ethics discussions with groups of audiences over pizza and beer. We were able to gather many perspectives on our project as a result of this discussion and will put it to good use integrating it in our project. Notably, biocontainment was raised as a huge concern among members of the audience. Some of the thoughts and questions by the audience for feedback are available below.

Do E. coli have morality?

Pizza, Beer and Ethics, name a more iconic trio

"But what is morality?" -Alberto

"Are living systems stochastic in nature?" -Alberto (again)

Presentation practice!

Controlling biology, several synthetic biologist at a time!

Ethics primer for the audiences

As scientists, we are often focused on the theoretical and experimental implications of new advances in science and can overlook the socio-ethical impact of said advances. This has led to public push-back against certain advances in science such as with the implementation of GMOs, vaccines and climate science. As a relatively new field, it is important to consider these socio-ethical aspects asking whether synthetic biology projects can improve lives, especially since public funding for technology is highly dependent on public approval. We can broadly define the main issues in synthetic biology as theoretical and applied.

Inspired by Whitford et. al., 2018.

Here are the list of socio-ethical issues discussed:
1. Is it ethical to control biology through machines (whether remotely or not)? What sort of legislation would we need if these systems were to scale up to the level of multi-cellular organisms? Are there pieces of existing legislation we could adopt?
2. Would we need to label/inform consumers about the usage of GMOs in future artificial food products made with this technology?
3. If biocontainment and biosafety strategies prove to be rather useful in containing ecological damage or misuse of technology, are the current laws and regulations around the use of GMO/synthetic biology products ethical considering the potential benefit of such products? More interestingly, what if the level of risk using synthetic biology could be measured and thus we are able to perform a cost-benefit analysis on the usage of such technologies? Would we use it? Should we use it?
4. What sort of industries are likely to be disrupted by advances in synthetic biology, and if they are disrupted, what sort of consequences will it have? Consideration of how disruption occurs often affects the resultant consequence.
5. What new industries or markets will open because of synthetic biology (Internet of beings?)? What are the consequences of such new markets? What would these markets look like?
6. If our device can control life, does this make life part of a machine? or does it make machines part of life?
7. What will the UK do when it leaves the EU regarding laws about biotechnology?
8. What are the other potential applications of our project? What would the development of these applications look like? Are they ethical?
9. How would this technology evolve in the future?

Synbio outreach at Imperial

As members of Imperial College London, we participated in many outreach events for Imperial College. At the beginning of our project, we helped supervise a group of sixth-formers with their transformation experiments as well as giving a presentation on synthetic biology in an outreach effort led by Nico McCarty, a Ph.D student. We also hosted various departmental seminars to update academic staff as well as students at Imperial on our project. This culminated in a final seminar with the synthetic biology society at Imperial which also included the socio-ethics discussion above. Lastly, we collaborated with the synthetic biology society at Imperial where we helped run their stall for Fresher's Fair, updating students both incoming and returning on our project and encouraging them to go to our seminars. Pictures of our various outreach efforts at Imperial are shown below.

London Schools outreach: "Join entrepreneurs society and synthetic biology society!" -Thomas Caganek


Alberto, Josh, Will and Diellza do outreach

Siwat manning Fresher's Fair

"Please join our socio-ethics discussion on Tuesday!"

Controlling biology, one synthetic biologist at a time!