Team:University College London/HumanPractice/SpeedDebating


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Speed Debating

Will open-source biology create value similarly to open-source computing? Should synthetic biology only be applied to resolve human problems or can it be used simply to advance our resources? Who decides and how informed do the decision makers have to be?

Last year, UCL iGEM 2011 exhibited art works and films at the Dana Centre to explore the language of synthetic biology, followed by a panel discussion with science philosophers and synthetic biology artists. From the feedback we received, we realised the audience were keener to discuss the general scope of advances in synthetic biology.

Our aim

This year we targeted public interest in our bioremediation project, inviting adults to consider our vision as a framework to consider the scope of synthetic biology. We aimed for them to consider the transition of lab to real world use, the users and the decisions makers. We also wanted to achieve a bottom-up collection of ideas and criticisms to input into our project.

Planning the event

The format

We decided on a speed debate format to allow guests the maximum involvement in discussion. Initially we planned the event so that guests would each take a pro or against position. Following the Science Museum guidelines, we tested our questions with a focus group of 6 people. Then we changed from a position debate to an open debate. The debate took part as four rounds, with three questions leading to the main proposition. Tables of three to four guests were chaired by one of the UCL iGEM team members. Each round saw all tables debating the same question for a quarter of an hour before our hosts guided guests to move to another table and introduced the following question. This floor debate format gave attendees the opportunity to exchange ideas with almost half of the other guests present.

Opinion Matrix

The set-up

We took into account event advice on making the location physically and emotionally comfortable with the resulting location the Richard Mully bar. There was a minimum of three debaters per table to ensure no pressure on attendees to speak. In addition, a chairperson was present each table to verify each debater had the opportunity to contribute.

We decorated the room with provocative quotes resulting from a conversation our team posed on TED discussion forum.

Opinion Matrix

In addition to displaying our Jamboree poster, we exhibited a poster exploring the ethical, legal and social context of our project created by Erin.

Opinion Matrix

The target audience

To attract a diverse audience, we made several steps to consider our advertising. We highlighted in our event invitation that the event was for people from all backgrounds.

We met with Steve Cross from the UCL Public Engagement Unit to discuss whom our target audience was and where to find them. Kate Oliver from UCL Engineering made several excellent suggestions of where we could advertise.

We advertised our event through TimeOut London, All in London, the Psci-comm mailing list, Twitter, Facebook and the London Futurists group, in addition to UCL Events.

The Questions

We came up with four questions for the debate. Dr Tarit Mukhopadhyay from the Department of Biochemical Engineering met with us to offer feedback. We subsequently developed our questions to be more polarising. We then met with our advisor Howard Boland to trial these questions and test their limits. The resulting questions were posed during our event:

Should amateur scientists, ranging from citizen scientists to student groups, ever be allowed to use the tools of synthetic biology?

Given the limited resources available to use, should we focus on resolving urgent symptoms or dealing with the problem?

Should the public decide how to limit the scope of synthetic biology?

Should synthetic organisms ever be released to clean up plastic debris?

The Event

6.51pm Guests start arriving!

7.04pm Attendees start posting their dots on the opinion matrix

7.31pm The event starts! Erin introduces the format for the evening

7.36pm Howard presents a brief introduction to iGEM

7.52pm James introduces our project

8.04pm We’re off with the first debate question…

8.15pm After a quick swap around for the guests with yellow and red stickers, it’s on to the next question

8.27pm Time for a quick break to grab drinks

8.50pm Back for the third question.

9.11pm After swapping for the last time, now for the final round

9.24pm Bethan calls an end to the debate and thanks guests for attending.

9.30pm More than half of the guests stayed behind to continue conversations with team members and each other, we’re very pleased.

10.00pm The security guard arrives to close up, we have to encourage a group engaged in hearty debate to move the discussion to a nearby pub.

Assessing the event

The turnout was successful, with attendees ranging from all different backgrounds including Bloomberg, London Futurists group, London Hackspace and the Guardian. Several attendees have contacted us with an interest in future events, which is very positive! We also collected feedback in several forms. An opinion matrix tracked the evolution of opinion throughout the evening - guests were invited to place a red dot reflecting their viewpoint at the start of the debate and a green dot at the end. An arguments box on each table collected interesting points or questions the guest heard at their table. Finally, we created a feedback questionnaire and invited guests to submit feedback by the ticket website, Eventbrite.

Face-to-face feedback

“I come from an arts background so initially I felt totally out of place but the speed debate format was great because I was soon involved in conversation and by the end I felt really comfortable.”


“Probably most interesting was the dot-graph indicating a wide spread of concern about synthetic biology. Also interesting was the type of people who turned up -- no Daily Mail synthetic-biology-will-give-us-cancer types, just a lot of considerate and thoughtful people. (Good for debating, but does this really represent the population you want to talk to about these issues?!)”

“I think some of the questions were a little too "open". This is actually great for debating questions but not so hot for 'speed debating' as it's hard to really cover the issues in the short time frame. Most of the time we would get to the stage of exploring the topic before we had to move on.”

Opinion matrix

At the beginning of the evening, guests placed a red dot on the matrix to indicate how comfortable they felt the plastic marine problem in relation to how comfortable they felt with our proposed synthetic biology solution. At the end of the evening they place a second green dot to indicate their position after the debate. Interestingly, we noticed a increase in enagagement with our proposed solution over the course of the evening.

Opinion Matrix


Synthetic Biology Speed Debate, c-lab, [1]


Evaluating Discussion Events, Science Museum, [2]