Team:HKUST-Hong Kong/Interview


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Team:HKUST-Hong Kong -


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Last year, the HKUST iGEM team collaborated with IDC and Biofaction to conduct a survey to examine the Hong Kong public’s perception of synthetic biology and the key factors that influenced their impressions of it. The results revealed that while most participants had a neutral to positive preconception about synthetic biology, there were not a lot of participants who understood what synthetic biology actually was. Because of this, the reliability of certain results obtained from the survey were cast into doubt, and it became hard to generate much constructive advice in the way of promoting awareness of synthetic biology to the public.

This led us to become aware of how the previous survey at times relied heavily on the assumption that participants already knew what synthetic biology was about, and thus was flawed. As such, we decided to replace surveys with interviews this year, in part so that we can supply relevant background information about synthetic biology to the interviewees during the process to ensure the quality of our results. The intimacy of individual interviews also gave us the opportunity to pursue topics of interest in greater depth and detail, providing us with more comprehensive data.

Purpose of Our Interviews

1. To obtain a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of people’s attitudes toward synthetic biology.

One of the main disadvantages of using surveys for data collection is the limited number of choices provided to participants for each question. This often over-simplifies opinions, and might also create unintentional bias towards particular answers. Poorly worded questions or participants’ lack of background knowledge could also reduce the credibility of results obtained from such surveys.

The use of interviews in this case would help overcome most of these problems, as it does not restrict interviewees to a set of answers. Interviews also provide flexibility for interviewers to rephrase and adapt questions to suit particular interviewees. This helps keep interviewees in the same context as interviewers so that reliable information can be collected. At the same time, deeper insights may also be made as interviewers can guide the interviewees with follow-up questions to encourage interviewees to consider issues in greater detail.

2. To serve as a foundation for future interviews.

While there have been many efforts made by iGEM teams throughout the years to gather public opinion of synthetic biology, the interview method remains one of the less popular ones. We hope that our efforts this year can contribute to existing methodologies for interviews and encourage more future iGEM teams to consider using interviews to gather more comprehensive information for their human practice.

3. To serve as a stepping stone for future surveys.

As mentioned previously, we hope to reach deeper levels of understanding of people’s attitudes towards synthetic biology via individual interviews. By targeting people from different social circles and statuses, we hope to eventually collect sufficient information regarding HK people’s level of understanding of synthetic biology and their major concerns, so that we can create improved versions of the previous survey to probe into specific topics of social interest regarding synthetic biology.


The Interviewees.

For this pilot test, we approached four individuals in different fields who may be directly or indirectly affected by developments in the field of synthetic biology: a politician, a journalist, a university student and a secondary school student.

The Questions.

There were two focus points for the interview: 1) Interactivity – While the majority of the interview follows the standard ‘asking and answering’ approach, we also take time to answer questions and present information about synthetic biology to interviewees when they appear to have confusions about it; (2) Flexibility – Specific questions were deliberately modified each time to adjust to the interviewee’s level of understanding of the topic, as well as their area of insight.

Summary of the Interviews

1. The Politician

The politician we interviewed – Mr. Shum – is a local community officer of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong. He professed he knew little about synthetic biology prior to the interview.

In order to warm Mr. Shum up, we first asked him about his perspectives on new technology in general. Mr. Shum praised the conveniences brought by introducing new technology to the society. Then we move stepwise towards synthetic biology by first enquiring his perspectives on genetically-modified (GM) food. In order to get deeper insight, we offered him a hypothetical situation where a group of people complained to him that GM food is unethical because humans do not have the right to ‘play God’. To this scenario, Mr. Shum expressed that while some people will emphasize the ‘playing God’ side of the issue; he believed that the inclination of the majority and the development of the society will be the true determinants of the resolution.

Later, we presented a brief introduction of synthetic biology and our project to Mr. Shum, to which he did not evaluate synthetic biology by its ideologies, but emphasized on its influence on the society and on people. Comprehending his focus of the issue, we provided him with several imaginary situations and asked for his response. For example, we asked him “The scientific world has its own criteria related to animal rights protection, but it may not be enough for some animal rights advocates. If we conduct animal tests with the synthetic bacteria we made, and some animal lovers protest about these experiments, what will you do?” and “Suppose our medication bacteria has passed all the safety tests and animal experiments, and some patients have registered for the human trial. However, no visible results could be achieved. If one such patient complained to you and accused the credibility of synthetic biology, what will you do?” Mr. Shum gave us a deep insight into the factors a local politician considers most. He held the view that he would be a responsible listener for people’s complaints, but the decision made on synthetic biology should be guided by the majority opinion of the people. He said that he would not interfere with the development of synthetic biology by expressing his personal views.

2. The Journalist

The journalist we interviewed – Ms. Leung – works for a local magazine in Hong Kong. She had heard of synthetic biology thanks to having previously worked as an administrator in an institute of higher education.

Since Ms. Leung already had some ideas of what synthetic biology was, we decided to gauge how much she knew so as to adjust our next questions. We learned from her that while synthetic biology information was not commonly promoted in mainstream media, the public still has some interest in learning it. Developing from this topic, a question was put forward regarding whether the public should know more about synthetic biology. Her response was affirmative, because she believed that understanding was crucial, especially for countering false and misleading advertisements.

Later, we elucidated our project to Ms. Leung. To our surprise, her first response was not to evaluate our project, but to give us advice on how to promote our project to the public. She suggested us to use brief and concise methods like animations to promote our project and synthetic biology. Afterwards, she expressed her personal perspectives on the relationship between synthetic biology and the media. She said that the main obstacle to promoting it in Hong Kong was the lack of platforms. Also, the attractiveness of the promotion and its relevance to the masses were also factors that affected this sort of promotion. Ms. Leung expressed worries about what could happen when the public begins to engage in synthetic biology promotion. Amoral merchants may mislead people for profit, or normal people might exaggerate certain aspects of the science unintentionally.

After listening to all the valuable perspectives Ms. Leung provided, at the very last, we asked her for her view on the prospects of synthetic biology. She speculated that the future would be bright and the public would want to actively learn about it. Nevertheless, controversies, for example animal testing and ethical dilemmas, might hinder its progress.

3. The University Student

The university student - Mr. Au – has just completed his freshman year in university. He is interested in biology and life science, but was a little bit confused about the definition of synthetic biology.

Like with the politician, we initiated the interview by asking him about his attitudes towards technology. He responded by acknowledging the significance of technological advances as well as sharing some of his thoughts on the public level of knowledge regarding technology in Hong Kong, and his peers’ interests in technology.

Next, Mr. Au was asked for his perspectives on genetic engineering, which is a topic he learned in high school. While he expressed his astonishment at the novelty of this technology, he still found it frightening. His concerns were mainly based on the knowledge he learned in high school. Mr. Au expressed that gene modification may introduce imbalances in the eco-system, and he saw the generation of such imbalances as a serious threat.

After this, we went on to explain the exact definition and concepts of synthetic biology to him, and asked his immediate thoughts on this technology. He expressed his fear that the technology may go extreme and could be dangerous. Then, some of the pros and cons of synthetic biology were given to him, to which he acknowledged that with this technology human beings can do more things with less resources. However, he saw the ecological and biological experiments associated with synthetic biology as too complicated to be totally predictable. Small mistakes could lead to great problems later on. In order to evaluate the level of concern he had for synthetic biology, we asked him to envision a scenario where the prevalence of synthetic biology has risen to that of computer technology. He made the comparison that if something went terribly wrong in the computer environment it would still be confined to that environment, but a severe issue in the biological environment has direct influence on all of us.

At the end, we explained our project to him, and asked for his perspectives on animal testing. Mr. Au personally disliked this kind of test, but he would not object to it because without it, human beings would be the ones to take the risks.

4. The Secondary School Student

The secondary school student we interviewed – Mr. Siu – has just finished his freshmen year in high school. Biology, chemistry and physics are his choices of electives. Despite his interests in science, he still has not learned too much about science subjects.

Similar to the other three interviews, we started our conversation by asking him some general questions about technology, such as “do you welcome the latest technology”, “will you talk about technologies with your friends” etc. We found that he would embrace the latest technology, but he quickly acknowledged that new technology, like everything, always has good and bad sides. As for his daily conversation with his friends, he told us they hardly ever discuss technology with the reason being he and his peers have little knowledge in this area.

Then we asked him about genetic engineering and genetically modified foods. Mr. Siu had not heard of these two, but he speculated that this technology might be related to Dolly, the cloned sheep. Based on this, we surmised that he had not covered the related topics in school yet, and that later questions should be adjusted according to his current level of understanding. Later, we asked whether he thought genetic engineering was mostly good or mostly bad. Initially, he said that it could raise the productivity of society, so it is good. But later, after we introduced certain concerns about this technology to him, he hesitated a little and expressed his agreement to those concerns. In general, however, he maintained that everything has a dual nature. But while proper assessment and regulation from the government are crucial, development of technology could not be hindered.

We then moved beyond genetic engineering and presented to him the definition of synthetic biology. His perspective was simple, that it was quite amazing to be able to design organisms, but quite strange too. Later, we introduced the potential benefits of synthetic biology to him, such as engineering an organism to complete specific tasks, while also covering some of the possible risks, like introducing uncertainties into the eco-system. His view was that everything should be tested and confirmed first before being permitted for widespread use. Although it could be convenient and of help to society’s progress, such ‘live’ constructs could affect us directly and might cause huge troubles. Nevertheless, he still thought this technology is good. At the end of our interviews, we explained our project details to him, and asked for his comments. He simply said that animal tests are a key part of testing, and that the safety of any new treatment should always be confirmed.

Achievements and Future Work

First and foremost, we believe we managed to obtain a deeper understanding of our interviewees’ perception of synthetic biology. From the four interviews we summarized in the preceding sections, we can appreciate that the flexibility of interviews helps us mine for more specific and deeper insight into people’s attitudes. For example, in the politician’s case, after comprehending that he emphasized more on the social aspect of this technology, we used case studies to investigate his viewpoints. And for the journalist, we gathered some personal perspectives of the relationship between media and synthetic biology in addition to her general view of synthetic biology.

While our four interviews in this pilot test provided a foundation for future interviews, we hope that the range and number of the interviewees can be widened in the future so that a more comprehensive view of Hong Kong people’s attitude and understanding of synthetic biology can be obtained.

During the course of the four interviews, we realized that keeping questions within the context of the interviewee’s level of understanding was more difficult than expected. Thus, if any future iGEM team plans to use a similar approach, we highly suggest that training be conducted for all the interviewers so that they know how to react in the dynamic environment of an interview. iGEM teams who are interested in knowing more can check out a short guide we created for this purpose (see Appendix II).

Lastly, the insights gained through the interviews enabled us to increase the diversity of questions which can be asked in a survey, expanding our resource pool for future survey designs. The in-depth questions we asked during the interviews allowed us to observe and appreciate the variety of opinions people had. Most importantly, they allowed us to glimpse at the thought processes and priorities different people have that influence their ultimate stance on synthetic biology. This particular insight will be very useful for future survey designs as it provides us another angle from which to gather information on people’s perceptions.

***Interview Appendix I: The Record of our Interviews***

***Interview Appendix II: Future Interviews***