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Journalists and general public

We prepared online questionnaires about views of the general public on synthetic biology and on the use of new therapeutic systems for biopharmaceuticals. We are aware of the importance of the media regarding the acceptance of new technologies in the public which is why we also invited journalists for their colaboration in our survey.

A total of 339 individuals responded to our questionnaire, including 24 patients (Patients) and 21 journalists. The majority of the general public, who answered our questionnaire, were students (the majority of them students of life sciences) (Figure 1), which certainly biases the response and is clearly not a representative pattern of the population. Most journalists work for newspapers and TV and have university educations.

Figure 1. Education

Patients more often agree (71%) that biopharmaceuticals in Slovenia are available to all those who need them in comparison with journalists and public (Figure 2). Only 5% of journalists and 12% of public share this opinion. In all three groups the majority believes that the high price limits the use of biopharmaceuticals (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Do you agree that in Slovenia biopharmaceuticals are available to all who need them?

Figure 3. Do you believe that the high price limits the use of biopharmaceuticals?

60% of the general public and journalists know what synthetic biology is (Figure 4). In view of the lack of awareness of the general public, we feel this result is an overestimation due to the structure of the population we were able to reach through electronic communications. In contrast none of the patients were familiar with the term synthetic biology, while the journalists were as informed as the student population.

Figure 4. Do you know what syntetic biology is?

Answers to the question about benefits of the development of a new therapy with human cells which would produce biological drugs inside the diseased tissues showed discrepancies between the group of patients on one side and the journalists and general public on the other (Figure 5). While approximately 50% of journalists and representatives of the general public are of the opinion that it could be beneficial to develop such therapy, this opinion is shared by as much as 71% of patients. However, the responses to a more general question about support of the use of synthetic biology for solving health and energy problems and designing novel materials are similar in all three represented groups; an approximate 80% support the use of synthetic biology for the mentioned purposes (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Do you think it would be beneficial to develop a therapy with human cells which could produce biological drugs inside the diseased tissue and thus reduce both side effects and the need for frequent drug application?

Figure 6. Do you support the use of synthetic biology for solving health problems, developing biofuels or new materials?

There are significant differences between answers on consuming genetically modified food (GM food) (Figure 7). 54% of patients and 27% of the general public have no concerns regarding GM food with improved taste, a more appealing look or an improved nutrition value, while only 5% of journalists are willing to eat this sort of food and 52% of them might be willing. These results are however in disagreement with results of the Eurobarometer of the European Commission which show that only 21% of Slovenians in 2010 agreed that GM food should be encouraged, a number which ranks us at the bottom of EU countries. We feel that a negative attitude of the media towards this issue probably contributes to this result.

Figure 7. Would you consume genetically modified food (GM food) if it had a better taste, looked more appealing or would be healthier?

The more detailed analysis of answers about benefits of the development of a new medical therapy with human cells producing biological drugs and answers about GM food showed the different percievement of a technology depending on its purpose. While 43% of journalists are not willing to eat GM food, none from them are absolutely against the new proposed therapy. Similarly, patients not willing to eat GM food, are in favor of the developement of such a therapy and answered »yes« to the question in as much as 90%.

This demonstrates the different perception of a similar technology when used for improvement of food or to solve health-related issues. In connection to agricultural GMOs, a majority of the public in Europe seems to be irreparably biased against the dissemination of GM plants, despite their potentials to solve environmental or energy problems. Medical applications of synthetic biology are most likely perceived more favorably because of the different attitude towards issues with a direct affect on a persons quality of life, while at least in developed countries there is an opulence of food to choose from. All biological drugs are in fact prepared by techniques of genetic engineering, which in this case seems not to impact the public opinion. Medical applications of synthetic biology represent in our view an opportunity to exploit the great potentials of this area and mobilize the public opinion towards approval and recognition of the potentials of synthetic biology with success stories (Ruder and Collins, 2011; Bugaj and Schaffer, 2012).

We are aware of the shortcomings of our survey (small number of responders among patients and journalists, bias towards student population within the general population). However, the results of our survey are consistent with our opinion that we as scientists can and should promote the public acceptance of synthetic biology. We should present our work to the opinion makers (journalists, politicians ...) and to the general public, especially to young people more often.


Bugaj, L.J., Schaffer, D.V. (2012) Bringing next-generation therapeutics to the clinic through synthetic biology. Curr Opin Chem Biol 16, 355-61.

Ruder, W.C. Lu, T., Collins, J.J. (2011) Synthetic biology moving into the clinic. Science 333, 1248-52.