UK research councils, BBSRC and EPSRC, commissioned a public dialogue into synthetic biology. 160 members of the public and 41 experts took part in workshops aiming to engage the public on the issue and allow future policy to reflect public views, concerns and aspirations.
Problems and Purpose
Synthetic Biology is a new area of research that, while offering promises of ground breaking applications, raises issues of potential societal concern. In 2009, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with the support of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Sciencewise‐ERC programme, commissioned a public dialogue on synthetic biology. TNS‐BMRB (British Market Research Bureau) was commissioned to deliver the dialogue, and Laura Grant Associates was appointed as the external evaluator. The purpose of the dialogue was to explore the public’s views, concerns and aspirations around synthetic biology in order that future policies on synthetic biology can better reflect these views, concerns and aspirations.
The aim of the dialogue was to allow the diverse perspectives of a range of UK residents to be articulated clearly and in public in order that future policies can better reflect these views, concerns and aspirations.
The specific objectives of the project were to:
- Facilitate discussions from diverse perspectives
- Support a diversity of key stakeholders and people with relevant knowledge to oversee the dialogue to ensure its fairness, competence and impact
- Draw on and seek participation of a diversity of knowledge by working with a wide range of groups interested in issues related to technology options and/or synthetic biology
- Ensure that the content and format of the dialogues were open to influence by all of the participants
- Allow institutional learning about dialogue processes
- Raise awareness and capacity within the research councils, policy makers and the scientific community of aspirations, concerns and views in relation to synthetic biology and the importance of dialogue
- Ensure that participants in the dialogue had a meaningful route to potentially influence policy makers and thus feel their involvement has been worthwhile. 
Background History and Context
Synthetic biology is an emerging area of science and technology, using developments in engineering and bioscience to create new biological parts or to redesign existing ones to carry out new and useful tasks. It aims to modify existing biological systems or create new ones for potential uses including in food and biofuels, drugs and diagnostics, bioremediation and biosensors.
However, despite its potential, it raises societal concerns. For example, ethical concerns include bio-security issues, such as the potential concern that new microorganisms, hostile to humans could be produced, as well as social justice issues; for instance, there is the prospect that production of drugs by synthetic biology may reduce the markets for routes starting from natural products in developing countries.
Despite these concerns, a key hope for synthetic biology is that the science can address some of the big issues facing society today, such as global warming, serious diseases, energy problems and food security. The prospect of being able to make progress towards these goals is a significant factor in the public acceptability of the research.
The BBSRC’s Bioscience for Society strategy panel set up a working group in 2006 to look at issues around synthetic biology. Chaired by Brian Johnson, the working group commissioned the Balmer and Martin report (published May 2008). It made a series of recommendations including the need for better controls.
A meeting was convened of key regulatory bodies to re-examine the robustness of existing frameworks which applied to synthetic biology. They concluded that most developments would be covered by controls that already govern GM. Around this time, The Royal Academy of Engineering independently commissioned a small scale public dialogue around synthetic biology.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) also looked at the field of synthetic biology through its Societal Issues Panel (SIP). It recognised that Synthetic biology, although still in its infancy, may have huge potential to shape a wide range of research areas and significantly affect our lives in the future. The research councils recognise that the area raises some major ethical and other social issues. In addition, the upstream nature of synthetic biology provided a unique opportunity to undertake early public engagement and help begin to determine the future direction of this potentially important research area. As the major research funders for synthetic biology in the UK, BBSRC and EPSRC agreed that they had a clear responsibility and role in initiating such a dialogue. This led to plans in late 2008 for a public engagement process - or dialogue - organised by the EPSRC and BBSRC with support from Sciencewise-ERC. A steering group was set up to advise the Research Councils on appropriate methods, timings and scales. This group recommended that an oversight panel be established to ensure the dialogue complied with best practice.
The aim of the dialogue was to engage with the widest range possible of stakeholders and the public to inform policy making. The contract to deliver this dialogue was awarded to researchers TNS-BMRB and Laura Grant Associates was appointed as the independent evaluator. It was recognised that the outcome from the dialogue would resonate beyond the research councils, particularly around areas such as regulation and control, and it was the intention to ensure that the views uncovered by the dialogue were expressed to a broad spectrum of policy makers. The commitment of the research councils for this endeavour was formally and jointly endorsed at the outset by the respective CEOs of BBSRC and EPSRC.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
- Total funding: £334,000
- Sciencewise-ERC funding = £234,000
- Commissioning bodies: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- Delivery Contractor: TNS-BMRB
- Project Evaluator: Laura Grant Associates 
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.
Sciencewise-ERC is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills funded programme to bring scientists, government and the public together to explore the impact of science and technology in our lives. It helps Government departments and agencies commission and use public dialogue to inform policy making, involving science and technology issues. Its core aim is to develop the capacity of Government to carry out good dialogue, to gather and disseminate good practice, have successful two-way communications with the public and other stakeholders, and to embed the principles of good dialogue into internal Government processes. 
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The dialogue involved participation in the following capacities:
- Public participants: 160
- Experts/stakeholders involved: Experts/stakeholder: 41
- Steering Group: 11
- Oversight Group: 18 
The overall aims and objectives of the dialogue were set by a Steering Group and an Oversight Group was established to oversee its delivery. These groups included diverse stakeholder perspectives from policy makers, funders, scientists, social scientists, NGOs and learned societies. The Oversight Group provided ‘critical friend’ review of the process as it evolved, including reviewing workshop materials.
The 41 stakeholders interviewed in “Phase 1” of the dialogue were drawn from an initial list of people who were identified as being involved in different aspects of synthetic biology. The final list of stakeholders was agreed by the oversight group. Stakeholders were initially sent an invitation letter and then contacted by telephone or e-mail to set up an interview. 
160 people were invited to participate in the public workshops (phase 2 of the dialogue), with 40 people in each of the following four areas - London, North Wales, Edinburgh and Newcastle. The participants were reconvened for three waves of workshops.
A combination of demographic, attitudinal and behavioural criteria were used to develop the sample for the workshops. Demographic criteria were: gender, age, socio-economic group, faith and children in household. Behavioural/attitudinal criteria were: environmental attitudes and level of community engagement. Sample composition for the environmental and community engagement groups were defined in terms of environmental attitudes (pro-environment group and environmental sceptics) and community engagement (highly engaged or bystanders).
Participants were identified through qualitative free-find techniques, with the following recruitment procedures: screening questionnaire, invitation with relevant information of times and nature of research, and reminder phone call.
From the 160 participants recruited, a total of 152 attended the first workshop, 137 attended the second and 129 attended the third.
Participants were offered the following incentives for their time:
- First workshops (2.5 hours on a weekday evening) - £45
- Second workshop (whole day event on the weekend)-£85
- Third workshop (whole day event on the weekend)-£90
- Scientists and social scientists attending the groups for the second and third workshop (presentation and attendance of whole day event)-£500 
Methods and Tools Used
The dialogue consisted of two phases.
Phase 1: Included a series of in-depth telephone interviews with 41 stakeholders to understand some of the technical, social and economic drivers shaping synthetic biology in the UK. This was used to frame and inform the content for the public dialogue.
Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes, in which participants were asked about their views on:
- The science of synthetic biology
- Social and ethical considerations surrounding the science
- Potential application areas
- Any relevant lessons learned from the genetically modified foods controversy. 
Phase 2: Comprised 12 deliberative workshops that brought 160 members of the public together three times in four locations (London, Llandudno, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Edinburgh) along with scientists, social scientists and representatives from the Research Councils. These were designed to get to the heart of participants' aspirations and concerns around synthetic biology as well as to explore how different views and values come into play when considering potential applications of the research. A final reconvened workshop, involving eight public participants (two from each location), was held to ensure that the findings reflected what the participants themselves felt had been discussed.
The dialogue process comprised 3 workshop sessions. The first workshop session was held in the evening and lasted approximately 2.5 hours. The four groups in each area were kept separate for this discussion. The second and third sessions were day long events (approximately 5.5 hours) and held on weekends. For these sessions, all four groups per area were convened in a single workshop. Introductions and learning sessions were held in plenary but for discussion sessions, participants were separated into their groups. 
The following tools were used in the workshops:
- Pre-group activities
- Ice breakers
- Ecological systems theory diagram to explore the impact of science and technology on a personal and broader societal level
- Clip board to cluster discussions
- Interactive voting sessions
- Presentations by specialists
- Actors used to present different stakeholder perspectives on synthetic biology to the public
- Video diary, completed by scientists to show their day to day lives and work done on synthetic biology. These were compiled into one clip.
- Interactive voting sessions
- Scientists and social scientists attended workshops providing a discussion and rotating between moderated groups
- Video overviews: there were video overviews of scientists discussing their views on the application of synthetic biology, explanations of regulation and contexts of use.
- Trade-off exercise, requiring participants to plot out risks against benefits of each application.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Workshop and sessions discussions
Workshop 1: Science and technology in general
The overall aim of workshop 1 was to understand the views of the public around science and technology developments in general. Participants were asked to bring a newspaper or magazine article that had some significance to them in terms of the developments of science and technology.
Workshop 2: The Governance of Synthetic Biology
The overall aim of workshop 2 was to explore the views of the public concerning the social and ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology in general, as well as discuss the governance, regulation and funding of synthetic biology. This workshop lasted for 6 hours and covered the following:
- General perceptions surrounding synthetic biology and science
- Exploring different stakeholder visions of synthetic biology
- Exploring how science gets done
- Funding and regulation of synthetic biology
Workshop 3: Potential application areas
The final workshop explored in more detail potential application areas for synthetic biology and specifically looked at how particular uses mediate people’s views on the science, together with its relative risks and benefits.
Four application areas were discussed:
- Environmental, with particular focus on bioremediation
- Energy, with particular focus on bio fuels
- Food/Crops, with focus on crop optimisation
- Medical, with Artemisinin used as a primary example
The applications were split so that only three would be discussed in each workshop area. These were broken up as follows:
- London: Environmental, Energy, Food/Crop
- North Wales: Medical, Energy, Food/Crop
- Newcastle: Medical, Energy, Environmental
- Edinburgh: Medical, Food/Crop, Environmental
In general, six key themes emerged from the public dialogue. Points made included:
The technology – There was public unease around living entities which were both synthetic and biological. These were seen to have less intrinsic value than those considered natural. Concerns were also raised about treating nature as ‘just’ parts to be assembled and the potential industrial scale of synthetic biology applications.
Leadership and funding – Participants wanted scope to feed public aspirations and concerns into research funding at an early stage.
Responsibility – Participants felt it should be incumbent on scientists to consider the five central questions noted above, particularly around motivations and outcomes.
Innovation – There is a need for an alternative to the ‘pipeline’ model of innovation where ideas are created in a laboratory, embedded in products and distributed to consumers. The public should be involved throughout, not just at the end.
Regulation – Robust and independent regulation is key. The public did not trust a voluntary or self-regulation system particularly in relation to dealing with novel organisms.
Future – There were public concerns that their input would be ignored. Research Councils now have a duty to continue engaging with participants and explain how some of the conditions the public have placed on the research have been met. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Policy influence and follow-up activities:
- The Synthetic Biology Dialogue report was published on 14 June 2010 at an event that brought together members of the public who had participated in the dialogue with a broad range of interested organisations.
- The project report was published on the BBSRC and Sciencewise-ERC websites, and BBSRC distributed hard copies to over 200 stakeholders covering policy makers, academia and non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
- Dialogue findings were taken to the relevant committees in BBSRC (Bioscience in Society Panel) and EPSRC (Societal Issues Panel) in Summer 2010.
- The CEOs of BBSRC and EPSRC met in October 2010 to discuss the dialogue. A joint letter stating their planned responses to the recommendations was also sent to participants and stakeholders that month.
- The CEOs of the EPSRC and BBSRC sent a letter to the Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir John Beddington outlining the public concerns around regulation raised during the dialogue.
- A Parliamentary Scientific Committee meeting that focused on the dialogue was held in December 2010 in Westminster and the dialogue reports and follow-up were acknowledged in the Government response in June 2011 to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on bioengineering.
- An embedding workshop for the synthetic biology community was held in Bristol in February 2011. The aim of the workshop was to further explore the messages from the dialogue, share best practice in public engagement with synthetic biology and begin to develop an action plan to embed dialogue into the business of synthetic biology research.
A final evaluation report, including a summary of places where the dialogue has been referenced or has been linked to, was published in April 2011. The dialogue report featured in a round-table meeting chaired by the Rt Hon Vince Cable and Rt Hon David Willetts on synthetic biology in October 2011.
BBSRC reviewed its approach to ethics in grants as a direct result of the dialogue and in 2012 will be introducing a new procedure for encouraging all grant applicants to consider the wider issues that its research raises.
After the end of the dialogue, EPSRC continued to pursue the regulatory aspects and work around responsible innovation, which resonates with many of the issues with synthetic biology and genetic modification (GM): a £60,000 project was announced early in 2011 for a six-month scoping. EPSRC, working in partnership with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has commissioned a scoping study to develop an initial Responsible Science and Innovation Framework. The pilot study started in the autumn and is due to report in the spring of 2012. Jack Stilgoe, formerly of the Royal Society, as Senior Research Fellow, is conducting much of the work under the supervision of Professor Richard Owen and Professor Phil Macnaghten. This represents a first step and it is hoped that when this initial work is complete, there can be a broader discussion among research councils and others to see how this approach to responsible innovation might be practically grounded in research practice and policy. 
In addition, the case study report identifies the following impacts of the dialogue project.
Impacts on public participants
Participants felt they had learnt something about synthetic biology during the dialogue and many expressed an interest in remaining engaged with the field. Many of those involved continued to discuss the topic with friends and family following the conclusion of the dialogue.
Participants genuinely felt that their opinions had been listened to and valued. Some were more skeptical than others about whether or not the ‘purpose’ of the activity had been motivated by wanting to ‘sell’ the idea of synthetic biology.
Impacts on scientists/experts and other stakeholders
Scientists indicated that they were pleased that the public was broadly supportive of their research and social scientists valued participating in a process they might usually critique.
Expert participants found the experience of taking part in the dialogue worthwhile and felt that they learnt from the process, especially those who had little or no experience in public engagement activities, who valued the professional challenge that was involved. 
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The case study report identified the following lessons for future practice:
- Plans for continued engagement should be agreed and communicated to participants throughout the process.
- When engaging experts, they ought to be briefed on the structure of the dialogue as a whole, rather than the public engagement aspect alone.
- Continued work with the scientific community is needed to foster understanding of what a dialogue process is and how the findings can be interpreted.
- It is important to consider what is meant by ‘policy impact’, especially in the case of upstream dialogue, and what success looks like in an emerging field such as synthetic biology.
- It is advisable to think about dissemination and embedding of results at the commissioning stage so that appropriate funds can be set aside.
- Dialogue processes demand significant internal commitment and time for planning and direction, as well as clear assignment of key roles among those involved.
- Data protection issues need to be considered early so that contact details for public participants can be easily collected and coordinated to enable project commissioners, funders, contractors and others to easily maintain ongoing communications. 
The follow‐up evaluation report identified three questions related to ongoing dialogue about synthetic biology:
- How will the public know they have been listened to?
- What are the roles and responsibilities for researchers, Research Councils and others (e.g. public engagement practitioners) for continuing the dialogue? How will this be funded and supported?
- How will learning be taken to other Research Councils and research communities, including internationally? 
 Sciencewise (2011) “Case Study: Synthetic Biology, A public dialogue to explore the public’s views, concerns and aspirations” Sciencewise
 BBSRC (2011) “Synthetic Biology Dialogue: Summary Report”
 BBSRC and EPSRC (2010) Synthetic Biology Public Dialogues TNS-BMRB Methodology (June 2010)
 Grant, L, Gardiner, C, Williams, B and Fisher, A (2011) Synthetic biology dialogue Follow up evaluation report, Laura Grant Associates (April 2011)