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ethics in science and technology

Edinethics Ltd
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SUMMARY RESULTS FROM SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY DEMOCS GAMES

Edinethics did a public engagement exercise for ESRC Genomics Forum and the Scottish Government, using a card game format called Democs. This was first created by the New Economics Foundation in 2001 on stem cells, and Democs games have since been made for a wide variety of issues from cloning to climate change. Here are extracts from the Summary Report :

  • From this sample of people, there did not emerge a serious fundamental objection to the very idea of synthetic biology. While the sample was weighted towards science students, overall results were cautiously positive toward synthetic biology even amongst non-scientists. There was strong overall support in the voting for most of the applications, particularly from the scientific groups.
  • Virus research, ‘garage biology’ and the potential use of synthetic biology for terrorist purposes were all identified as problematic, suggesting that these risks need addressing in policy. Issues of monopolies, patenting and private ownership were also noted.
  • There was little evidence of polarised views in this sample, whether unconditional optimism or pessimism. Risks were raised as often by scientists as by other participants. Virus research, ‘garage biology’ and the potential use of synthetic biology for terrorist purposes were all identified as problematic, suggesting that these issues need addressing in policy. Issues of monopolies, patenting and private ownership were all noted
  • Results from the project suggest that synthetic biology is a more difficult subject for the average citizen to engage with than the topics of previous Democs games, such as stem cell research or climate change. The synthetic biology Democs game has served to open up questions that people had not previously thought about, rather than helping to crystallise their thoughts about already known issues. 
  • It would be premature to draw strong conclusions from this small preliminary study about overall support for or concerns about synthetic biology amongst either UK or Scottish citizens. People are not familiar enough with the issues and will need more time to digest and reflect, highlighting the limitations (at least in the short term) of ‘upstream engagement’. 
  • The primary outcome of this project is the Democs Synthetic Biology game itself, which can now go on being used anywhere and at any time. The development of the stand-alone kits (hard copy and virtual) enables public engagement to continue in a way which time-limited public consultations cannot. 
  •   A further aim of the grassroots model of engagement embodied in Democs is to stimulate a process of wider public deliberation on synthetic biology. Feedback suggests that participants have indeed ‘gone away thinking’.
  •   As has been observed with previous Democs games, there is clearly a role for ‘games’ like this to help address the well-recognised need to train science and engineering students in ethical and social issues.

We are looking for groups of 6-8 people in Scotland to play the game. Would you be interested? If so email us at Edinethics.

To find out more about the Democs game, click on What is Democs?

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