Public attitudes towards synthetic biology

February 8th, 2021

A national survey has been conducted by CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform as an important first step in measuring public attitudes towards synthetic biology. The survey draws on the views of more than 8,000 Australians, and researchers are examining the data to determine current attitudes to these emerging technologies.

Why is it important?

MosquitoSynthetic biology applications are being researched for potential uses across many areas within manufacturing, human health, agriculture and environmental conservation to solve national challenges. For instance, some synthetic biology applications can be used to manage invasive pest species to improve agricultural productivity and protect biodiversity, and others can be used to protect human health such as reducing mosquito-borne diseases by changing disease-susceptibility in mosquitoes.

But, in Australia, there has been little understanding of the public’s awareness and attitudes towards these emerging technologies. Research in synthetic biology at CSIRO is built upon a philosophy of responsible research and development. To maximise the impact of novel synthetic biology solutions, and to support successful adoption, an understanding of social risk and the conditions of acceptance is needed.

What are the findings so far?

Broadly speaking, Australians are “curious”, “hopeful” and “excited” about how the emerging field of synthetic biology could address some of Australia’s environmental, health and agricultural problems.

Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents had little or no knowledge of synthetic biology and its applications, and the majority expressed interest in knowing more. Preferences for learning more about the technologies were in line with passive information exchange (for example, receiving results and feedback through social media) and were focused on the possible risks and how they would be managed.

Support of the example synthetic biology technologies was moderate to high overall, however, it was highest when there was a public health need (such as managing mosquito-borne viruses) or an environmental benefit (such as protecting Australia’s biodiversity). Analyses so far show that support may be driven by: emotion; perceived benefits; advantages of the technology compared to current solutions; efficacy of the technology; and trust in science.

Those synthetic biology technologies that involved engineering of animal genes (e.g. to manage invasive pests or protect endangered species) were found to be less supported, however, objections were multi-layered. The survey results highlighted meaningful information about the types of risks and concerns people held, as well as their expectations of the management of the technology. This highlights the need for ongoing engagement about particular synthetic biology technologies and their potential as innovative solutions to environmental and agricultural challenges.

Survey participants were found to demonstrate sophisticated reasoning and, while there were differences between individuals in the level of support, responses showed a strong willingness to consider all of the synthetic biology solutions presented. For example, there was generally a high willingness to purchase eggs laid by hens involved in the technology of gene marking of male chickens (a technology that aims to eliminate the humane culling of male chicks), indicating the potential value in this research moving forward. The survey also highlighted the complexities of public attitudes towards the management of invasive pests (e.g. cats, rabbits, rodents), which has implications for how the technology is designed and implemented, and how useful it is perceived to be in protecting biodiversity.

In summary…

This social science study has provided insights into current attitudes for a range of synthetic biology applications – something which has not been done in Australia before. The results challenge the common view that the public generally opposes all genetic modification technologies. It shows how social science can help drive the responsible development of biophysical science technology development and provides a starting point for future engagement.

Responses on information needs, wants and preferences from the survey respondents were highly varied, suggesting that a variety of methods for science communication and public engagement will be needed. This could help broaden Australians’ understanding and awareness of synthetic biology technologies, and have positive impacts on the development of innovative solutions to some of Australia’s most significant challenges.

How do I access the reports?

Surveys were conducted across seven synthetic biology (SynBio) applications. Access the reports below to learn more.

Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to manage invasive pests Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to protect endangered animals Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to reduce pollution in waterways Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to reduce mosquito-borne diseases
Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to change the properties of natural fibres Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to prevent the culling of male chicks Public perceptions of using synthetic biology to restore the Great Barrier Reef

Technology Storyboards, developed to explain each of the SynBio technology cases, are also available:


More information and links:

Synthetic Biology FSP Project: A baseline survey of public attitudes towards SynBio

CSIROScope – Science in progress: What is synthetic biology?; Designer mozzies; Enhancing natural fibres; Engineered coral; Cleaning up toxic spills