Despite the fact that active discussions about the wonders and potentials of synthetic biology are growing increasingly prevalent in the world, few systematic surveys regarding this field have been conducted, especially in Asia. Hence the iGEM2011 HKUST Team, collaborating our Austrian partners Markus Schmidt and Lei Pei of IDC and Biofaction , launched this survey, hoping to take advantage of Hong Kong's status as an international city to establish a starting point for meaningful data collection in Asia regarding synthetic biology. The survey tries to obtain public perception of synthetic biology, with particular emphasis on people living in Asia, as well as the key factors influencing their impression. Due to the scale and on-going nature of the survey, this report should be treated as a snapshot of the responses gathered so far, and as a reference to the effectiveness of using online survey formats to gather data.
The results show that this online survey system is quite adaptable, but should be better spread on the Internet and complemented with more distributed hard copies to make the data more reflective and reliable. Two major findings have been obtained from this snapshot analysis. The first is that the public in HK tend to have a neutral to slightly positive perception of synthetic biology, showing a relatively conservative attitude. Second, the general public knows very little about synthetic biology, which possibly has a positive correlation with their overall impression about this new technology. However, notwithstanding this lack of knowledge, the general awareness of the possible risks and benefit is nearly at the same level, without specific bias against or favoring future development of this technology. In addition, the public is more inclined to accept synthetic biology products when the technology can lead to a major reduction in product price, echoing the focus on financial benefit as the major driving force of the development of this technology.
- Effectiveness and Feasibility for Further Distribution
To obtain results that are more valid and sound, a more widely circulated online survey should be launched, and more hard copies should be distributed at random to the general public. Originally, the intent of adopting the online version of this survey is for the ease of compiling mass responses, as well as utlizing the broad spectrum of people the Internet can access. However, the results here show that the online form has a strong inherent bias in the respondents, especially for fields like education and age where the distribution range is relatively small. So as a compromise, the online version should still be adopted, but accompanied with the wider-reaching range of field surveys. Besides, the link should be better circulated on the Internet in order to reach a wider variety of people.
- Major Findings from the Snapshot Results
Although parameters about personal information may not be entirely reliable due to the relatively large bias in sample group, the interaction between the targets of the questions can still produce some meaningful findings with respect to the factors influencing the general public’s perception about the synthetic biology. To sum up, there are three major findings from this snapshot.
First of all, the overall impression about synthetic biology in Hong Kong is more likely to be positive according to the data, but at the same time is still very close to neutral. This likely reveals a generally conservative attitude towards synthetic biology among the public since the variance for each parameter is small regardless of the bias.
Second, the general public in Hong Kong tend to be unfamiliar about the details of synthetic biology. This possibly affects their perception of synthetic biology, but does not have much impact on their foresight of its potential risks and future development. Although nearly 50% of the respondents claim to have heard of the term “synthetic biology”, few actually know what synthetic biology is or are especially concerned (measured by the frequency that respondents talked or searched about synthetic biology) about this field. The tiny difference in scores of Q12 between the group that has heard of synthetic biology and the group that has not is a solid supporting argument for this.
This tendency is somehow contrary to the familiarity hypothesis (Kahan et al. 2008a; Macoubrie 2006) and the conclusion from the US synthetic biology survey (Pauwels E. et.al. 2009), which indicated that familiarity of an issue was independent of support for the issue. One possible explanation for this is that the popularity of the idea of synthetic biology is so low in Hong Kong, that there is a general lack of knowledge about synthetic biology. The mysterious quality associated with new technology might have augmented the public's perception, reducing thier mental prohibitions when asked to evaluate the benefits and risks of synthetic biology, hence creating a general trend where vague familarity increases support for the issue.
There is also no differential pattern found in the public's opinions on the possible risks and the future development of synthetic biology. When deciding the future development of synthetic biology, all respondents are more inclined to make their decisions based on expert opinions and scientific evidence rather than on the majority opinion of peers. In addition, "uncontrollable results that may be generated” and “the abuse of the technology by the terrorists” are the top worries for most people. This may show that the public’s foresight of these two situations are similar regardless of their familiarity with synthetic biology. The findings from the US synthetic biology survey (Pauwels E. et.al. 2009) indicated that people tend to use the other biological technologies like stem cell technology and genetic engineering as references for comparison when dealing with issues about synthetic biology, and this observation may be a possible explanation for our results.
The third finding is about the influence pricing has on the acceptance of synthetic biology products (Q7). The public appears to be more accepting to synthetic biology products if they have a strong pricing advantage compared with natural products. Although more than 80% of the respondents chose the ordinary product when both products are of the same price, only one-third kept to their original choice when a more favorable price is introduced for the synthetic biology product. This pattern is independent of the other questions in Part One according to quantitative testing, but the influence of the parameters is unknown due to the biases of our sample population.
For the successful completion of this snapshot survey report, we would like to give heartfelt thanks to the people below for their continuous support and guidance to this synthetic biology survey:
Dr. Markus SCHMIDT and Dr. Lei PEI, from IDC (Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Management) and
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)
Professor King L. CHOW, from the Department of Life Science in HKUST
Professor Michelle YIK, from the Department of Social Science in HKUST
Mr. Jin ZENG, Teaching Assistant from the Department of Social Science in HKUST
The Hong Kong Institute of Engineers (HKIE)
The Hong Kong Teachers’ Association (HKTA)
Members and Advisors of the iGEM2011 HKUST Team
For a complete survery report, please click here to download the PDF file.