Erschienen inAllgemein, Veranstaltung
7. November 2022

Nachhaltigkeit und synthetische Biologie

Wir waren auf Einladung hin beim diesjährigen Synbio World Café der German Association for Synthetic Biology (GASB) dabei. Christian Kaiser und Martin Reich haben einen Tisch moderieren dürfen zum Thema “Sustainability”, also Nachhaltigkeit und synthetische Biologie. Christian hatte einen Leitfaden vorbereitet, mit einigen Hintergrundinformationen und Aufhängern für die Diskussion, die sich am Tisch entfalten sollte. Wir selbst waren mit dem Ergebnis sehr zufrieden und haben auch viel gutes Feedback bekommen. Insgesamt war es eine wirklich inspirierende Veranstaltung mit vielen interessanten Gesprächen und neuen Kontakten. Christian hat auch fleißig mitgetippt, weshalb wir euch hier unseren Bericht über die fünf Diskussionen an unserem Tisch zu Synbio und Nachhaltigkeit präsentieren können. Wir freuen uns auch über eure Gedanken und Feedback, also lasst uns gerne Kommentare da.

Viel Spaß!

(Da die Veranstaltung auf Englisch war, ist es auch der Bericht. Falls ihr das lieber auf Deutsch lesen möchtet, könnt ihr eine Übersetzungssoftware, wie z.B. DeepL nutzen. Infos zum Event findet ihr hier:


Synthetic Biology and Sustainability

EcoProg-Discussion Table at the GASB Synbio World Café 

Who are we?

The Eco-Progressive Network is an environmental NGO founded in 2020 by scientists, farmers, and politicians that wanted to build bridges between science, politicians, and the public aiming to show how current knowledge and evidence-based decisions can guide us towards sustainability including novel technologies like genome editing or synthetic biology.


Technologies are decisive to expand our toolset that can help us shape our society and economy and therefore are a critical contributor to sustainable transformations. Synthetic biology holds the potential to advance current life science technologies and support decoupling from fossil resources. But it is not only the potential of technology that allows it to contribute to societal change.

Other disruptive life science technologies already followed that path before SynBio. Green genetic engineering is one of them. While the scientific world has stated not only a consensus on the safety of bioengineered crops, follow-up studies displayed the benefits to sustainability in reduced inputs, land usage, and higher yields connected to higher income for farmers. In contrast, the public in Europe and Germany has widely rejected bioengineered GM crops leading to the end of such cultivars in Germany by a national opt-out in 2012. Still, estimates hold the rejection of GM crops at 65 % of the German public. Understanding how an evidently positive technology loses support by failing public support is not linked to engineering but communication. Understanding the history and reasoning behind GM crop rejection can help us shape a strategy to support SynBio’s success in Europe and open possibilities to becoming a promoter of sustainability. 

The hypothesis that we therefore want put up for discussion is:

Communication will determine whether SynBio contributes to sustainability in Europe

Key questions that we used to get and keep the discussions going:

Why is the public rejecting GM crops?

Many synbio developments are still some time ahead. But maybe we can learn from the public discussion on genetically engineered crops?

  • Typical reasons are values like safety, naturalness, and social justice
  • Scientific literacy
  • Misinformation campaigns (NGOs, …)
  • False Starts:
    • Irrational public
    • Age of science denial 
    • Manipulated public
    • Scientist are unable to communicate

Are we just lacking the knowledge to make sense of science?

Science communication has focussed mainly on the idea of a knowledge deficit in which education would remove misinformation and spread scientific controversies. It is shown that scientific literacy is rather modest, as such ¼ of the US public knew that nitrogen was the most abundant compound in the Earth’s atmosphere (Pew, 2013) and ½ understood that the earth’s rotation around the sun follows a year rather than a day (National Science Foundation, 2016). Still, scientific literacy could not be correlated with correctly answering scientific questions as to the human influence on climate change. In contrast, social groups were far more impactful as such political orientations as liberal, moderate, or conservative. 

Fig. 1: from Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015a). 


How are we making sense in a world filled with complex scientific questions?

Decision-relevant science is everywhere at any time, it’s plenty of subjects that a single individual can not comprehend. To navigate our world we develop the ability to recognize proper sources of information, to allow our decision-making. We decide on these based on the societal background we are placed in. 

“​​We must take the word of those who know what’s been ascertained by those means – while being sure not to take the word of anyone else“

Shapin, 1994

Fig. 2: Biased recognition of scientific expertise. Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Dan M. Kahan, and Dietram A. Scheufele (eds),  The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication, Oxford Library of Psychology (2017)

Group identity determines if a scientific position is accepted or rejected based on whether it is supporting or opposing the predominant position of the associated group (Kahan, Jenkin-Smith & Braman (2011). Social cues lead to a self-enhancing failure of the pattern recognition that would otherwise yield the ability to comprehend greater amounts of evidence than possibly by in-depth research. 

→ Groups and identity are decisive in breaking scientific controversies, a peer is the strongest supporter possible

→ Identity-protective cognition (IPC) leads to antagonizing of scientific evidence if interfering with social identity, as common misbeliefs are free of “social costs”, while opposing opinions can yield a costly loss of support by the group (Kahan, Peters et al. 2012). IPC does not remove reason but binds it to advance the cultural status.


How do we want to shape the communication of synthetic biology (in the face of sustainability)? 

  • Breaking the IPC?
      • Dialogue-based communication imprints SynBio into many communities linking it to shared values
        •  NGOs
        • Civil movements
      • Positive narratives applicable to social diversity
  • Power mapping allies in civil society that are already perceived as credible
  • Balancing authority of scientific communicators, authority outside the group is taken as “Take no one’s word for it!” while internal peers are seen as credible

How communication can enable a contribution of synthetic biology to sustainability: 10 Key Outcomes of our discussions

(Foto: Martin Reich)

Each of the five rounds of discussions  (with 6 to 10 people per round) was different: people with different backgrounds and ideas. Although the focus was quite different every time, there were some key outcomes that they almost all had in common:

  1. Closing the knowledge gap is important but not enough.
  2. Social interactions are decisive in gaining public support e.g., group identity.
  3. Role models and peers are necessary to generate credibility for many social groups -> dialogue-oriented communication linked to shared values.
  4. Cultural background needs to be kept in mind.
  5. Benefits of an application of synbio need to be clear for consumers/target audience.
  6. Flag ship projects that generate positive narratives/examples are key to build trust.
  7. Solution-oriented communication not technologically oriented.
  8. Sustainability is never black and white, there are many goal conflicts and trade-offs.
  9. Technology is not a silver bullet.
  10. Risks need to be tackled and transparently discussed.

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