Mind the Gap: A Tale of Two Articles
written by Joyce Koo, Wilson Center
The September 30, 2014 U.S. News & World Report article, “Virginia Researchers See Promise in 'Synthetic Biology,'” once again depicts the field of synthetic biology as simultaneously important for our future yet rife with misconceptions amongst the public. Characterized primarily by short, simplistic, and often used metaphors about the process of synthetic biology and brief, well-known examples about possible applications and risks, as opined by various University of Virginia students, the article contributes little that is actually new to those already working in the field of synthetic biology or on policy related to the field.
Compare and contrast this with Medford and Prasad’s perspective piece, published October 10, 2014 in Science, “Plant Synthetic Biology Takes Root.” The authors take the association of technological advances in plant synthetic biology with computer and electronic analogs and extend it a multi-paragraph, more technical approach that describes the possibility of using genetic toggle switches to achieve “precise control of plant traits.” The article ends on an optimistic note concerning the potential benefits of this field of research, but not without raising and addressing a couple of challenges, including those arising from the inherent complexity of biological systems.
The specifics of this type of article, while possibly baffling the average mainstream reader of non-scientific news articles, highlight a key difference and widening gap between the understanding of the field of synthetic biology between those working in or with those in the field, and the public. It appears ironic and yet inevitable that the misconceptions described in the U.S. News & World Report article may in fact be perpetuated by the publication and popularity of such mainstream articles. By maintaining low expectations about the capabilities of its readers to comprehend, digest, or be interested in details about the field of synthetic biology that can help illuminate its true parameters and limitations, public news media generate a stagnant pool of information primarily informed not by science, but by opinions.
However, the responsibility and the impetus for change do not lie solely with public new media outlets. Influential scientific publications like Science and Nature can also assume a much-needed role in scientific outreach to the public. By facilitating a process by which its authors and their research are guided into mainstream media and publications, by supporting the transition from technical jargon to mainstream-friendly writing for these authors, scientific publications are not only contributing a beneficial public service, but they may also be helping to guarantee their own relevance and future existence in an increasingly science-estranged, science-suspicious cultural atmosphere.