In the summer of 2016, Building with Biology launched more than 200 dialogue events at museums, science centers, universities, and other organizations to explore the societal and ethical implications of synthetic biology research and application. These events, referred to as “forums”, covered topics such as the ethical considerations of gene editing using CRISPR technology and genetic engineering of mosquitoes to reduce disease transmission. Building with Biology also fostered a community of informal science educators, researchers, and scientists looking to build capacity in deliberative programming.
Online workshops and orientations, some of which were held by partner organizations, prepared prospective hosts and scientists to hold one of these forums with the public. The orientations emphasized that scientists should approach these events as opportunities to learn from the public and also provided networking opportunities for scientists and informal educators. They produced a Forums Manual to help in planning the events.
Both the public audiences who participated in forums and the professionals who collaborated on them reported positive outcomes. Participants in the forums reported that they not only learned about synthetic biology and its relationship to society, but also that they had an opportunity to share their views on the topic. In addition, they reported valuing the interactions with diverse perspectives and most participants reported an increased interest in future engagement with the topic and with science more generally. Both the event hosts and scientists learned to better define the meaning of public engagement with science. Nearly all of the scientists reported that they had learned about the public’s values, ideas, and experiences of synthetic biology, and also felt that the public had learned from them.
Drawing on what was learned from Building with Biology, project partners developed a guidebook to aid informal science institutions in designing public deliberation programs. In looking ahead to the future of public engagement with science, the guidebook concludes that co-creation is among the most important characteristics to promote and maintain in all public science programming and should be embedded as an element of everyday civic engagement and participation.
How to Use
Forum discussions take approximately an hour and a half, are targeted at older audiences (16+), and are often most successful as a separate event marketed to adults in a quiet space. Facilitated by educators, Building with Biology forums are adaptable and allow scientists to participate alongside members of the public to promote conversations about synthetic biology.
The Forums Manual provides step-by-step guidance to design and implement a one- to two-hour program within the museum context, and is useful for any forum topic, not just synthetic biology. The forum structure includes:
- Forum introduction
- Presentations and Q&A with experts
- Participant conversation and group deliberation
- Report out / wrap up
- Post-forum evaluation
The manual also includes tips for getting your institution on board for hosting a forum. The evaluation section of the Building with Biology website contains additional support materials such as training videos for forum survey collection and a sample script to recruit survey participants.
Building with Biology also developed a set of hands-on learning activities for families that promote productive conversations on synthetic biology. The digital kit is available online, including planning, promotion, and educational materials.