Yet metaphors swing both ways. Venter, for instance, likes to use expressions such as “creating life” that trigger discussions about ethics and hubris, according to Pauwels.
“You have Venter appearing everywhere, so it echoes those questions of what does it mean to synthesize life, but also what does it mean to master life for one person, one industry, one big monopoly,” she says. “It raises questions also about ownership of life.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the word, “Frankenstein,” appears frequently in articles about synthetic biology, according the Wilson Center’s report.
Over the last ten years, the monstrous moniker was also widely applied in coverage of genetically modified foods and led to widespread fear of the technology, especially in Europe. With that in mind, the synbio community has tried to distance itself from the GM debate in an effort to avoid the same fate, says Pauwels.
When Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued its report on oversight and regulation of synthetic biology in 2010, as per the president’s request, one recommendation read:
When discussing synthetic biology, individuals and deliberative forums should strive to employ clear and accurate language. The use of sensationalist buzzwords and phrases such as “creating life” or “playing God” may initially increase attention to the underlying science and its implications for society, but ultimately such words impede ongoing understanding of both the scientific and ethical issues at the core of public debates on these topics.
Indeed, despite the fact that worries about genetic-modification technology are more prevalent in Europe, when the White House released the National Bioeconomy Blueprint in April, it did so rather quietly out of concern for the upcoming election, according to Pauwels.
Fortunately, that didn’t stop the press from covering the strategy document, which outlines steps like investing in R&D and facilitating the transition of research from lab to market to drive progress in synthetic biology. With such broad and ambitious goals, not only is coverage on the rise, but general consciousness of the field as well.
The Wilson Center’s Synthetic Biology Project, which produced the report on coverage, has conducted a number surveys, which found that public awareness of the field in the US rose from a mere 9 percent in 2008 to 26 percent in 2010 (awareness is lower in Europe). Another survey is planned for early next year, and Pauwels expects that the curve will continue to rise, but progress will be key.
“If a technology is not fruitful, you reach a level of saturation in coverage,” she says. “That’s what happened with nanotechnology. There was a lot of coverage in the beginning, and a lot of hype, but the research is progressing slowly these days. We’ve seen tennis rackets made with new, lightweight nano-materials, but few other applications. It didn’t change the way we treat cancer or make energy.”
For coverage to stay strong, synbio will have to avoid the same quagmire, but for now at least, it’s a hot story getting hotter.