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The construction of imaginaries of the public as a threat to synthetic biology

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-98
Number of pages16
Issue number1
Early online date22 Dec 2014
E-pub ahead of print22 Dec 2014


King's Authors


Scientific institutions and innovation-focused government bodies have identified public attitudes to synthetic biology as an obstruction to the field. This view is based on a perception that the public is (or will likely become) fearful of synthetic biology and that a ‘public scare’ would impede development of the field. Fear of the public’s fear of synthetic biology, which I characterise as ‘synbiophobia-phobia’, has been the driving force behind the promotion of public engagement and other activities to address ‘ethical, legal and social issues’ (ELSI). These activities have been problematic in two ways. Firstly, they are based on the discredited ‘deficit-model’ understanding of public responses to science, in which negative public attitudes towards science are thought to result from a lack of scientific knowledge. Secondly, they have taken for granted sociotechnical expectations put forward by scientific institutions. These promises of the field, and the tacit normative commitments embedded within them, have not been opened up to public appraisal. Synthetic biology’s ELSI-work has taken place early on, before commercialisation, but rather than helping to avoid a polarised controversy, this effort has laid the battleground for conflict among opposing groups when products begin to reach the market.

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