It also served as a timely reminder of how vital it is to maintain a public profile for those pushing the boundaries of scientific and technological development who can often be passed over in the media for stories considered more ‘newsworthy’.
Take synthetic biology as a prime example. Also known as ‘Synbio’, it has been around for some 15 years as a field of scientific research, but only recently garnered wider attention. Describing the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes, synthetic biology is ranked second in the top new technologies likely to have a major impact on the future global economy by the World Economic Forum, and has been listed by the UK Government as one of the ‘eight great technologies’ with the potential to propel the UK to future growth.
Synbio has the potential to address a range of global challenges. For example, it could detect and remove environmental contaminants to create safer drinking water and cleaner air. It could also be used to produce low-carbon fuel, or to develop new drugs and vaccines that would diagnose, monitor and respond to disease more effectively and efficiently. It also has the potential to create enzymes for bolstering biofuels, as well as increasing efficiency in biomanufacturing and chemical technology by using microorganisms to make fuel, chemicals and plastics.
As a global market, Synbio is forecast to reach a value of £62bn by 2020. This is particularly exciting for the UK and the US, who are considered to be the two countries leading the world in terms of research in this field.
However, Synbio isn’t without its challenges – or indeed, controversy. There has been growing criticism from those who liken it to scientists “playing God”, and public opposition could prove a major hurdle in realising its true commercial potential. This was acknowledged by the OECD this month in its report Emerging Policy Issues in Synthetic Biology, which argued that greater public debate on the topic is needed for it to be more widely understood and accepted.
One organisation supporting the call for greater public debate is our client the IET, who hosted a lecture on the topic last night at the Royal Institute as part of its Prestige Lecture Series. Delivered by Professor Richard Kitney of Imperial College London, the free-to-attend lecture charted the rapid advances made in synthetic biology, examining some of its applications, and highlighted its importance to the UK economy. It is one of many events taking place in the capital this week as part of London Technology Week which runs until the 20th June.
Certainly, proponents of synthetic biology will need to pay close attention to public opinion and carefully consider how they approach PR if they are to win the hearts and minds of customers, investors and stakeholders. But it also presents a huge public relations opportunity – not just for organisations involved in Synbio, but for all those that are part of the UK’s knowledge base and looking to get their message across to a wider audience.