A few years ago, Dr. Stephen L. Hauser accompanied a friend to Oslo. His friend had won a Nobel Prize.
“It was so impressive — the entire nation was transfixed by science,’’ Hauser told his fellow members of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
“We were stopped in the streets, and asked which party are you with. The television was full of the discussion of the nature of these prizes,’’ he said.
Hauser, Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, was speaking about one of the panel’s 19 recommendations on federal oversight in synthetic biology. The recommendation had to do with expanding educational activities related to synthetic biology for students at all levels, civil society groups, and communities.
“It would be just wonderful if a similar period was developed in the United States,’’ Hauser said, referring to Norway’s celebration over the Nobel Prizes. “Public education efforts are clearly central. … We need to find better ways to make science more interesting to the general public.’’
Dr. James Wagner, Vice Chair of the Commission and President of Emory University, which hosted the meeting, suggested putting in the recommendations a way to encourage the media to help promote public education of synthetic biology.
“The last time I can recall a vivid period of scientific focus was around the earlier days of the space program,’’ he said. “I think you would agree, one of the key players was the media, when we were listening and watching Walter Cronkite around the dinner table … using language such as heat shields. I think that encouraging literate, open science reporting could be a good recommendation.’’
Commission Chair Dr. Amy Gutmann, the President of the University of Pennsylvania, also had another idea: Create an independent, bioscience version of FactCheck.org, which would include checking facts on synthetic biology and a host of other topics.
“When there are new innovations that come out with claims flying by the innovators themselves, or the media, or critics, sometimes even the educated public and even journalists who are covering this don’t have at their fingertips whether these claims can be borne out,’’ she said. “So one could go to this version of FactCheck.org, and check the variety of claims made about synthetic biology and other new advances in the field of biology and technology.’’
She said such a Web-based service could have been used soon after the J. Craig Venter Institute announced on May 20 that it had injected a synthetic genome into a living organism.
Some said that Venter was “creating life.’’ Not so, Gutmann said.
“If there were a FactCheck.org then, you could find out what the Venter Institute did was not creating life. There was a living cell in a genome, and that cell was taken over by new genome, but life existed prior to that experiment. As the rhetoric escalated, though, the notion of creating life took over.’’