Engaging publics on new and potentially controversial science technologies has often presented challenges. Publics may hold pre-conceived notions that science is too complicated and specialized for them to understand and venues at which science is discussed with the public often take place in formal settings. One approach to address these challenges is through the Science Café, or Café Scientifique, a live forum event that takes place at an informal setting such as a pub and involves conversations between scientists and members of the public. Although the Café movement is only 15 years old, the popularity of these events is evident, with over 130 active Café series happening around the world. Despite the apparent popularity of Science Cafés, there has been insufficient research on how participants view Science Cafés. We conducted five Science Cafés across Canada to gauge public awareness of and early views on synthetic biology technology and its potential applications, and evaluated the effectiveness of the Science Café platform as a knowledge-translation tool. Synthetic biology is a novel research area and refers to both the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world and the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems. The results from our Cafés showed approximately half of our attendees having some awareness of synthetic biology technology. Participants were excited for the benefits, but also concerned about the potential risks, especially around accidental releases, or uses for military purposes. While participants trusted scientists to carry out their research, there was limited confidence that regulators would ensure public safety. Science cafés as a forum for science to meet society were positively viewed for the relaxed and pleasant atmosphere, small crowd size, accessibility and informality of the venue, and the non-intimidating environment. We discuss these results in terms of assessing science cafes as a venue for upstream engagement on a complex emerging technology.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Biobricks and brews
Synthetic biology in the science café

Erin Navid   University of Calgary

Edna Einsiedel   University of Calgary

Engaging publics on new and potentially controversial science technologies has often presented challenges. Publics may hold pre-conceived notions that science is too complicated and specialized for them to understand and venues at which science is discussed with the public often take place in formal settings. One approach to address these challenges is through the Science Café, or Café Scientifique, a live forum event that takes place at an informal setting such as a pub and involves conversations between scientists and members of the public. Although the Café movement is only 15 years old, the popularity of these events is evident, with over 130 active Café series happening around the world. Despite the apparent popularity of Science Cafés, there has been insufficient research on how participants view Science Cafés. We conducted five Science Cafés across Canada to gauge public awareness of and early views on synthetic biology technology and its potential applications, and evaluated the effectiveness of the Science Café platform as a knowledge-translation tool. Synthetic biology is a novel research area and refers to both the design and fabrication of biological components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world and the re-design and fabrication of existing biological systems. The results from our Cafés showed approximately half of our attendees having some awareness of synthetic biology technology. Participants were excited for the benefits, but also concerned about the potential risks, especially around accidental releases, or uses for military purposes. While participants trusted scientists to carry out their research, there was limited confidence that regulators would ensure public safety. Science cafés as a forum for science to meet society were positively viewed for the relaxed and pleasant atmosphere, small crowd size, accessibility and informality of the venue, and the non-intimidating environment. We discuss these results in terms of assessing science cafes as a venue for upstream engagement on a complex emerging technology.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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