A walk through society (Almedalen)

Puck Norell

5th July 2018

It was a sunny, yet cold, Gotland that Vilma, Josephine and I arrived in at 05.40 in the morning. We were going to spend the whole Sunday in Almedalen, an event that has taken place in Visby for the past 50 years. Almedalen is a week for the sharing of knowledge and for discussion, and where representatives of the Swedish political parties meet with associations and companies to discuss political, as well as societal issues. Politicians are mix with citizens and other interested people - making it a hotspot for interest sharing and discussions about the future of Sweden and the world.

Our agenda was to meet with politicians as well as people without a political agenda to talk about our project, but also to see what people think about engineering life with the help of synthetic biology. After our fruitful conversation with Misse Wester, we knew that we should not focus on teaching people about synthetic biology, but take the input of individuals into account in our project.

Strolling around, we found ourselves in the SvD (“The Swedish Daily News") booth, looking at their Junior newspaper. “This is an initiative that started two years ago” says the woman working in the booth. We think back to what Misse told us about not trying to educate people, and asked the woman what the primary goal of the newspaper is: to give children an insight of what’s happening in the world right now? Or is it supposed to educate children? “A bit of both I suppose” she says, continuing by telling us how they want to be able to tell children all kinds of news news - both good and bad, such as the #metoo movement and war in other parts of the world. We tell her that the balance between education and insight is something that we are struggling with in our work. We mention synthetic biology and engineering, and she suddenly become very angry. "It's absolutely absurd, you start at the wrong end", she says when we get into the subject of making pharmaceuticals based on recombinant cells. She continues by saying that she was sick, but did not get better with medication. She got healthy by eating healthier. She thinks that everyone should stop thinking about themselves and stuffing themselves with bad food. "If you eat healthy food, it will suffice. You have to know your own body”

We left the booth feeling taken aback. Talking about it, we can understand why she is against all sorts of changing the “natural course of life”, especially since she had a bad experience with medication. But it can also become quite dangerous if people think that you can know your body to the extent of feeling if you are sick. In a sense, it can be very judicial towards people fighting a disease.

Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that people will form opinions based on their life experiences. We remembered the philosophically and the scientifically based views, and that they have to be able to co-exist. People have different experiences, and we need to take that into account when we make our project.

An issue of "Dagens Samhälle" featuring our iGEM team

We continued our walk, and struck up a conversation with two women. Being brought up in different decades and also having different educational backgrounds, they had differing thoughts about synthetic biology. The older woman did not have any thoughts or opinions on it at all. The younger woman had studied agriculture, and thought it weird to insert salmon genes into tomatoes as they learned during a class.

We continued, finding ourselves in cozy chairs in a booth working for better working conditions for adolescents. The young man working there was amazed when we mentioned our project, but he also distanced himself, saying that it sounds too hard for him to understand. That was a common occurrence for us when mentioning either the project, synthetic biology or our academic backgrounds (biomedicine, biotechnology and chemistry). However, he told us to try to find a treatment for psoriasis which he suffers from. It gave us a feeling of connection but also of approval - that people still believe that science and society can develop side by side.

Walking aimlessly around for a while, we stumbled on two young adults our own age. We started talking about the project, and we experienced the same situation again - them excusing themselves for their lack of scientific knowledge - but they still kept the conversation going, asking us about the project to learn more. It felt reassuring that they were interested in knowing more, but also to hear their views on matters, such as fish in the Baltic sea.

I am very visual in my thinking, and I started painting up a graph in my head of how different people had reacted to our project, but also how they treated the subject. Personally, it felt like individuals in their adolescence up to young adulthood were more keen on learning, however they were giving me the impression that they distanced themselves from the subject since they did not have the scientific background. It was as if they did not think they could discuss, since they did not have science-based knowledge. Maybe this is a result of being born into a society with advanced technology.

This can be compared to the individuals we met in their midlife, that either had no opinion, or were very much against genetic engineering. Maybe this could be due to not being born in a very scientific advanced society. They had to base their knowledge on opinions, or the facts that were around the time they went to school. Yes, the structure of DNA was discovered in the 1950’s, but this discovery might not have been something that we learned in school to the same extent as the younger generations do. Additionally, we also have the opinions and our own life experiences. People who have lived longer have often been through more, and can therefore have been through experiences which will have made them shape views that are hard to change. But that is the beauty of our work - we are not here to change people’s opinions, but to integrate them as much as possible into our project.

We left Almedalen feeling tired, but still rich in new knowledge about how people are affected by their life experiences, but also how people tend to rely on their philosophical based perspective just like Misse mentioned. After all, if I got sick and had to take medication but it didn’t help and instead made me worse, how would I feel - and most importantly - would I still rely on my scientifically based knowledge?