Communicating science is an ever-growing priority for scientists in all disciplines. This is more pronounced in fields that tend to polarize public opinion, such as the field of synthetic biology. Explaining research in an accessible and attractive way can help bridge the knowledge gap between science and society. Creating this understanding is key in the acceptance of new technologies and making their positive impact possible.
Next to integrating stakeholders’ needs throughout our project, we prioritized communication about our project and synthetic biology in general to a diverse public from the very start. Visit our Education page for more info!
We started by defining our communication strategy: what exactly do we want to communicate? What is our target audience? And in what way can we best reach our audience? We followed a media training from PR professional Frank Boers, where we learned about PR and why it’s important for any project. We want to spread the word about our project and get into contact with likeminded people, so communicating effectively is important to achieve this, create a positive perception of Cattlelyst and improve our project. Therefore, he helped us define clear goals for our communication strategy, with accompanying main messages and a target audience to direct the message to. Click below to see them!
To create general awareness of the environmental impact the livestock sector has, and to introduce Cattlelyst as a solution.
Cattlelyst is an efficient, safe and animal friendly solution to reduce the significant impact the livestock sector has on the environment, which is caused by the release of ammonia and methane gases.
Stakeholders i n Cattlelyst as well as people directly involved with the biofilter, farmers. Funders: companies, chairholder groups at WUR, friends, family. Competitors.
To create general awareness and inform about the possibilities of synthetic biology, with the ultimate goal to positively transform the public opinion around the subject.
Although we should of course think carefully about synthetic biology, it is a technology that can generate opportunities to solve important challenges we face and improve our future.
Everyone in society. Especially critics, scientists from other fields, people sceptic about synthetic biology, politicians concerned with agriculture and GMO usage.
To connect and to connect with likeminded people: funders, critics, politicians and of course the iGEM community.
Join us in our iGEM journey: help us with your expertise, opinion and your resources , and let’s make the iGEM community flourish!
(Ex-)iGEMmers, life sciences students and professionals in the STEM community. Media: within WUR, journalists, social media.
From these three goals, we can distil a strong overall message:
We are working on a promising synthetic biology solution to reduce the impact the livestock sector has on the environment with its ammonia and methane emissions! Help us develop it.
Equipped with this information, we could get to work! We set up different communication strategies to be able to spread our messages and suited our type of medium to our target audiences. On this page, we describe our activities to execute these strategies. We a ttended several events to get into contact with a diverse range of people, from the expected stakeholders and scientists, to politicians and even an artist. We reached out to the press and the general public to share our journey and communicate science in an accessible way. Lastly, we maintained a social media presence on different platforms throughout our project, and tailored our content to the target audience.
When meeting and interacting with people with different backgrounds, the best discussions often arise! We attended several online and real life events, which allowed us to introduce synthetic biology to people not familiar with the subject and discuss its possibilities together.
The Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers’ Groene Groeiers (Green Growers) is a network of entrepreneurs who invest into developments of circular economies and energy transitions. In this community, investments are made available for the most promising initiatives. The WUR iGEM team entered this community to gain connections and insight into the requirements for short term implementation of novel systems into Dutch cattle stalls from an investors perspective. During a webinar, several judges, and co-innovators, looked critically at the proposal the team set forward and asked questions about the practical aspects of our project. Afterwards, we got the opportunity to connect with the other entrepreneurs who entered the community.
In regards of our project, the judges of the Groene Groeiers asked questions about the outcomes of our system.
- Can our biofilter be implemented in existing systems?
- Is there any residual product?
- Can you make a filter for just methane?
- What are the investments costs and are they annual?
- What kind of bacteria are we implementing and what are their exact outputs?
The obvious theme in these questions is that from an investors perspective our project should take specific notice of financial feasibility, implementation challenges, and technological limitations. We used the proposed outcomes from this session to form not only our science but also to set key questions for our future stakeholder interviews.
In the end report of the Groene Groeiers, Cattlelyst was the only solution with a synthetic biology foundation. This reflects the need to spread the word about synthetic biology further. Looking back, it was great to present our unique project to a diverse group of people.
Election event VeSte
In March 2021, elections of the national politics were held in the Netherlands. One of the student council parties of the university, VeSte, organised an election event for all students from Wageningen University. Here, we got the chance to talk to politicians of several national political parties.
First, the politicians introduced themselves and then we could ask them questions about topics that were relevant for Dutch politics. One of the topics was of course the environment and the nitrogen crisis, being still very relevant in the Netherlands. As our solution Cattlelyst relies upon usage of GMOs, implementation can be difficult because of the strict regulations in the Netherlands. At this event, we had the opportunity to ask two policial representatives, one of a Christian party (ChristenUnie) and another one of an environmentally-oriented party (Partij voor de Dieren) what they think about GMO usage to tackle pressing issues like the nitrogen crisis or climate change. Both politicians that were present told us that they have very limited knowledge about GMOs and know even less about their safety and regulations. When making regulations, they ask for advice from experts.
We noticed that most politicians we spoke to were not necessarily against using synthetic biology to solve the challenges we face as a society, but they were hesitant to show their support for these techniques. From this, it became clear to us that communication about synthetic biology to inform and enthuse society is very important! For more about this, visit the education page. To further aid the integration of new technologies like ours in society, we joined a strategic day, where multiple stakeholders were brough together to discuss new technologies.
'Heisessie' with Aanjagers van Technologie
Already in the beginning of our journey, we noticed that there is a lack of communication between the different stakeholder groups we interviewed. Throughout the nitrogen crisis, the knowledge gap has become increasingly clear, which is also why two of our team members were invited to talk about similar matters during a strategic day for an inter-stakeholder discussion hosted by ‘4TU’s Aanjagers van Technologie’ (4Technical University’s Drivers of Technology).
The Aanjagers are students from the four Dutch technical universities: TU Delft, TU Twente, TU Eindhoven, and TU Wageningen. These students want to accelerate societal transitions together with politicians and industry. Two of the Aanjagers, Fons Janssen and Job Brom are involved in the transition of the agri-food sector. Given that we, as iGEM team would bring a completely new perspective to the table, we were invited to join their pressure cooker work sessions on the 17th of July 2021.
Together with a diverse group affiliated with the agri-food sector, we were encouraged to define possible solutions to problems Job and Fons encountered. Additionally, we were to map the possible role each stakeholder will have in the transition. Lastly, we were encouraged to define what we are going to do, concretely to help with facilitating this change.
Not only did we bring our newly gathered knowledge of the agricultural sector to the table, we sparked the interest of the people present talking about our synthetic biology solution. As a result, we connected with valuable stakeholders for our project. If you are intrigued about the outcomes of the pressure cooker work sessions, check out this video.
Having participated in the Heisessie of the ‘4TU’s Aanjagers van Technologie’, we were invited to join the Techrede together with various other stakeholders. During this event, the Aanjagers (among which our team member Sophie!) gave a presentation in which they presented the results of their research from the past year. They thoroughly explored what changes are needed to accelerate the transitions needed for a more sustainable, safe and resilient society.
Five areas were identified in which changes are required, namely circular economy, energy, digital security, health care and food and agriculture. From there on, concrete action points were drawn up for each of these areas and were discussed. For the agri-food sector, this action point encompassed advocating shorter chains between the producer and the consumer, as this can result in better margins for farmers. This can be accomplished by placing milk taps in supermarkets for example, from which pasteurized milk from local farmers can be bought.
The Techrede was followed by an interactive program with several workshops meant for all the present stakeholders to engage in. Each workshop was given the theme of one of the five identified areas. The program started with the stakeholders for each theme coming together and discussing more possible action points for faster transitions. Through our project, we gained a lot of valuable information on the agri-food sector and we brought this to the table together with our knowledge on synthetic biology. After this in depth discussion, we got to learn more about the other themes during the next workshops. The afternoon ended with drinks and the opportunity of networking with everyone present, which we made good use of. We talked to several people about the future of farming and how we as a team are trying to find a solution for methane and ammonia emissions. All in all, it was a very informative and fun afternoon, in which we got to connect with like-minded people all eager to shift to a more sustainable future.
Art and synthetic biology
We spend an afternoon with artist Daphne Kusters, who was working on her project "The garden of biotic dreams", which was featured in the Dutch Design Week 2020. This project explores human contact with synthetic biology and its implications on society.
Daphne challenged each of us to think of a societal problem without knowing what the solution or tools we would use. Once we had chosen one and discussed them together, we heard we should design a solution to that with the help of plants. We could think of anything, and assume everything would be possible with synthetic biology! We came up with creative ideas, like moss-covered airplane wings to reduce CO2 emissions and a pet-cactus to reduce loneliness of elderly people. Then, of course, we also identified potential risks of our solutions and thought about biosafety and biosecurity aspects to prevent or solve these risks and realize our solution.
During this workshop, we learned to think via a ‘society driven approach’, thinking first of the problem and the desired solution, and then about practical implications and associated risks. Allowing our creativity to flow freely was a very fun experience, that also helped us in the defining stages of our own project that we were in at the time!
Presentation for our chair groups
We as iGEM team develop and execute our project at the chair groups of Microbiology and Systems and Synthetic Biology at Wageningen University. Even though we don’t need to explain the value of synthetic biology to them, we still wanted to involve our colleagues at the university in our project and its societal context.
Nearing the end of our project, we gave a comprehensive 20-minute presentation, where all researchers and students of both chair groups were invited to attend. We explained the causes and consequences of methane and ammonia emissions of the livestock sector, and how we developed Cattlelyst to help. With this, we also spread awareness of the problem we want to solve. In return, we got some valuable feedback and tips on the science part of our project, as well as the way we tell our story.
With several outreach activities to a widespread audience, we made an active effort to promote public awareness and understanding of synthetic biology in an informal way. With this, we further achieved our first communication goal of informing about livestock emissions and our solution Cattlelyst, but especially our second goal: raising awareness about synthetic biology as a promising technological solution to the challenges we face. Also visit our education page to see more about our science education activities!
We wanted to give our messages a personal touch and reach people in an informal way, because we think this is most effective in establishing a connection and having a meaningful interaction with people. Therefore, we purposefully undertook outreach activities that gave a personal touch to spreading our first two messages and with that, we also realized spreading our third message!
Each month, we send out a newsletter to all our contacted stakeholders, friends, family, sponsors and other interested parties, totaling up to 120 people. Herein, we updated them on our project and shared our progress. Every newsletter started with a small introduction and some highlights of the month just passed. Returning sections were updates on our drylab, wetlab and human practices work, and a fun aspect: the most liked post from our social media from that month! With our newsletter, subscribers could follow our journey from up close and get a personal peek into what kept us busy during all those months. If you want to read our newsletters (again), have a look at them here!.
To really involve people in our daily activities and give an insight in both our successes and setbacks, we also wrote a monthly blog. In short, accessible stories, we explained the process of developing our project, our funny moments and tips for working in the lab, and the stakeholder simulation we did with a group of students at the Wageningen University. Writing the blog allowed us to share more of our personal experiences and ‘backstage moments’. This has allowed us to better connect with our readers, thereby promoting synthetic biology in an effective way. In addition, from reflecting on our activities we also learned a lot ourselves, which we could use to further improve our project while working on it! You can read our blogs here!
We reached out to several (online) media channels to reach a wider range of people we would normally not get in contact with. In the beginning of our project, we wrote a press release about the goal of our project in collaboration with communications advisor from WUR Laura Witlox. This was posted on the WUR news pages, and was quickly picked up by a multitude of other news sites, including Agriholland.nl, Pigbusiness.nl, Boeren.online, University news and more. It was great to see such a broad interest in our project!
Next, we had an interview with the Wageningen University paper "Resource", who made a beautiful infographic describing the goal of our project, placed prominently page-wide in the middle of the magazine!
The organisation of our Junior Science Lab also didn’t go unnoticed: a local newspaper placed a short article about our wonderful experience in organising a science day for primary school children.
Another press release will follow during the Giant Jamboree!
Two of our team members participated in Famelab, an international science communication competition. Young scientists are challenged to communicate their work to non-scientific audiences in just 3 minutes. No Powerpoint slides, no scientific jargon. They are judged by a professional jury on "the three C’s": content, clarity and charisma. With more than 9000 participants from 31 countries over the past years, Famelab is arguably the world’s leading science communication competition.
In participating in the Wageningen regional heat, Deli and Sophie encountered the challenges of communicating science in an accessible and fun way. Getting to the core of their projects, leaving all details out, and especially thinking of compelling metaphors was very fun, and taught them a lot about their own project and presentation style. Moreover, both presented on a component of our iGEM project, so their participation was a win-win! Sophie talked about Cattlelyst as a whole, and Deli about how computational methods can help design synthetic biology methods, which is directly related to our iGEM PIPE she helped develop! You can watch both pitches below:
At the Wageningen regional heat, Sophie’s pitch was even selected as one of the winners to continue to the Dutch national final! This helped her further build her science communication skills, which came in very handy throughout the rest of the project. For her new pitch, Sophie went into a bit more depth on her own thesis within the Cattlelyst project, the methane kill switch. Want to know what a kitchen knife and the safety of Cattlelyst have to do with each other? Have a look below!
Give Genes A Chance
#GiveGenesAChance is a campaign started by young scientists all over Europe who feel that new genomic techniques have great potential for solving challenges we are facing currently and in the future. These techniques represent a next step in plant breeding. They can contribute to breeding of more nutritious or disease resistant plants, thereby aiding in providing sufficient quality food to everyone.
As citizens and scientists, they want to create awareness about their concerns for the future to the general public, politicians and policy makers. They want to unlock scientific progress’s potential and therefore ask the EU authorities that they make evidence-informed policies. Thus, let genes have a chance. To support this campaign and contribute in creating awareness for new genomic techniques, we offered our input for their promotional video.
In today’s digital world and during lockdown times, social media are indispensable in reaching out to a broad public! We therefore maintained a presence on four big social media platform throughout our project.
At the start of our project, we followed a workshop from social media expert Mareva Meulemans. She helped us translate the three main messages from our communication strategy into content for on our social media channels. We divided our posts into general topics: dates & events, iGEM & team, problem awareness, our solution Cattlelyst and funding. From this, it was always easy to come up with new post ideas, and they helped us spread different types of content over time. We also made sure to tailor different types of content to each platform. For instance, Instragram was suited to post a joke or informal team picture now and then, while LinkedIn was best suited to more professional content about for instance the societal background of the nitrogen crisis.
From our continuously growing number of followers (LinkedIn +100, Instagram +200), we could conclude that our communication strategies were working! We found out that while posting on social media, we got some critical questions from some of our followers or other people that encountered our content. Of course, we were more than happy to engage with these people, and we even had a phone call with an interested teacher in crop protection and circular agriculture. We’re proud to have made a positive impact!