COSY: Communicating Synthetic Biology

Duration: 36 months


Coordinator: Dr. Helge Torgersen, Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung, ÖAW (Austria)

Contact Person:

Dr. Helge Torgersen
Strohgasse 45, 5
A-1030 Vienna, Austria
e-mail: torg[at]
fax(+43-1-) 710 98 83



  • dialog<>gentechnik (Austria)
  • Organisation for International Dialogue and Conflict Maagement (IDC) (Austria)
  • Johannes Kepler Universität Linz (Austria)
  • Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung, ÖAW (Austria)


Project Description:

Synthetic Biology (SB) is an important emerging field applying an engineering perspective to biology, which is gaining prominence mainly in the US. In Europe, attention is on the rise, but there was little communication about SB to the public. This is expected to change, which will provide an opportunity to study communication processes such as framing and knowledge transformation. For cutting-edge areas of research such as modern biotechnology, targeted communication is paramount. For various reasons, scientists are increasingly obliged to address the public, and journalists try to entice lay people for such news. Covering science is, however, notoriously difficult as scientific findings themselves are complex and rarely very interesting to a broader public. This is true especially in the phase of basic research, as long as specific applications have not yet arisen. Once possible applications emerge, however, risks and benefits and their social and moral implications capture a lay publics’ attention more easily. Coverage therefore has to simplify the underlying facts, while the context becomes paramount. To make ‘a story’, scientists and journalists transform and socially embed science news, tune them to societal beliefs and world-views and relate them to popular images.

In “COSY” we propose to combine different approaches and to study communication processes in real time, in a quasi-experimental way, taking the new field of SB as an example. We will study the ‘chain of communication’ in three steps:
1.    We will ask volunteering scientists to write press releases, which will be taken up by Austrian journalists from different segments (quality press, radio) to report on aspects of SB.
2.    In an experimental confrontation, small groups of lay people from various ‘publics’ (e.g. different educational status, age, professions) will be confronted with the coverage, discuss and summarise it and fill in a questionnaire. This will enable us to study knowledge transformation and framing processes.
3.    Journalists and scientists will be confronted with the products of the downstream level, respectively. The various outputs will be analysed and their discursive structures compared.
Apart from this experimental investigation into knowledge transformation, we will have a close look at the upcoming discourse on SB by identifying players and analysing central topics. To this aim, we will interview scientists and administrators and hold in-depth discussions on specific issues. We will further monitor and analyse key media.