How to stimulate reflection on science

Scientific outcomes can have huge effects on society. Gene­-editing methods affect our DNA, climate research can lead to changes in our way of life, and technology can harm the world we live in. Therefore, a main focus of European Union’s »Horizon 2020« program is »Responsible Research and Innovation« (RRI). This term describes »scientific research and technological development processes that take into account effects and potential impacts on the environment and society« (Wikipedia).

Here we present a paper from 2017 from which we learned which role videos could play in motivating citizens during moderated RRI processes to thoroughly reflect on a specific subject, in this case synthetic biology. Among other things this thorough reflection can inform policy makers on how to make responsible decisions.

For their study Marjoleine G. van der Meij, then at the Athena Institute for Research and Communication at the Vrije Universeit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and two of her colleagues had designed a series of videos about different ways of seeing synthetic biology. They then presented them to test groups, examined which reflection processes the clips initiated and analyzed which types of video narratives generated which types of outcome.

The reported results are promising: The videos induced »valuable reflection processes« and helped participants to understand other people’s views as well as appreciate the diversity of perspectives. Some narratives also proved to be more inclusive than others, since they lowered »the threshold for people to interact and say what they think«.

The videos were scripted, but left some creative freedom to the four performing actors. Each actor recorded several videos, covering different subtopics of synthetic biology, like »What is Synthetic Biology according to you?« or »What is the relationship between human beings and technology?«

Some participants were shown videos with only one actor talking about different subtopics, some were shown videos with four different actors talking about the same subtopic. According to the study’s authors the latter experiment stimulated second order reflection much more often: »participants became more aware of their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with particular aspects of the video­-narratives«.

There is little hope that scientific institutions have the resources to develop comparable setups in the context of video production. The mere fact, however, that some types of videos do stimulate more reflection than others could be a good guideline for any video about a controversial topic.

Full reference:

van der Meij, M. G., Broerse, J. E. W  ., & Kupper, F.: Supporting Citizens in Reflection on Synthetic Biology by Means of Video­Narratives. Science Communication, 39(6), 713–744. 2017.

Supplementary information to the paper:

Introduction movie into synthetic biology
Transcripts of video narratives can be found in the appendix of the publication

Selection from the study’s test videos (each covering one subtopic):
What is synthetic biology according to you?
What will be the role of synthetic biology in our (future) society?
What is the relationship between human beings and technology?
How to approach synthetic biology ethically?

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