How to communicate industrial biotechnology and the bioeconomy

The director of Bio-Key Ltd, on getting the biotechnology message across to government and the wider public

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” What does Juliet mean exactly when she says this often misquoted soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Evidently, she is complaining that a name is meaningless and acts only as a label to distinguish one thing from another. Thus, even if the rose was called something else it would still be as sweet. This applies in many ways to industrial biotechnology (IB) and more broadly the bioeconomy.

Biotechnology is defined simply as a technology that uses living organisms or systems derived from living organisms to make things. But put the word industrial in front to describe the exact use and it somehow makes it less attractive, conjuring images of dirty factories and waste rather than simply pertaining to aspects of industry.

So why are IB and the bioeconomy not commonplace nomenclature in our everyday lives, and why is it important that they should be? To most people the “names” industrial biotechnology and bioeconomy are meaningless, but IB has the potential to help solve some of our current and future societal challenges and is central to the success of the bioeconomy, which simply put is any economic value derived from bio-based products and processes. IB has the capability and the power to enable us to create new medicines and healthcare products, increase the efficiency of food and feed production, help mitigate climate change through the development of cleaner, greener manufacturing processes, to use waste as a feedstock, as well as to create new products that cannot be made any other way. This is undoubtedly the message that we need to get across to both policymakers and the beneficiaries of IB. Every citizen of the UK should understand that a thriving bioeconomy could result in more sustainable living.

Before the publication of the National Bioeconomy Strategy in 2018, a survey that asked 1,000 UK citizens if they had heard of the bioeconomy was carried out. Seven out of eight respondents said no; of those that had heard of the bioeconomy, 94 per cent said it was important. When given more information on the bioeconomy, most participants (87 per cent) thought it was fairly important or very important, indicating that having the right approach and using the right words and information to ensure engagement in a positive way is essential.

The bioeconomy is complex and has an impact across a range of sectors from agrifood to health and from chemicals to transport and energy; so clearly a single explanation will not work and a range of clear, concise and compelling messages needs to be created. Words like biodegradable and biocompostable are used interchangeably and are not properly understood. Bio-based, bio-derived, natural, sustainable are all used and again the terms can be confusing. So how can we ensure that IB and bioeconomy become as commonplace, understood and accepted as digital technology?

The UK IB community knows that there is a need for consistent messages to be developed that clearly articulate the benefits of the technology. This will vary depending on the audience. For policy and decision makers an identified catalogue of successful IB products and processes, together with the need for investment and regulatory framework support, would help. In order to engage a wide range of stakeholders, information that extends beyond the current IB community is needed. And, importantly, inspiring the next generation of school-age students to become scientists and entrepreneurs in this exciting area of technology development is essential.

In recent years there have been a number of resources in the form of videos, booklets and courses that have been generated to educate and inform, that could be more widely promoted.

How to communicate the bioeconomy has been covered in a number of projects funded by the EU. “The RoadToBio” developed a roadmap for the chemical industry to help them understand how to support the aspiration of achieving a 25 per cent share of bio-based products in the organic chemical industry by 2030, compared with 10 per cent in 2016. The main project output was a strategy with accompanying action plan. Importantly, however, an engagement document was delivered that focused on key messages for communication about bio-based products. It provided communication tools to promote bio-based chemicals and easy-to-read information on the roadmap and how to customise the key messages for different target audiences and sectors. Another project, BLOOM, focused entirely on “Boosting European Citizens’ Knowledge and Awareness of Bioeconomy Research and Innovation”. Again, a range of tools including videos, podcasts and webinars aimed at schools and general public awareness was promoted online and via hubs.

“Very clear, non-ambiguous messaging is needed, but it’s in short supply,” said Anton Holland, a science communication expert, at the 13th International Congress on Biofuels & Bioenergy and Biofuels & Bioeconomy. “Understanding these varied audiences, knowing how to craft clear messages, and understanding effective approaches like plain language communication and data visualisation are essential tools for all scientific and business professionals whose aim is to advance any aspect of the bioeconomy.”

There is no doubt that effective and articulate communication of the opportunities and benefits of IB and the bioeconomy is essential to expedite its widespread use across multiple sectors and to help drive consumer uptake and demand for cleaner, greener products. As an enabling technology IB is simply a member of the toolbox available to researchers developing new products and processes and the bioeconomy. It is absolutely clear that in order for IB to become “business as usual” in multiple industries there needs to be consumer pull, matched with development of world-class technology and conversion to economic value. Ensuring everyone is clear about the technological and socioeconomic benefits should be an overarching aspiration for those delivering these messages to our decision makers and future generations.

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