This week, Craig Venter has been working the UK media to its fullest in what seems a whistlestop tour over to convey his work in the area of synthetic biology. In the UK, news about this broke first in the Guardian on Saturday 6th October. Venter's website promptly indicated that the newspaper was slightly ahead of itself by announcing this work, stressing that publications are not yet in place. It seems now that they were only 3 weeks ahead of themselves as Venter has clearly broken the news on this in the fullest sense. While he still stresses that this work is futuristic and unlikely to give rise to any new life forms within his lifetime, the rhetoric of promise is interesting. Last night on BBC's Hard Talk and on Newsnight earlier in the week, he emphasised the importance of the research for environmental sustainability. This cannot be coincidental, but appears as a decisive, partial rebranding of gentic science. So, here we have a clear handling of the media taking place drawing on persuasive rhetorics about the long-term benefit of experimental science. He talked about modifying humans to ensure they can survive in climates where greater carbonis in the atmosphere. Nice idea. It's all plausible, but we should still be wary of this utilization of discourses to co-opt political support for science.
I'm sure Venter's work over this period will be the subject of many studies on science communication. Things seem much more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago, when the Human Genome was nearing completion. The ante has been upped, so to speak. Now the scientists are much more in tune with how to get the message out. I could not help but feel that the Guardian story was a first litmus test for public opinion. We've not seen the last of this yet.