Human Practices Silver

The experts talk

We had the opportunity to discuss our research with senior researchers as well as other students. On September 20th, we talked with Prof. Dirk Stemerding, senior researcher at the Rathenau Instituut (NL), and on September 27th, we could discuss our project with Prof. David Kong, Director of the Community Biotechnology Initiative at MIT Media Lab, Boston.
We are very grateful to have had these discussions because they were really helpful in understanding different aspects of our project, and obtaining interesting suggestions. It is also a pleasure they accepted to insert their names in our wiki for Human Practices!
The main aspect we discussed was about the influence our science art project could have on public opinion. According to Prof. Stemerding, we should have as goal to attract public opinion and make it closer to biotechnology, which is often misunderstood and somehow considered a kind of obscure matter. We will try our best to involve common people and to make them aware of biotechnologies using other strategies such as music, which is an international language that can be easily understood by everyone unlike scientific language. Professor Stemerding told us that our approach to genetical engineering could also sensitize common people (and perhaps make them change their minds) on GMOs and the usage of laboratory animals, even though we are working on bacteria. Eventually, when we asked his opinion about the kind of music we should play with the band “Sound of Coli”, whether an existing melody or something new he promptly exclaimed that it will be definitively better a proper music from Coli, so people will be able to listen directly to the sound of life!
Prof. Kong was very positive that our biotechnology project can sensitize common people to science using the international language of music which is innovative with respect to the visual aspect of science, even though the latter is more powerful. He reckoned that our idea was a really cool novel method to make common people closer to science, and he also said that children could play with it in the future! He also gave us another interesting clue: given that we associate science art, which is visible, to music, we could also be able to bring blind people closer to biotechnology. This being the possibility, we immediately contacted the Blind Institute in Florence and Prato because we were amazed by this new horizon offered by the “simple” E. Coli!

Statistical analysis

During the conferences in schools we distributed a first questionnaire before the project presentation and a second one after it. Since we met four different schools and numerous classes, we obtained enough data for a statistic elaboration, such as graphics design and the calculation of affirmative answers percentage in three questions of particular interest:

11) Did we achieve what you think is the science art’s aim?
15) Were you interested in our presentation?
13) Do you think it is morally acceptable to use simple organisms (e.g. bacteria) for art purpose?

In greater detail, we analysed questions number 11 and 15 together (because of their correlation) and question number 13 separately.
The percentages of affirmative answers in 11 and 15 are 87.40% and 92.09%, respectively. We calculated the same kind of percentage for a larger cluster of questions, which included 11, 15 and three more:

In your opinion, how commonly are industries taking advantage of science nowadays?
In your opinion, how much is science important in everyday life?
What do you think about spending finances for science art?

We compared the media of all values (11, 15 and the three more questions) with the percentage of the questions we wanted analyse (11 and 15). Our aim was to reduce the probability that affirmative answers quantity in 11 and 15 was something like a “false positive”, since survey participants often tend to confirm what they consider to be the researcher’s opinion. As you can see from data, question 15 obtained a higher percentage of affirmative questions than the media, so according to this criterion the value 92.09% can be considered more realistic than the others. In contrast, question 11 achieved a slightly lower percentage of affirmative answers than the media, a result that doesn’t improve the veracity of the question, even if it doesn’t devalue the data.

Working in the same way, we compared the affirmative answers percentage of question 13 with a cluster that included 13 and other bioethic (or similar) questions:

Do you think it is useful to invest resources in science art?
Do you think it is morally acceptable to use superior organism (e.g. fishes, cats, rabbits) for art purpose?
Do you think it is morally acceptable to use simple organisms (e.g. bacteria) for science purpose?
Do you think it is morally acceptable to use superior organism (e.g. fishes, cats, rabbits) for science purpose?

The percentage of affirmative answers in the question of interest (13) is clearly higher than the media of all values Furthermore, we were very interested in the discordance of opinions about the use of microorganisms or of complex organisms: such difference becomes more pronounced when the employment of both type of organisms is aimed at scientific art [87.85%], instead of scientific research [79.25%]. Another intriguing data is the percentage of people [4.7%] who agree for using microorganisms for scientific research but not for science art.

We carried out a multivariate analysis on the data collected during our project presentation in secondary and high schools. The first graph is referring to the set of questions we asked the students to answer before the presentation: in this multivariate analysis, we associate to each student a specific set of answers and, using the program PAST, we plotted them to investigate whether there was similarity in their answering schemes. Each point in the graph represents a student with his/her set of answers and the distance between the points is linked to the number of answers that are different. The green lines represent the most discriminating questions: the longer the line, the more different the answers. On the other hand, in red is shown the middle value, or the predominant value in the cluster.
As we can see, the points form some clusters, so the students can be divided in different categories, which are their belonging schools. As the first survey is intended to test the students’ background, or their base knowledge, we can infer that the clustering is the result of being in different schools, or even in different classes, because the teacher can influence somehow a student’s opinion or interests.
The second graph is referring to the survey that we gave to the students after the presentation.
In this case, the points don’t form any cluster, showing that there isn’t an evident link between the differences in the answers given by the students and their belonging schools.

We also correlated the answers of secondary school students to those of high school students, creating a "clustering" graph for each part of the survey . Each branch at the bottom of the chart represents a student, represented by the name of the school belonging. The various branches join together at short distances if the answers are very similar or at greater distances if they are less similar. As shown by both charts, higher schools give similar results to each other, and different from the secondary school results.

Interpretation of datas

Although some say art is an end in itself, science-art might surely have a variety of goals, for example sensitizing the public to current scientific debates or gifting the public with a different perspective on scientific world. We decided to ask this and other questions to more than two hundred high school and university students and the outcome was very impressive! Many people agreed with the fact science-art mission is to bring the public nearer to science and that such goal is at least sufficiently achieved (88,37% of positive answers). Other goals can be achieved though, as someone suggested, and science is still far from being as known as we think it should be; someone suggested science-art could simply be useful in making people have fun while getting in touch with science, others thought it could instead give a more personal and subjective cut to a field usually seen as absolutely rational and objective.
Many students, 88,78%, stated that they think it is useful to invest resources on science-art, but when it comes to decide which biological processes and techniques should be taken in account, we noticed a change in subject’s opinions; in fact while only 15% of the interviewed declared themselves as absolutely opposed to the usage of any kind of organism in science-art, a quarter declared they would be against science-art made with superior organisms (e.g fishes, plants, mammals etc..); even more interesting is the direct correlation between the number of those who answered negatively to the usage of animals and organisms in science-art and the number of those who wouldn’t take advantage of any organisms neither for scientific purpose (10% of the interviewed wouldn’t use microorganisms, 22% wouldn’t use superior organisms for scientific research).
Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, there is a clear similarity in the percentage of those who think science-art is useless or is failing its goals and of those who wouldn’t support a scientific progress gained through animal usage. This latter query brings us to another central question: have we, thanks to our project, succeeded in getting in touch with the most important public of high school students, or in other words, next generation of potential scientists? We directly asked them what were they thinking of our project and our outreach activities and we got a 92% score of appreciation, even though we must consider that statistically when people are asked to give an evaluation to a work done by those that are asking, they tend to give more positive feedback.

Team Unifi