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9-Misc: Understanding public resentment towards biotech

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TITLE:  Understanding public resentment towards biotech
SOURCE: European Commission
DATE:   8 Jul 2004

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Understanding public resentment towards biotech

It is too easy to blame the media, and its tendency to dumb down and
sensationalise scientific discoveries, for the apparent public hostility
towards biotechnology, say Italian researchers. They asked the question:
if it isn't scientific illiteracy and media alarmism causing this
distrust, what or who is?

Using data from previous opinion surveys as their starting point, two
Italian researchers decided to delve deeper into the root causes of
public hostility towards the sciences and biotechnology in particular.
They found, contrary to common belief, that being better informed about
biotechnology is not a precursor to being more open and accepting of it.
Italians were also capable of making a distinction between 'the sciences'
in general and different biotech applications.

Talking about their work in the latest edition of Science, Massimiano
Bucchi of the University of Trento and Federico Neresini of the
University of Padua ask "Why are people hostile to biotechnologies?' They
answer this question using data collected during their 2003 survey of
almost 1 000 Italians' opinions on science, biotechnology, ethics and
governance issues.

They conclude that the negative attitudes of Italians towards
biotechnology "are not part of a more general public prejudice against
science". Indeed, 84% of respondents favour continuing research on
medical biotechnologies, whereas fewer (57%) thought such research should
continue on food. Elements of the Italian findings are confirmed in other
studies, including the EU's Eurobarometer survey of public opinion on
science. Almost 40% of participants in the current study feel scientists
are trustworthy sources of information on biotechnology - in the European
study, 45% of the EU-15 and 54% of the then candidate countries expressed
similar faith.

Communicating with the public 

At the same time, the authors note, scientific research appears to have
lost its air of impartiality, with 69% of respondents concurring that it
is "loaded with interests", and it has developed a split personality over
certain issues. For example, over 68% think that the scientific community
is divided over what to do about genetically modified organisms and more
than 83% perceive a lack of uniform opinion on cloning among specialists.

The challenge of scientific governance and ethics also came to the fore
in the study when Italians were asked who should decide whether to
continue research on biotechnologies. Just under 30% suggest a
transnational body - specifically mentioning the European Union - is best
placed to decide on such questions, while nearly 21% favour more
democratic decision-making on the subject.

"Our study suggests that what we are witnessing represents concern for
the procedures connecting scientific expertise, decision-making and
political representation," say the authors. They conclude that neither
the "leave it to the experts" approach nor the "utopian approach", which
assumes citizens are scientifically qualified to make the right
decisions, would be appropriate. They add that the objection to some
biotechnologies seems to be rooted in a "perceived absence of adequate
and publicly accountable procedures for the governance of innovation".

This matter was well aired at the European Group on Life Sciences' latest
meeting entitled 'Modern biology and visions of man'. Indeed, the Union
recognises the importance of scientific ethics and governance in its
Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research. Projects applying for EU
funding are obliged to include statements on how they will deal with the
ethical concerns of their research and how they plan to disseminate their
findings to a wider audience.

These matters are dealt with in more detail in the guide for
participating in FP6. In addition, the European Federation of
Biotechnology's dedicated task group on the public perception of biotech
offers support to projects funded under the EU's Integrated Projects and
Networks of Excellence instruments, helping them engage and communicate
with the public on this sensitive subject.


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