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European Commission - Public Opinion

Biosociety and the Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy
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Page last update: 25/12/2008


Eurobarometer takes the temperature of public opinion in the EU on a broad range of topics and provides revealing insights into the perceptions and needs of European citizens. Biotechnology and its various applications are among the important areas it gauges.

European and biotechnology 2005
The ‘Europeans and biotechnology’ [PDF document - 406 Kb] series of Eurobarometer surveys measures the attitudes and perceptions of a representative sample of the adult population of each Member State. The latest in this series of surveys , which began in the 1990s, was conducted in 2005. The results were released in 2006 and, for the first time, included the ten new Member States.
The survey revealed a growing optimism regarding biotechnology among the 25 000 European citizens it interviewed in the 25 EU Member States. More than half of citizens (52%) believed that biotechnology will improve their quality of life. The survey also revealed a growing public understanding of biotech-related issues.
People reacted favourably to the emerging medicinal applications of biotechnology, such as gene therapy (i.e. identifying and treating hereditary diseases) and pharmacogenetics (i.e. tailoring drugs to fit a person’s genetic make-up). Europeans also generally came out in favour of the controversial question of the use of embryonic stem cells (the body’s master cells) in medical research, albeit within a strict ethical framework. The emerging area of white (industrial) biotechnology, including biofuels, bioplastics and the production of pharmaceuticals in plant, was strongly supported, with over 70% of respondents believing that governments should encourage it.
Nearly three-fifths of Europeans did not object to the idea of having their genetic data banked for research purposes. Trust in various biotech actors is growing. University researchers enjoy the trust of nearly three-quarters of respondents, while industry researchers elicit 64%.
One area where public trust is still lacking is green biotechnology which includes using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in foodstuffs. A majority of Europeans (58%) believe that the development of GM foods should not be encouraged.

Questionnaire English version [PDF document - 180 Kb]
Descriptive statistics [PDF document - 222 Kb]

Europeans and biotechnology 2002
‘Europeans and biotechnology 2002 ’ [PDF document - 695 Kb] was conducted in 2002 and the results were published in 2003. More than 16 000 people answered a series of questions about biotechnology-related issues.
The 2002 survey showed that the opinions of Europeans towards biotechnology had more or less stabilised. It also illustrated that, despite being somewhat cautious, Europeans were by no means technophobic.
The vast majority believed that telecommunications, IT and solar technology would greatly improve their lives. Nevertheless, although Europeans generally viewed biotechnology positively, their enthusiasm towards this emerging field was somewhat more tempered.
The jury was still out for about a quarter of European citizens, who had no opinion on the subject. However, among those who expressed an opinion, 44% were optimistic and 17% were pessimistic.
People taking part in the survey thought that research into certain biotechnological applications was desirable. They mostly agreed that using genetics to detect hereditary diseases, and to produce medicines and vaccines was acceptable. Nevertheless, the survey revealed a certain amount of anxiety regarding this emerging field. The majority of respondents considered the production of genetically modified food as risky and unacceptable.
Their perceptions seemed to reflect how much they trusted various institutions involved with biotechnology. Nearly three-quarters of respondents had confidence in doctors, university scientists, as well as consumer and patients’ organisations. Over half trusted the media, environmental groups and the European Commission, but fewer trusted their own governments.
Although about a quarter of Europeans distrusted industry, support for biotech firms had risen from a confidence deficit of minus 10% in 1999 to a surplus of 23%. This could be due to the fact that “the public’s association with the term industry has changed from agri-foods to medical biotechnologies”.
Although Europeans’ knowledge of biology was sound, their awareness of genetics was shakier, the survey found. Just over half the respondents knew that humans shared a majority of their genes with chimps. On the other hand, 35% thought that ordinary tomatoes had no genes.
The previous edition of this survey is entitled Eurobarometer 52.1 [PDF document - 2,44 Mb].

Europeans, science and technology
‘Europeans, science and technology’ [PDF document - 240 Kb] studied the experiences and perceptions of European citizens towards science and technology. Over 16 000 people were interviewed across the EU, reflecting the population demographics of Member States.
The survey found that, although nearly half of Europeans say they are interested in science and technology, two-thirds consider themselves to be poorly informed about the subjects – except in the cases of topical issues, such as ‘mad cow disease’ and global warming.
Respondents still held a positive opinion regarding the benefits of science and technology, but many no longer viewed these disciplines as being able to find the answers to the world’s most pressing problems, such as eliminating poverty and famine.
The study found that doctors, scientists and engineers are the most highly regarded professions in Europe. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of interviewees wanted some social monitoring of scientific activity to ensure its compliance with society’s basic ethical and moral standards. Respondents attributed the low level of interest in scientific studies and careers among young people to the field’s complexity and lack of appeal.
European citizens support the idea of integrating European research activities. A majority believe that improving co-operation and coordination will have a greater impact on the quality of European research than investing more money.

Social values, science and technology
‘Social values, science and technology’ [PDF document -1.5 MB] The Research Directorate-General wished to commission a poll on the views of Europeans on ethics in science and technology. Face-to-face interviews were conducted in people’s homes in their national language in early 2005. The countries surveyed included the 25 Member States, the candidate countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Turkey), as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
A first examination of the surveys findings on the interaction between ethics and science shows a European society which appears to give priority to objectivity as far as the S&T decision-making process is concerned: the majority favour a risks-benefits analysis (53%) over the moral and ethical issues (33%). Two in three respondents believed that S&T decision-makers should take the advice of experts over the general public’s (23%) when it comes to assessing risks and benefits.
European citizens overwhelmingly recognize what S&T have done for society and will continue to do to further quality of life. This is the case even for the more controversial areas of research, such as biotechnology and genetic engineering, which a majority of citizens believes will have a positive effect on our way of life.
Yet, when directly confronted with specific technological and scientific applications, Europeans still prove to be highly influenced by moral considerations, proving that science is not completely value-free.
These results show that in cases of potential conflict between a scientific application and the individuals’ ethical frame of reference, regulation and control are essential. From this perspective, the European Commission could play an extremely important role as three in four citizens believe that its work in regulating S&T has a positive effect on society.


Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top