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.
|A large percentage of Italians favour using biotech research for health purposes|
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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.
EU sources and