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Brussels, 27 April 2000

Questions and expectations on biosciences -
Commission to promote debate

Commission appoints 11 top experts and publishes a survey of public opinion

Eurobarometer 52.1 - The Europeans and Biotechnology. FULL REPORT in PDF (2.5 Mb)

BIOSCIENCES HIGH LEVEL GROUP (BHLG) - MEMBERSHIP LIST

EUROBAROMETER 2000 SUMMARY REPORT

[Released 19 April 2000 - Embargoed until 27 April 2000 at 12.00]

During a press briefing on 27 April, Philippe Busquin, Commissioner for research, will announce the establishment of a High Level Group on Biosciences. This group, consisting of top-level European scientists, will examine the wide-ranging challenges and opportunities that the development of the life sciences raises for society. It will also help the Commission organise a summit on Biosciences. "I want to ask scientists back to the debating table as Europe needs to make sure that it has a sound basis for discussing these issues" says Busquin; adding that "a conscious political decision in this field is not possible without informed advice and public debate".

Advances in life sciences research are generating significant opportunities for improving the quality of life for European citizens. At the same time complex issues associated with these advances are raising considerable uncertainty and concern among the public and policy makers. In response, Commissioner Busquin has invited eleven of Europe's top experts to form a high level group. The Group should offer a science-based perspective on these advances and their implications, and advise on how scientists might better participate in the necessary dialogue with society.

The newly-formed group will have its inaugural meeting on 26-27 April and hold a first press briefing immediately thereafter in order to explain its approach to the challenge. The press conference will also provide an opportunity to present the preliminary results of a 1999 Eurobarometer survey of public opinion on biotechnology. This latest survey - the fourth since 1991 - maps changes that are relevant to the future of life sciences in Europe (extracts below). It shows in particular a decline in trust across all professional organisations, especially in the environmental NGOs and in academics.

The press briefing will take place on 27 April 2000, from 10:45 to 12:00, at the Breydel building, avenue d'Auderghem 45, 1040 Brussels. Journalists are welcome to meet with the members of the High level group and Commissioner Busquin afterwards during a buffet lunch. They should notify Michel Claessens or Stéphane Hogan before the event so that practical arrangements can be made.

For further information, please contact:

Stéphane Hogan, Quality of Life programme, Research DG
Fax: +32.2.299.1860
E-mail : Research Contact

Michel Claessens, Communication Unit, Research DG
Fax: +32-2-295.82.20
E-mail: michel.claessens@ec.europa.eu


High Level Group in Biosciences

The Group is composed of eminent life scientists, invited to advise upon current and likely future developments in their field. The Group may be invited to prepare opinions on request by the Commissioner and will be free to prepare opinions on other matters at their own choice, relating to their mandate. It is expected that they will aim at consensus, with freedom to dissent, and their opinions will normally be published. Members have been invited not only for their eminence in the life sciences (and/or applications), but also for their ability to communicate to non-experts.

Eurobarometer 52.1 - The Europeans and Biotechnology

Approach

In each country, questions were put to a representative sample of the national population over 15 years of age. In all, 16,082 people were surveyed, that is, an average of around 1000 people per country except for Germany (2000: 1000 in the new Länder and 1000 in the old Länder), the United Kingdom (1300: 1000 in Great Britain and 300 in Northern Ireland) and Luxembourg (600). The figures given in this report for the European Union as a whole are a weighted average of the national figures. For each country, the weighting used is the proportion of the national population over 15 years of age in relation to the Community population over 15 years of age. The survey also includes sociodemographic analysis and comparison to previous Eurobarometer surveys made in 1991, 1993 and 1996.

Some highlights from the 1999 survey

Europeans feel poorly informed but are willing to learn about biotechnology.

When asked to agree/disagree with the statement "I feel adequately informed on biotechnology", only 11% of respondents (13% of men, 9% of women) agreed, whilst 81% disagreed and 9% "do not know" (DNK). However, 72% of those interviewed agreed that they "would take time to read articles or watch television programmes on the advantages and disadvantages of the advances in biotechnology", compared to 19% who "mostly disagree" and only 9% DNK.

Their level of knowledge is low

In spite of the greater prominence of the Genome project and GM foods in the media and in public debates, the public's understanding of some basic biotechnology issues is surprisingly limited. Some 35% of Europeans agree to the statement, "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do" while 30% DNK, so only 35% appear to realise that all tomatoes contain genes. There are also big differences between countries. For instance, 41% of Germans and 40% of the French believe the statement to be true compared to the Dutch, of whom only 10% think it is true and 60% recognise that it is false.

Who do you trust ?

Consumer organisations are regarded as trustworthy by most Europeans (55%), just ahead of the medical profession (53%) and environmental protection organisations (45%) - down 11% since 1996 - but well ahead of universities (26%)-down 9 %, animal protection organisations (25%), television and newspapers (20%), international institutions (17%), national public authorities (15%), farmers' associations (15%) and religious organisations (9%).

Europeans are not technophobes but are not enthusiastic about biotechnology.

While a majority of Europeans continue to think that technologies such as solar energy, information technology, telecommunications and the internet "will improve our way of life in the next 20 years", 41% think this of biotechnology - a fall of 5% since 1996. Only nuclear power, at 26%, attracts less confidence. The highest level of optimism about biotechnology is Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, while the lowest is in Greece, the UK and Italy.

Support for different applications of biotechnology varies

Seven applications of biotechnology were submitted to the judgement of Europeans. They are perceived quite differently. For instance, there is clear agreement that it is morally acceptable to use genetic tests to detect inherited diseases, to develop GM bacteria to clean pollution and to introduce human genes in bacteria to produce medicine or vaccines. There is a more limited acceptance of cloning human cells or tissue to help a patient or to transfer plant genes to other plants to obtain resistance to insects. Two other applications are considered just below the mid-point: the use of biotechnology in food production to improve taste or nutritional content and the cloning of animals, even for medical applications. Overall support for these seven applications is strongest is Spain and weakest in Greece.

For or against biotechnology ?

Asked whether they "would sign a petition against biotechnology", 39% are more likely to agree, compared to 38% who are more likely to disagree, with a higher DNK rate than for the other statements (23%). There are significant differences across the EU: 66% mostly agree in Greece, 51% in Austria, 46% in France and 45% in former West Germany. However, the majority is likely to disagree in the Netherlands (51%), followed by Sweden (50%), Denmark and Finland (47% each).

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PRESS RELEASES | 31.05.2000