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RDT info logoMagazine on European Research N° 51 - December 2006
 Man and machine: new communications
 E-inclusion, heads or tails
 "A straight-talking scientist can create quite a stir"
 Diabetes + obesity = diabesity
 The history of the yeast genome
 Rebel with multiple causes
 On the trail of the sixties
 Nobel prize winners to be

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Title   Biotechnology: growing in popularity

Better informed than they were fifteen years ago, Europeans are demonstrating a greater degree of confidence and optimism in respect to the progress of biomedicine and industrial biotechnologies. Nevertheless, they remain mainly opposed to “genetic modification, or cloning” in agriculture, and therefore, also in food. George Gaskell of the London School of Economics, Scientific Coordinator of the analysis of the sixth Eurobarometer Biotechnology survey (2005), takes us through these trends.

Optimism of Europeans regarding expected technological progress (2005)
While the IT revolution and the prospects of renewable energy sources (solar and wind power) draw strong support, those optimistic about the biotech sector and genetic engineering enjoy only a slim majority. With regard to the biotech sector in particular, European citizens are divided in their reaction, between scepticism (13%), pessimism (12%) and “don’t know” (22%). In contrast, a large proportion (35%) of those surveyed, remain sceptical of the benefits of space exploration. The response to nanotechnologies was the most uncertain (42%), while nuclear power had the largest group of opponents (37%).

Who knows nothing about stem-cell research, progress in prenatal diagnosis, the problems of co-existence of GM and traditional agriculture, or the trivialisation of genetic fingerprinting? Anything that comes into contact with rapid advances in biological sciences is now the subject of an intense flow of information and debates in the media that are registering higher and higher in public perception.

The distrusting nineties
“Europeans are displaying increasing interest in and attention to these questions, which they are encountering more and more in their daily lives, particularly in relation to looking after their own health,” comments George Gaskell of the London School of Economics, Scientific Coordinator of the Eurobarometer Biotechnology survey. In contrast to the elevated levels of optimism that accompanied advances in sectors such as IT or solar technologies, those relating to bio-innovation saw a relative level of distrust among public opinion during the 1990s. The announcement of the development of genetically modified strains, i.e. food, and the birth of Dolly the sheep definitely troubled many minds that had already been shaken by the BSE crisis.

“Today, biosciences are regaining the mostly optimistic perception they previously enjoyed, particularly in those areas we refer to as the red biotechnologies – linked to medicine and healthcare – and also the white biotechnologies – industrial-based uses such as bio-fuels, bio-plastics and bio-pharmaceuticals. The exception to this trend is seen in the distrust, if not out and out rejection, of green biotechnologies, which relate to genetic manipulation in agriculture – and therefore, by extension, food – and/or the natural environment.”(1)

Development of the optimism index for five technology sectors
This chart reveals clearly the “low ebb” which has halved the optimistic perception of biotechnologies and genetic engineering over the course of the four Eurobarometer studies organised during the 1990s. The reversal of this trend was confirmed in 2005. It also affects the other sectors.
Internal vs. external

This resistance is unique, and indubitably merits some thought. Why is public opinion more accepting of innovation in genetic engineering in relation to taking care of the inside of the human body than when we try to use these techniques to change that which we grow outside our bodies to feed ourselves?

“I believe in a realist interpretation of this behaviour. The majority of people recognise more and more that we should take – under the guarantee of scientific expertise and ethical supervision – the calculated risks that are inherent to bio-innovation, where they perceive a promising potential use. Nevertheless, they also want us to prove the tangible advantages of the biological prowess and promise that scientists and industry are striving to promote. These people are optimists in the best way – pragmatic and prudent. In the case of GM organisms and their impact on food production and nature, these people have doubts concerning the interests of even the innovations whose praises are being sung. Apart from the argument of fighting famine, why should we have to change, right now, the way in which nature supplies and always has supplied our food?”

Beyond GM organisms, another hot topic explored by the survey is the perception of opinion on stem-cell research. What are the ethical problems raised by this research, especially in relation to any specific religious beliefs that may or may not be held by those interviewed? Even among those who attend a place of worship, realistic expectations of the positive findings of this research in the medical field dominate, as long as there is control of the consequences of the research on morals and society. “The question is whether the promise attributed to advances in stem-cell research, largely disseminated through the media, is realistic, or whether it borders on hyperbole. If the latter is the case, the optimistic viewpoint risks disappearing.”

Young people: what generational change?
The Eurobarometer also allows analysis of attitudes towards live human research on the basis of the age of respondents. “There are frequently statements about the worrying lack of interest in science, even an opposition to it, among young people. That is not what comes out of this survey, however. They have a positive opinion that is usually equivalent to, and occasionally greater than, that of the next class of adults (from 25 to 45 years of age), which extends to practically all subjects.” Therefore, despite the popularisation in the media of anti GM movements, the under-25s is the group that is mostly prepared to consume GM produce when it comes on the market. Is this the manifestation of a generational change by a class of young people brought up since infancy in the world of fast food, and no longer encumbered by the nutritional neuroses of their elders? As to the question of whether they worry about the long-term effects of their diet on their health, three out of five young people said they were not or only a little concerned. This indifference seems to represent the expression of a fairly typical adolescent attitude, rather than a real change in mentality. “This result is particularly gloomy when you consider the problems presented by the emerging preoccupation with childhood obesity…”

(1) All quotes are by George Gaskell.

Version imprimable
  Low resolution paving the way for greater detail
Conducted six times in 15 years, each time including the latest
new Member States, the Eurobarometer Biotechnology survey
is one of the most systematic sources of data in terms of
perception of public opinion of this subject ...

  • Download the report (Europeans and Biotechnology in 2005 - Patterns and Trends)

      George Gaskell (London Scholl of Economics)  

      Low resolution paving the way for greater detail

    Conducted six times in 15 years, each time including the latest new Member States, the Eurobarometer Biotechnology survey is one of the most systematic sources of data in terms of perception of public opinion of this subject. The data are used as a reference for many scientific purposes, not just in Europe, but also in the USA, Canada, Japan and Brazil. “This approach of a mass survey repeated at regular intervals allows us to form a sort of low resolution satellite image (the statistical margin of confidence is 95%), covering a very wide area. It reveals domains or other forms of investigation, such as social psychology, sociology and political science that merit being undertaken to analyse the findings in greater detail. It is pertinent, for example, to discover the extent to which there are important differences in perception between the 25 countries of the EU. These differences draw a mosaic of cultures that have an empirical effect on the geography of the opinions expressed.” (George Gaskell).