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September 1, 2000


U. S. Public Opinion Divided Over Biotechnology? More are


U. S. Public Opinion Divided Over Biotechnology?
Although a majority of US citizens remain supportive, opposition to
biotechnology is on the rise

Susanna Horning Priest. Associate Professor in the Department of
Journalism, Texas A&M University, College Station TX 778434111

Nature Biotechnology, September 2000 Vol. 18: 939-942

Conventional wisdom judges the people of the United States to have few
concerns about biotechnology in comparison to people in other parts of the
developed world. According to data from a new survey, this picture is at
once both accurate and misleading.At least one other major comparative
study using data from 1996-1997 published this year appeared to indicate
generally more favorable attitudes in the US than in Europe 1 . But recent
data reflect mixed opinions in the US consistent with other evidence
suggesting moderate declines in US support. While the proportions may be
different, the US increasingly resembles Europe in having significant
amounts of opposition.

A changing climate
Several reports have suggested that the controversy over genetic
engineering might possibly be heating up in the United States. For
example, a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC;
Washington, DC), which asked people to project whether or not
"biotechnology will provide benefits" for themselves and their families
over a five year period, suggests that support for biotechnology is
undergoing a substantial and steady erosion compared with earlier surveys
(78% support in 1997, 75% in February 1999, 63% in October 1999, and 59%
in May 2000)2 .

Figures recently released by the US National Science Foundation (NSF;
Washington, DC) also show a small increase in the proportion of people who
view the harmful results of genetic engineering as outweighing the
benefits between 1995 and 1997 and again between 1997 and 1999;
interestingly, the shift was most noticeable for those with bachelor's
degrees or higher, among whom the proportion expecting harm to be greater
than benefit rose from 20% in 1995 to 24% in 1997 to 29% in 1999 3 . Other
indicators suggest US opinion has grown increasingly negative. According
to figures released by the US Office of Technology Assessment, in 1986
only 22% of the US public thought genetic engineering would make "the
quality of life" worse, and in 1982 only 16%. 4

In this context, the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M
University conducted a telephone survey for the author between April 10
and May 3 that explored current public attitudes to biotechnology. The
nationwide survey was limited to US citizens aged 18 and over, and was
based on standard random digit dialing procedures, resulting in 1002
completed interviews out of 3182 qualified contacts (a cooperation rate of
31.5%). The findings The US population as a whole still leans toward a
positive view of developments in biotechnology, with 52.8% of respondents
giving an affirmative answer to a question about whether genetic
engineering would "improve our way of life in the next 20 years" (959
respondents for this item; see Fig. 1). At the same time, however,a
substantial proportion(30.1%) of this group stated they believe that
genetic engineering"will make things worse" over this same period. Those
hoping for sustained public enthusiasm for biotechnology in the US
therefore have some grounds for optimism, but also grounds for concern.

Support for genetic engineering by this measure does not reach the levels
of positive responses obtained in this survey for similar questions about
other technologies ranging from computers and information technology (with
87.8% expecting improvement), to solar energy (87.7%), telecommunications
(82.3%), the Internet (72.1%), and even space exploration (62.2%). Of the
technologies included in this study, only nuclear energy (with just 43.0%
expecting it to improve life) scored lower. And of all seven technologies,
only nuclear energy (with 32.4% expecting it to "make things worse") was
similar to genetic engineering in garnering close to one third negative
responses. In other words, despite different levels of overall support,
the two technologies are very similar in the proportion of people who hold
the more pessimistic view. The conventional wisdom that says that genetic
engineering is noncontroversial in the US is difficult to sustain in the
light of these figures, as is the assumption that opposition is limited to
the extremist "fringe." The data for a battery of food biotechnology items
also suggest a considerable degree of polarization (see Fig. 2) consistent
with the existence of resistance and perhaps foreshadowing a more extended
public debate on some uses of biotechnology. Few respondents in this study
tended to choose neutral responses to any of these questions, which have
remarkably similar distributions when the two negative items about genetic
engineering being "fundamentally against nature" and having the potential
to cause "a global disaster" are reversed as shown in Fig. 2.

Respondents were also if they agreed or disagreed with three other
statements: Whether GM food will "bring benefits to a lot of people;"
whether associated risks were "acceptable;" and whether "current
regulations are sufficient." Agreement was weakest for the idea that
regulations currently in place for genetically modified foods are
sufficient and strongest for the idea that these foods would bring people
benefits. Only small numbers moderately (13.6%) or strongly (8.6%) agreed
that "public consultation" about genetically modified foods would be "a
waste of time" due to the complexity of the issue (not shown). Most people
in the US do seem to have formed definite opinions. Not only are there low
numbers of neutral responses, but also relatively low numbers of "don't
know" responses. For example, the five questions in Fig. 2, "don't know"
answers accounted for at most 5.4%, 8.7%, 4.1%, 8.6% and 16.9% of the
respondents, respectively. Only 2.9% answered "don't know" or refused to
answer the question about public consultation. Respondents were most
likely to have definite opinions about GM food's benefits and whether they
think it is "against nature," but were less certain about the risks and
more widely uncertain about the adequacy of the regulatory response.
Speculation that the general public does not yet have opinions in this
area, while reasonable for many complex science based or technology
oriented controversies, does not appear entirely warranted at present for
food biotechnology.This is consistent with the fact that only 8.2%of the
respondents in this survey remembered first hearing about
biotechnology"only recently, within the last few weeks,"while 43.2%
remembered hearing about it"quite some time ago,three years or more."

Roots of controversy
Consistent with the NSF results 3 , the survey just completed also
confirms that resistance does not appear to be reducible to issues of
science literacy or educational level (see Fig. 3).Those with more
education did score higher on a scale of life sciences related knowledge
consisting of ten "true or false" items, but the better educated groups
were not markedly more positive about encouraging biotechnology than the
less educated groups. While the level of relevant knowledge rises
progressively with education level, the average degree of encouragement
remains relatively stable.

The knowledge scale consisted of statements such as one that stated, "More
than half of human genetic makeup is identical to that of chimpanzees,"
which just under half (49.6%) of all respondents identified as true. But
only 13.6% of respondents thought that it was true that "By eating a
genetically modified fruit, a person's genes could also become modified"
and only 14.2% thought that "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while
genetically modified tomatoes do," reflecting general basic understanding
of relevant genetics. Still, 69.9% of respondents considered themselves
"not very well informed" or "not informed at all" about modern
biotechnology. Other research suggests that the US media have been
generally positive 5,6 , perhaps even one sidedly so 7 , in their coverage
of most biotechnology related issues. The current study indicated little
public enthusiasm for how well newspapers and television were reporting in
this area: only 44.4% of respondents thought these media were "doing a
good job for society." Churches "giving their points of view on
biotechnology" fared even worse, with only 36.8% thinking they were "doing
a good job" in this respect. It seems likely that respondents found little
guidance available from either source. But 57.9% thought the biotechnology
industry was "doing a good job"; this is about the same as for consumer
organizations (59.0%) and slightly higher than for environmental groups
(51.4%). Scientists, with 77.7% approval, and farmers, with 72.8%, fared
noticeably better, but "our government in making regulations" did not (at
39.5% approval). In short, people in the US continue to have faith that
science and industry involved with biotechnology are working for the good
of society. But they also feel the same way about consumer organizations.
The typical US citizen may not be getting the information or guidance in
this area that he or she would like, but they also do not feel that the
issues are so complicated that consulting them on biotechnology policy
would be futile. And they are concerned about whether the regulatory
system is functioning adequately in this new area.

A grain of salt
Despite these and other reflections of fairly broad based concern,
"genetically engineered foods or biotechnology" in the US food supply,
while a source of concern and one which received a mean rating of 2.84 on
a four point scale from "not at all concerned" to "very concerned" (958
respondents), still ranked lower by this measure than did any other area
of food related concern that was assessed, ranging from the use of
antibiotics in livestock at 2.90 (969 respondents) to bacterial
contamination at 3.64 (991 respondents). Rated in between were the use of
artificial preservatives at 2.96 (989 respondents), poor nutritional
quality at 3.33 (993 respondents), use of chemical pesticides at 3.45 (994
respondents), diseases from animals that pass to humans at 3.55 (993
respondents), and general food safety at 3.61(999 respondents).

Support does vary for different applications,however (see Fig.4). Food
biotechnology is perceived as somewhat more to be encouraged than the
cloning of animals to enable either biopharmaceutical production in milk
or the generation of organs for xenotransplantation to humans. But
genetically engineering pest resistant crops appears more acceptable than
food biotechnology generally, and engineering bacteria to produce
pharmaceuticals appears better accepted than any of these. Genetic testing
for inherited disease is the most generally encouraged application of any
biotechnology included. Average ratings of moral acceptability follow an
almost identical pattern. While this does not establish that people engage
in moral reasoning in forming opinions about biotechnology, it is
certainly suggestive of that possibility. Figure 4 also reveals that those
with extensive university level science training (those who remember
having taken six or more courses in science) do tend to be more positive
about all six biotechnology applications included, although the magnitude
of the difference varies. Because links with scores on the biological
literacy index proved weak, as did links with general levels of education,
it is worth considering whether the relationship between science courses
taken and encouragement for biotechnology is not best conceptualized as a
matter of exposure to, and support for, the culture, values, and power of
science, rather than specific knowledge of its results.

Taking science classes reflects a process of self selection for interest
and enthusiasm, and it is also the primary means by which undergraduate
students (who, in the US system, do not always engage directly in research
themselves) are socialized into the professional subculture of science.
This issue of perspective could help explain why these differences are
greatest for the cloning and organ transplant applications, the two
applications with the lowest general support, the ones generally seen as
carrying the highest risks, and the ones most easily imagined as having a
shock effect when first encountered because of their association with
active manipulation of the heredity and morphology of mammals. The next
greatest difference occurred for the application involving bacterial
genetic engineering to produce human pharmaceuticals, another across
species human medical use, but not one involving other mammals.

This is not to suggest that biotechnology would be more popular if all
university students became science majors. Rather, it suggests closer
attention be paid to issues of familiarity, control, and trust along with
the issue of knowledge or "science literacy" and that, in particular,
differences and similarities in values and world view between scientists
and others need to be more fully explored.

Bottom line?
In the end, survey data often raise more questions than they provide
answers. The US public appears to have clear opinions about biotechnology,
opinions that reflect sustained confidence in science and in agriculture,
but not in biotechnology's government regulators. Both industry and
consumer groups tend to be seen as working for the collective good. Basic
genetic knowledge is widely distributed, but it is also not a strong
predictor of attitudes toward biotechnology. Support for specific
applications appears more closely related to their moral acceptability,
although personal exposure to the culture of science seems to make people
more accepting of some of the more controversial of these applications.
The picture presented by these data is of a US public somewhat divided.
Although by looking only at summative figures it is possible to argue the
US remains positive about biotechnology overall, resistance is not
uncommon either. Those who are not in favor of biotechnology tend to be
opposed, rather than neutral or unsure, in comparison to parallel
distributions for other technologies. In addition to concern about who
might be looking over the shoulders of biotechnology's proponents, there
is also an indication that the public would favor being more widely
consulted. While only soothsayers venture to predict the future, the
prospect of more heated public debate in the US on these issues seems
consistent with these results.

Cloning attitudes
US media coverage of the cloning controversy made a clear imprint on
public awareness. Of 405 respondents who remembered a specific media story
about biotechnology that they had seen or read in the past three months,
162 (exactly 40%) stated that they recalled a story about cloning as their
first response. This was by far the most prominent story theme recalled,
followed by recall of stories about scientific studies of negative and of
positive impacts (first responses for 9.4% and 8.9%, respectively). In
contrast, only 2.0% of these respondents first recalled a story about an
environmental organization campaigning against biotechnology, and only
1.0% first recalled a story about a problem involving governmental
regulation. Twothirds (66.7%) of respondents stated they had heard of the
idea of "cloning animals such as sheep whose milk can be used to make
drugs and vaccines." And 112 of our 1002 respondents, or 11.2%,
spontaneously offered cloning when asked what came to their minds when
they "think about modern biotechnology," 94 of whom mentioned human
cloning. While there is little evidence suggesting public sentiment has
turned sharply against this prospect, opinions in the US are clearly
mixed. The current US survey did not include all of the detailed questions
about cloning that had been included in the Canadian study, but we do know
that most US respondents (67.2% of the 918 who answered this question)
agreed cloning is "useful for society." Yet the application was seen as
"risky for society" by almost as many (63.3% of 915 respondents). A
majority (55.5% of 921 respondents) still felt that overall, the
application "should be encouraged," though somewhat fewer (53.5% of 905)
found it "morally acceptable."

Funding for this project was provided by the US National Science
Foundation, Ethics and Values Studies program (directed by Rachelle D.
Hollander), and by the Office of the Vice President for Research, Texas
A&M University (Robert A. Kennedy). Questionnaire design was facilitated
by the cooperation of the International Research Group on Biotechnology
and the Public, coordinated by George Gaskell at the London School of
Economics, and in particular with the generous assistance of Edna
Einsiedel at the University of Calgary. Texas A&M graduate students
Godfrey Li (sociology) and Li Jin (journalism) acted as research
assistants for the analysis of these data.

1. National Science Board. Science & Engineering Indicators 2000 (National
Science Foundation, Arlington, VA, 2000) (NSB001), p 820. Contains
unpublished data from J.D. Miller, C., Midden, E., Einseidel, & L. Kimmel.
2. http://ificinfo.health.org/foodbiotech/survey.htm 3. National Science
Board. Science & Engineering Indicators 2000 (National Science Foundation,
Arlington, VA, 2000) (NSB001) 4. US Office of Technology Assessment. New
developments in biotechnology: public perceptions of biotechnology. NTIS
order #PB87207544 (1987) or www.ota.nap.edu/pubs.html. 5. Priest, S., &
Talbert, J. Southwestern Mass Communication Journal 10(1), 7685 (1994). 6.
Gaskell, G., Bauer, M.W., Durant, J., & Allum, N.C. Science 285, 384387
(1999). 7. Priest, S. A Grain of truth: The media, the public, and
biotechnology. (Rowman & Littlefield, in press).

2000 Nature America Inc. * http://biotech.nature.com