Europeans and biotechnologies in 2010 - Winds of change?

(Nanowerk News) The European Commission has released their new report "Europeans and biotechnology in 2010 – Winds of change?" (pdf). This latest Eurobarometer survey on the Life Sciences and Biotechnology, which also specifically addresses nanotechnologies in the context of biotechnology, is based on representative samples from 32 European countries and conducted in February 2010. The report points to a new era in the relations between science and society. While entrenched views about GM food are still evident, the crisis of confidence in technology and regulation that characterised the 1990s – a result of BSE, contaminated blood and other perceived regulatory failures – is no longer the dominant perspective.
In 2010 we see a greater focus on technologies themselves: are they safe? Are they useful? And are there 'technolite'alternatives with more acceptable ethical-moral implications? Europeans are also increasingly concerned about energy and sustainability. There is no rejection of the impetus towards innovation: Europeans are in favour of appropriate regulation to balance the market, and wish to be involved in decisions about new technologies when social values are at stake.
Here is an overview of the findings:
Technological optimism
A majority of Europeans are optimistic about biotechnology (53 per cent optimistic; 20 per cent say 'don't know'). In comparison, they are more optimistic about brain and cognitive enhancement (59; 20), computers and information technology (77; 6), wind energy (84; 6) and solar energy (87; 4), but are less optimistic about space exploration (47; 12), nanotechnology (41; 40) and nuclear energy (39; 13). Time series data on an index of optimism show that energy technologies – wind energy, solar energy and nuclear power – are on an upward trend – what we call the 'Copenhagen effect'. While both biotechnology and nanotechnology had seen increasing optimism since 1999 and 2002 respectively, in 2010 both show a similar decline – with support holding constant but increases in the percentages of people saying they 'make things worse'. With the exception of Austria, the index for biotechnology is positive in all countries in 2010, indicating more optimists than pessimists – Germany joining Austria in being the least optimistic about biotechnology. But in only three countries (Finland, Greece and Cyprus) do we see an increase in the index from 2005 to 2010.
Only 45 per cent of Europeans say they have heard of nanotechnology, which in the survey is described in the context of consumer products. Six out of ten EU citizens who expressed an opinion support such applications of nanotechnology, with support varying from over 70 per cent in Poland, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland and Iceland to less than 50 per cent in Greece, Austria and Turkey. For the opponents of nanotechnology, safety is the pressing concern followed by the perceived absence of benefits.
A comparison of crop based (first generation) biofuels with sustainable (second generation) biofuels made from non-edible material shows that overall, Europeans are positive towards both types. 78 per cent of Europeans support crop based biofuels and 89 per cent support sustainable biofuels. It would appear that debates about the downsides of crop based biofuels – on food security, food prices and destruction of forests for crop cultivation –have had only a marginal impact on the public's perceptions.
Synthetic biology
Following a description of synthetic biology respondents in the survey were asked – 'Suppose there was a referendum about synthetic biology and you had to make up your mind whether to vote for or against. Among the following, what would be the most important issue on which you would like to know more?' Our respondents were asked to select three from the list of seven issues of interest. 73 per cent selected 'possible risks'; 61 per cent 'claimed benefits' and 47 per cent 'who will benefit and who will bear the risks'. Information about social and ethical issues was the least frequent choice at 19 per cent. Asked about their views on whether, and under what conditions, synthetic biology should be approved, of those respondents who expressed a view 17 per cent said that they do not approve under any circumstances; 21 per cent do not approve except under very special circumstances; 36 per cent approve as long as synthetic biology is regulated by strict laws and only 3 per cent approve without any special laws. Overall, Europeans consider synthetic biology a sensitive technology that demands precaution and special regulations, but an outright ban would not find overwhelming support.
GM food
GM food is still the Achilles' heel of biotechnology. The wider picture is of declining support across many of the EU Member States – on average opponents outnumber supporters by three to one, and in no country is there a majority of supporters. What is driving the continued opposition to GM food? Public concerns about safety are paramount, followed by the perceived absence of benefits and worry – GM food is seen as unnatural and makes many Europeans 'uneasy'. Across the period 1996-2010, we see, albeit with fluctuations, a downward trend in the percentage of supporters. Denmark and the UK, at the higher end of the distribution of support, are exceptions, as is Austria, at the lower end. Those among the 'old' EU countries with a ban on GM crops in place consistently show low values of support, with Italy joining the group. In contrast, Member States where GM crops are grown tend to show among the highest values, suggesting a link between private attitudes and public policies.
Animal cloning for food products
Cloning animals for food products is even less popular than GM food with 18 per cent of Europeans in support. In only two countries – Spain and the Czech Republic – does animal cloning attract the support of three in ten. This contrasts with 14 countries in which support for GM food is above 30 per cent. Is this an indication of broader public anxieties about biotechnology and food? The idea of the 'natural superiority of the natural' captures many of the trends in European food production, such as enthusiasm for organic food, local food, and worries about food-miles. And if 'unnaturalness' is one of the problems associated with GM food, it appears to be an even greater concern in the case of animal cloning and food products.
Cisgenics is the genetic modification of crops adding only genes from the same species or from plants that are crossable in conventional breeding programmes. It could be employed, for example, in the cultivation of apples to provide resistance to the common apple diseases and thereby reduce pesticide use. In all EU countries, cisgenic production of apples receives higher support (55 per cent) than transgenic apples (33 per cent), with the former attracting majority support in 24 countries (including Austria).
GM food and transgenic apples are both seen to be unnatural by three out of four respondents. However, support for GM food (27 per cent) is a little lower than for transgenic apples (33 per cent). Transgenic apples are more likely to be perceived as safe and not to harm the environment. It is likely that the preamble in the survey describing transgenic apples as a technique that would 'limit use of pesticides, and so pesticide residues on the apples would be minimal'' suggested an attractive benefit both to food safety and the environment. Cisgenics might be seen as a hypothetical example of the socalled 'second generation' of GM crops. Here, the benefits of GM apple breeding are achieved with a technolite process, a consumer benefit is offered and as such it achieves better ratings in terms of benefits, safety, environment, naturalness, and double the support of GM food.
Regenerative medicine
Developments in regenerative medicine attract considerable support across Europe. 68 per cent of respondents approve of stem cell research and 63 per cent approve of embryonic stem cell research. Levels of approval for gene therapy are similar, at 64 per cent. Xenotransplantation – an application long subject to moratoria in various countries – now finds approval with 58 per cent of respondents. And the solid support for medical applications of biotechnology spreads over to non-therapeutic applications. Moving from repair to improvement, we find that 56 per cent of the European public approves of research that aims to enhance human performance. However, support for regenerative medicine is not unconditional. Approval is contingent upon perceptions of adequate oversight and control.
While approximately one in three Europeans have heard about biobanks before, nearly one in two Europeans say they would definitely or probably participate in one, with Scandinavian countries showing the most enthusiasm. And people do not seem to have particular worries about providing certain types of information to biobanks: blood samples, tissue samples, genetic profile, medical records and lifestyle data elicit similar levels of concern. However, amongst those similar levels there are some nuances. In twelve countries, providing one's medical records provokes the most worry, and in ten countries it is the genetic profile that is most worrying. Asked about who should be responsible for protecting the public interest with regard to biobanks, we find a split between those countries opting for self-regulation (by medical doctors; researchers; public institutions such as universities or hospitals) and those opting for external regulation (ethics committees; national governments; international organisations and national data protection authorities). Broadly speaking, respondents in those countries which show higher levels of support for biobanks tend to favour external regulation more than self-regulation. In those countries where biobanks are unfamiliar, self regulation is a more popular way of guarding the public interest. On the issue of consent, almost seven in ten Europeans opt for specific – permission sought for every new piece of research; one in five for broad consent, and one in sixteen for unrestricted. But of those more likely to participate in the biobank, some four in ten opt for either unrestricted or broad consent.
Governance of science
Europeans' views on the governance of science were sought in the context of two examples of biotechnology: synthetic biology and animal cloning for food products. Respondents were asked to choose between, firstly, decisions making based on scientific evidence or on moral and ethical criteria, and secondly, decisions made on expert evidence or reflecting the views of the public. 52 per cent of European citizens believe that synthetic biology should be governed on the basis of scientific delegation where experts, not the public decide, and where evidence relating to risks and benefits, not moral concerns, are the key considerations. However, nearly a quarter of Europeans take the opposite view: it is the public, not experts, and moral concerns, not risks and benefits, that should dictate the principles of governance for such technologies (the principle of 'moral deliberation'). For animal cloning (compared to synthetic biology) some 10 per cent fewer opt for scientific deliberation and 9 per cent more opt for moral deliberation. It seems that moral and ethical issues are more salient for animal cloning for food products than for synthetic biology: altogether 38 per cent of respondents choose a position prioritising moral and ethical issues for synthetic biology, with 49 per cent doing the same for animal cloning for food. To put this another way, the European public is evenly split between those viewing animal cloning for food as a moral issue and those viewing it as a scientific issue.
Trust in key actors
The re-building of trust in regulators and industry from the lows in the 1990s is in evidence. On an index capturing a trust surplus or trust deficit, we find 'national governments making regulations' up 23 per cent since 2005. 'Industry developing biotechnology products' is up 9 per cent since 2005 and 62 per cent since 1999, and 'the EU making laws across Europe' is up 14 per cent since 2005. On this index, 'university scientists' maintain a trust surplus of around 80 per cent. There is a robust and positive perception of the biotechnology system. It seems fair to conclude that Europeans have moved on from the crisis of confidence of the mid to late 1990s. It is also notable that both national governments and the EU carry almost equivalent trust surpluses in the majority of countries. It seems as if the idea of national regulation within a framework of European laws is accepted amongst the publics of the European Member States.
Familiarity and engagement
The link between familiarity and engagement with technology is not straightforward. On the one hand, views of nanotechnology are clearly related to the extent of public familiarity and engagement. Those who are actively engaged in finding out about nanotechnology tend to be much more inclined to perceive of it as safe and beneficial and something not to worry about, compared to those for whom nanotechnology is unfamiliar. On the other hand, when it comes to the two controversial biotechnologies, GM food and animal cloning in food production, levels of familiarity and engagement are only weakly related to perceptions of them. These technologies similarly tend to invoke worry, and are perceived as less beneficial and safe than nanotechnology.
Religion and education
Overall, the non-religious are more optimistic about the contribution of technologies to the improvement of everyday life and are more likely to support human embryonic stem cell research. But when faced with a conflict between science and religion they are almost evenly split on which pillar of the truth should prevail – not that different to people in the major European religious denominations. Religious commitment appears to be associated with greater concerns about ethical issues in stem cell research and with a belief that ethics should prevail over scientific evidence. However, here again there are many highly religious people who say that science should prevail in such a conflict of opinion.
As to the effect of education the findings show that socialisation in a scientific family and having a university education in science are associated with greater optimism about science and technology, more confidence in regulation based on scientific delegation, and more willingness to encourage the development of both nanotechnology and GM food. However, the findings also show that scientific socialisation either in the family or at university is not a magic bullet – it is not the panacea to the issue of resistance to innovation. For example, a majority of those coming from a scientific family background or with a degree in science are not willing to support the development of GM food.
Climate change
Across a number of questions it is apparent that there is widespread concern with climate change, and more generally with sustainability. Respondents in all countries except two (Latvia and Malta) favour changes in ways of living over technological solutions, even if this means reduced economic growth. Only in 7 countries (Bulgaria, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia and Malta) is support for the 'changing ways of life' solution below the 'comfortable majority' threshold of 55 per cent. In some countries ( Finland, Denmark, or Switzerland) the support for the 'changing ways of life' solution is much stronger than the support of the notion that technology will solve climate change (for instance, about six times stronger in Finland, where only 14 per cent opt for the 'technological solution' and 84 per cent for the 'changing ways of life' solution). The relatively small percentage of 'don't know' responses shows that people now feel ready to take a stance.
Whatever people's view on climate change respondents, the majority is likely to assume that others share their views and that their views will be reflected in national policies. Given that an individual's beliefs are reinforced by the support – actual or perceived - of others, that so many believe that others share their views, is an indication of just how difficult is the task of changing beliefs about climate change.
Public ethics, technological optimism and support for biotechnologies
Analysing the range of questions in the survey that address issues of public ethics – the moral and ethical issues raised by biotechnology and the life sciences – we find five clusters of countries. Key contrast emerge between clusters of countries. First, those that prioritise science over ethics and those that prioritise ethics over science, and second those countries that are concerned about distributional fairness and those who are not. In combination these contrasts are related to people's optimism about the contribution of technologies to improving our way of life and support for regenerative medicines and other applications of biotechnology and the life sciences. Where ethics takes priority over science, concerns about distributional fairness lead to a profile of lower support; but in the absence of sensitivities about distributional fairness, the profile of support is relatively higher. When science taking priority over ethics is combined with concerns about distributional fairness, then we find only moderate support; but here again the absence of sensitivities about distributional fairness reveals a profile of high support.
Source: European Commission