A one year project funded under the BIOTECH programme Scientific Studies on the Socio-Economic Impacts of Biotechnology.
Public opinion of the risks and benefits associated with biotechnology will have considerable bearing on the impact of developments in biotechnology on people's lives. Both excessive anxiety and too little caution could produce undesirable outcomes. This research project combines a philosophical analysis of the arguments over the safety of biotechnology with empirical research among young people in four European countries. The different conditions in the countries participating in the project will facilitate comparison of different cultural influences on objections to biotechnology. Biocult will, first, explore the cultural and social objections to biotechnology and the extent to which they rest on solid philosophical foundations. Is it simply a matter of risk-benefit analysis, or are there some deeper "categorical" objections? Secondly, it will examine the extent to which values made explicit in the philosophical analysis actually inform public perception. Empirical research will be carried out among young people in four European countries with different cultural backgrounds: Finland, Germany, Spain and the UK. Young people are growing up with biotechnology and may have different attitudes to the risks and benefits: it cannot be assumed that their perceptions will be the same as those who are currently adults.
(a) Philosophical Analysis
Many of the arguments over the desirability and ethical acceptability of biotechnology focus on questions of safety; whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks. This might suggest that the issues can be resolved in terms of risk-benefit analysis. However there are deeper philosophical questions about what counts as a risk and what counts as safety, in addition to issues about whether values are commensurable - is it possible, for example, to compare risks to human health, risks to the environment, and risks to the way of life? The possibility that there are some risks that are incommensurable raises the question of whether there are any satisfactory "categorical" objections to biotechnology (Hayry, 1994) and whether there is any substance in the "Playing God" objection to genetic engineering (Chadwick, 1989).
(b) Empirical research
The extent to which the arguments over biotechnology are accepted and the ways in which risks are perceived are of importance for policy planners and industrialists. It has been suggested that the public are increasingly sceptical of the claims of scientific experts and that the authority of science is challenged by "alternative knowledge claims" (Wheale & McNally, 1994:190). At the same time difference between the opinions of adults and young people, found in studies of attitudes towards genetic screening, suggest that the view of the adults of tomorrow cannot be 'read off from the attitudes of adults today (Cobb, Holloway, Elton and Raeburn 1991:322). Young people often have a greater facility with modern technology which may be related to a different perception of biotechnological innovation. This points to the need to trace the sources of knowledge on which young people draw and the process by which their views develop and change over time. Data on attitudes to specific aspects of Biotechnology will be collected from young people in schools and colleges in three age group: 11/12 14/15 and 17/18 in the four countries involved.
In December 1995 a workshop will be held at which European experts will be invited to comment on the findings.
Chadwick R. (1989) 'Playing God, Cogito.' Reprinted in Bioethics News 9 (1990).
Cobb E., Holloway S., Elton R. and Raeburn J.A. (1991) 'What do young people think about screening for cystic fibrosis?' J. Med. Genet. 28
Hayry, M. (1994) 'Categorical objections to genetic engineering - a critique'. Dyson A. and Harris J. (eds) Ethics and biotechnology, Routledge, London.
Co-ordinator: Professor Ruth Chadwick
Principal Investigator: Dr Mairi Levitt
Centre of Professional Ethics, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, PR1 2HE, UK