Attitudes to Biotechnology among Social Sciences Students at the University of Quilmes, Argentina

- G. Lucki; G. Janica; J. Chiaverini; J. Casalá; E. Antón; F. Carrizo; A.Mansilla; D. Roisinblit and Alberto Diaz
Department of Science & Technology,
National University of Quilmes,
Roque Sáenz Peña 180, Bernal (1876), Buenos Aires, Argentina

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 54-56.


Biological sciences and biotechnology have progressed explosively during the past few decades, and there is no doubt that they will be among the most exciting human endeavours of the next millennium. Communications, computer sciences and life sciences are representative examples of the contemporary scientific and technological progress. These disciplines, based on electronic or genetic information, are creating deep economical, social, ethical and personal changes. Therefore, democratic societies are compelled to think of the consequences of technological development. Will we have more and better foods for more people? Will we have better health care for more people? How these changes will affect the structure of families? Will we improve environment or simply introduce new and more complex problems?

Forty years after the discovery of the double helix, there seems to be little public perception of the technological impact of DNA structure, restriction enzymes, recombinant DNA, monoclonal antibodies, etc. and their influence on new medicines and diagnosis. Most people are still not aware the consequences for our everyday life of the impressive development of biotechnology companies that made possible Dolly's birth (1-10) and gene manipulation. Some examples of this are: the Human Genome Project; animal cloning; mass production of new medicines; gene diagnosis techniques (aimed at the prevention of diseases or at forensic problems); genetically engineered plants (resistant to herbicides, with higher content of fatty acids, fibres, etc.); bioremediation of contaminated soil and new "magic biological" recombinant drugs (e.g. human erythropoietin, human insulin, growth hormone, growths factors, thrombolytic agents, hepatitis B vaccine, etc.).

Science and new technologies should be submitted to an open and public debate to analyze their potential in improving life standards. Different points of view will certainly be put forward in such a debate: businessmen are worried of unraveling social fears that may slow down business; unions are concerned about growing unemployment, especially of the less qualified workers; non governmental organizations look for safer manufacturing practices and claim for regulations regarding genetically modified plants or microorganisms; many people are preoccupied about assisted fertilization and its regulations; consumer organizations have to deal with urgent problems as microbial food contamination. On the other hand, researchers usually underestimate society ignorance about science; etc. "Society scientific responsibility must be added to the scientific social responsibility" (11).

There have been a number of studies and surveys about the perception of the new technologies (12-17). The European Union, USA and Japan have formally organized commissions working on the subject of biotechnology and society. To our knowledge, underdeveloped countries and Latin America are well behind and have conducted no investigations on this matter.

Considering that the course Biotechnology and Society, a regular course of the Biotechnology program at the National University of Quilmes (UNQ), is devoted to the analysis of many of the above subjects we undertook a survey to asses the students perception of biotechnology. This paper reports on the consciousness of students from the Social Sciences' Department of UNQ about biotechnology and its social impact. Even though the sample was small we think it is representative of a specific social group in our country. In the near future we plan to extend our work to other UNQ departments, to the academic community and to the population surrounding the Campus.

Materials and Methods

The survey and the corresponding forms were designed during the regular course of Biotechnology and Society. Questions were formulated to examine: a) social and educational profile; b) biotechnology background; c) sources of information about science and new technologies; d) ideas about uses of biotechnology, reliable sources of information, and e) local consequences. Each interview lasted 30 minutes in average. 103 undergraduate students of the Social Sciences Department of the National University of Quilmes participated. We started with preliminary interview comprising 20 students. This allowed us to refine the questions and the procedure. Answers were grouped in classes and preliminary correlations were established.

Sample Characteristics

The mean age of the sample was 22 years old (66% 18-22 years, 27% 22-26 years and 7% 26-30 years). Sixty-eight were women (66%) and thirty-five were men (34%). 43% of the students had no paid job at the moment of the survey; 0% did not answer, and 57% had some remunerated job. Most of the employed students were in service related jobs (35 of only 57 students, 36% of the students) and business (16% of the students).

51% of the interviewed students said they have a religion or belief in God and 49% had no religion. 81% of the students did not participate in social, political and other non-governmental activities, 2% participated in social clubs or music, almost 7% had connections with the Students Center and 3% with Political Parties and with the University social work. 7% participate in other social and non-governmental activities

Biotechnology Background

The questionnaire described, Biotechnology uses biological substances (specially DNA as genetic information) to produce goods and to provide services.

2.1- Describe in your own words what technology is;

2.2- Describe in your own words what genetic engineering is;

2.3- Did you hear about monoclonal antibodies?

81% of the students said they don't know about Biotechnology; 10% said they knew a little, 1% knew, and 8% did not answer about "Biotechnology" or "Genetic Engineering". 11% of the students knew about monoclonal antibodies and of Dr. Cesar Milstein, who is an Argentinean Nobel prize winner who found them.

Sources of Information

From the list of five sources given, the main source of information was from magazines (55% used), then television (37%), newspapers (28%), "a friend" (20%), radio (5%). When asked if the general public should receive more information about biotechnology, almost 95% of the students were interested in getting more information. Students thought that the information should be provided by the University (34%), the government (22%), professional associations (27%), and by newspapers and journalism (18%).

Uses & Problems Associated with Biotechnology

70% of the students related "biological products" to biotechnology development in medicine (37%), including diagnosis (33%) and only 13% associated it with plants, 10% with detergents, and 7% with Shampoo (The five options given). No others were spontaneously given. (Food was given spontaneously) The answer could be influenced by media information. When asked, 69% of the sample thought there was a possibility of biotechnology misuses and conflicts, 5% had no opinion, 5% did not answer, and 21% believed there will be no problems.

The students were asked to chose one from 7 institutions and individuals as the most reliable sources of information. 61% of the sample said they trusted scientist representatives; 27% relied on environmentalists, 5% on consumer organizations, 3% on journalists, 2% government, 0.7% each for ombudsman and enterprises. Thus, the most dependable source of information was the university.

We presented 7 different products or applications of biotechnology to help visualize present and future uses of biotechnology, and the possible answers were Approve, Disapprove or Don't Know. The proportions for each application were: 85% said approve they would use genetic engineering to make bacteria to remediate pollution (4% Disapprove, 11% DK); 90% said they approved to produce vaccines (AIDS, Cholera) (0% disapprove,10% DK); 82% said they approved for diagnosing genetic disease (4% disapprove, 14% DK); 43% approve for pest control in crops (24% disapprove, 33% DK); 24% approved to improve the taste of fruits and vegetables (47% disapprove, 29% DK); 18% approved to increase milk production (41% disapprove, 41% DK); and 14% approved to increase meat content in animals (52% disapprove, 34% DK).

Biotechnology in Argentina

The students were asked about the impact of biotechnology on Argentinean society. 42% said it was important, 26% said they did not know, 14% said it would be of little importance and 18% did not answer. When asked, "Could you identify which of the following aspects of the economy would be benefit most from biotechnology?", 92% said health, 76% chemistry, 73% food production, 68% environmental pollution, 61% agriculture and 42% veterinary, and 15% Mining.


We conducted this investigation on students of the regular course "Ethics and legislation" (Biotechnology and Society) of the Biotechnology Career at the UNQ. Although the sample was small and we had no previous experience in conducting surveys, we feel that the interaction between social and biotechnology students was important and that valuable information was obtained. In addition, we undertook this study because there were no precedents in our country of a survey of this kind.

A high percentage of students said don't know about Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. 12% knew about monoclonal antibodies and Cesar Milstein, one of the Argentinean Nobel prizes, who frequently appears in the local media. Thus we conclude that there is little consciousness about these matters among people unrelated to biology.

According to our data, there seems to be no relation between having little consciousness about biotechnology and having religious belief or participating in social or political organizations.

Almost all the students interviewed thought it was important to get more information about the subject. They identified magazines as the main source of information, followed by television and newspapers. Since 1984, with democracy restoration, scientific journalism has improved in Argentina. Almost every newspaper and magazine has a scientific specialist among its staff. Despite the heterogeneity in the quality of the information, scientific articles are important in bridging science and society.

It was evident that the respondents wanted to know more about biotechnology and asked the University to assume an active role in the diffusion of biotechnological information. Accordingly, researchers were identified as the most truthful source of information regarding biotechnology products. The general lack of confidence in the government and the companies as reliable sources is striking. This is certainly related to specific circumstances of our country, shared with a few other countries. Clearly private and government institutions should pay more attention to public perception of biotechnology. It would be appropriate, as happens in other countries (17), for local authorities and companies assume a more active role in educating society regarding all aspects of biotechnology.

Circa 70 % of the surveyed thought that there may be future conflicts derived from biotechnology. This emphasizes the need for wide discussion and diffusion of the matter. It is clear from the survey that therapeutic and diagnostic products are seen as the most successful and useful applications of biotechnology. This is in accordance with the high standard of local biological research and with the space given to health problems in the media. Although to a less extent, food, chemical, and environmental applications are also represented in the answers given above.

Overall, our survey gave results very similar to larger and deeper investigations in other countries (12-17). This is also surprising because many of the aspects under debate are presently less important in less developed countries than in central economies. Thus, the discussion regarding the applications of bovine growth hormone increasing milk production or genetically modified tomatoes to allow controlled ripening is much less relevant in Argentina than the control of endemic diseases and the low investment of the government in health care and basic scientific research.

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2. Revista Encrucijada, Biotecnología : El futuro en debate, Universidad de Buenos Aires. November, 1995.
3. Gabinete de Biotecnología de la Fundación CEFI, Los retos de la Biotecnología, España. Madrid, November, 1996.
4. OTA, US Congress, Biotechnology in a global economy, October, 1991.
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8. Diario Clarín, (March 5th, 1997), 38 - 39.
9. La Recherche, (April, 1997), 50 - 63.
10. Internet:e.g.; Eubios site.
11. J. J. Salomon, Conference at Patricios Bank Foundation, UNQ, 1995.
12. Hallman, W.K. and Metcalfe, J. Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnology : a Survey of New Jersey Residents Rutgers University. USA.1993.
13. Kelley, J. Public Perceptions of Genetic Engineering: Australia 1994, International Social Science Survey (ISSS). Dept. Industry, Science and Technology. Australia. 1995.
14. European Foundation for Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The Public and Biotechnology. Brussels. Belgium. 1989.
15. Macer, D. Attitudes to Genetic Engineering : Japanese and International Comparisons Eubios Ethics Institute, 1992.
16. BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization); Europabio - Australian Biotech Assoc.
17. Moreno, Luis "La opinión pública y los avances en Genética". Publ. in Genes en el Estrado, pp. 10-35. Daniel Borrillo (ed.) Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas. Spain, 1996.

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