The public image of biotechnology: Book review of Biotechnology in public: a review of recent research, ed. John Durant (London: Science Museum for the European Federation of Biotechnology, 1992). ISBN 0-901805-52-1, 201pp

Journal: Politics & Life Sciences, 14 (1995), 106-108.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
In this book review I want to look at the public image of biotechnology, and will also refer to other recent international studies that look at the public image of biotechnology. These type of studies have at least two purposes, one being academic study, and the other being public relations for the biotechnology industry. Both of these purposes are relevant to policy. The studies that I will refer to, including Biotechnology in Public, are academic. However, at the outset we must consider that this book is openly promoted as a product of the European Federation of Biotechnology Task Group on Public Perceptions of Biotechnology. In making its motives clear, it restores our academic confidence, so we can judge it by the contents.

John Durant introduces the importance of the subject of public awareness of biotechnology, and science in general. The Science Museum has a long interest in making science known to the public, and it is perhaps natural for them to be involved in looking at the public awareness. He begins by citing some recent popular books on science fiction and genetic engineering (p. 9-11), perhaps most notable among these is Jurassic Park. Next, Mark Cantley reviews the evolution of public biotechnology policy in the European Community over 1982-1992 (p.18-27). He has been directly involved with this policy, so is in one of the best positions to do this, and it provides a background for the current book.

The next three chapters look at public attitude results, and if you want the book for this data, it is in these chapters, 81 pages of the book in total. However, since the full studies that they describe are available, the value of the book cannot be measured by these chapters. The book is not just trying to present data, but is rather looking at the strategies that are being used to study public opinion, and these have obvious implications for the development of policy in Europe. The first of these chapters is by Sam Martin and Joyce Tait (p. 28-41), in which they present a brief review of their recent surveys of selected groups of the UK public. They conclude that groups with an interest in biotechnology have probably already formed attitudes to it, which are unlikely to significantly change. They looked at industry and environmental groups, and local communities, which are major players in the development of policy at both national and local levels. They also suggest that people with the least polarised attitudes are most open to multiple information sources.

Then there is a chapter on consumer research in the Netherlands (p. 42-51), reviewed by Anneke Hamstra, a programme leader of SWOKA - an Institute for Consumer Research. They have conducted two major studies of what people in the Netherlands think about eating foods made through biotechnology, which are independently published. The third of these chapters is a review of Eurobarometer 35.1 by Eric Marlier (p. 52-108). The Eurobarometer is a regular public survey in Europe, including different questions each time, and is conducted in all 12 countries of the European Community.

In 1993 Eurobarometer 37.1 repeated the same questions, and the report is available from the EC. This latest report is necessary for anyone interested in the public attitudes to biotechnology in a global fashion. The Eurobarometer poll is limited because of the small number of questions, and also the set format of the questions, but is the most comprehensive in terms of sample response, randomness, size, and number of countries. There is some diversity within Europe, in biotechnology policy, public acceptance, and regulations.

The final three chapters of the book Biotechnology in Public are review style papers. Gillian Turner and Brian Wynne (p. 109-141) make a literature review of 52 studies of environmental risk communication since 1980, and look at the implications for biotechnology. It is interesting that 41 of these 52 studies were from the USA. Michael Schanne and Werner Meier (p. 143-168) look at media coverage of risk using content analysis, and Georg Ruhrmann (p. 169-201) reviews research analysing genetic engineering press coverage, particularly German studies.

The book is a compilation of European researchers, and while being valuable in that context, it could have benefited by some comparison to world studies of the public acceptance of biotechnology. This would then allow readers to see where Europe fits into the global picture. I will mention a few of these studies, and briefly ask how we can determine the real public image of biotechnology, and what implication this has for policy.

There have been several national studies in the United States of public attitudes to biotechnology. The major one in 1986 was the Office of Technology Assessment study (OTA, 1987). In 1992 there was a study by Hoban (1992), looking at agricultural issues. There has also been comparative studies of scientists in USA and in Europe, looking at their perceptions of public image (Rabino, 1991; 1992). While these surveys provide some assessment of public acceptance, they generally use simple set questions. In this contest the recent survey strategies in Europe that look at reasoning more than just statistics (Hamstra; Martin & Tait) may shed more light on the factors which will affect policy development.

In Japan there have been several studies, the most comprehensive of these being a study that I did in 1991, among public, academics, and high school teachers, in which I also reviewed all the previous studies in Japan (Macer, 1992a, b). In these surveys I used open questions, and found that some arguments that are often used in biotechnology debates, such as eugenic fears or environmental risk, are not the major concerns voiced by people in open questions. The more common concerns are interference with nature or general fear of a less concrete nature. Also the survey found that many people perceive both benefit and risk simultaneously, they are attempting to balance these; and also educated people show as much fear, in fact biology teachers considered there was more risk from genetic engineering than ordinary public (Macer, 1992; 1993).

In 1993 the opinions of the public and students in a range of countries was surveyed in the International Bioethics Survey I organised (Macer, 1994). The full results, including the comments to many open questions have been recently published. The countries included Australia, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, The Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and the United States. A mixture of national random public samples and student samples were used, and the reasoning about bioethical questions was investigated. Much similarity between countries was found, which raises the hopes for acceptance of global policy and limited universalism for some dilemmas posed by biotechnology.

In conclusion, these glimpses into the public image of biotechnology provide much food for thought, and show us that the image is a changing one. Although people have always faced risk, and at least in this century, have faced technological forces which transform society, biotechnology has more critics than most. These studies allow us to see whether the critics represent the views of ordinary people, and also on how this criticism influences public opinion, which in turn, influences policy. perhaps this influence is no where stronger then in Europe, as seen in the controversy associated with the bans on the use of bovine somatotropin made by genetic engineering to boost milk production, and in the debate over patenting policy. At the same time, these studies must be used responsibly, rather than just to allow better plans for the next line of commercials - public attitude making - rather than for seeing what the public has to say. One thing that is likely to stay is the diversity of opinion and reasoning, something which makes these studies interesting.


Eurobarometer Survey 39.1 available in French or English from M. Lex, DG XII/E-1 SDME 2/65, Commission of the European Communities, Rue de la Loi 200, B-1049, Brussels, Belgium.
Hoban, T. J. & Kendall, P.A. (1992) Consumer Attitudes About the Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production. Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina State University.
Macer, D.R.J. (1992a). Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: Japanese and International Comparisons. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute.
Macer, D. (1992b). "Public acceptance of human gene therapy and perceptions of human genetic manipulation." Human Gene Therapy 3(5): 511-8.
Macer, D. (1993). "Perception of risks and benefits of in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering and biotechnology", Social Science and Medicine 38 (1): 23-33.
Macer, D. (1994). Bioethics for the People by the People. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute.
OTA (1987) U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, New Developments in Biotechnology, 2: Public Perceptions of Biotechnology - Background Paper. Washington D.C.: U.S.G.P.O.
Rabino, I. (1991) "The impact of activist pressures on recombinant DNA research", Science, Technology and Human Values 16: 70-87.
Rabino, I. (1992) "A study of attitudes and concerns of genetic engineering scientists in Western Europe. Biotech Forum Europe 9 (10), 636-40.

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