As new biotechnologies become a reality, scientists and governments are grappling with the ethical and regulatory implications. Now, an in-depth survey from the Pew Research Center in the US has provided insight into what the average Joe is thinking, too.
The survey examined public perceptions of biotechnology, evolution and the relationship between science and religion.
It was based on 32,000 phone and in-person interviews conducted in late 2019 and early 2020, capturing representative samples from adults 18 and over from 20 countries across Europe, Russia, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region. The median of responses was taken to come up with a global average.
The results show that gene editing – one of the most divisive of ideas – weighs heavy on the minds of the general public, with 63% saying that such research is a misuse, rather than an appropriate use, of technology.
However, in a reflection of the nuanced and complex nature of public opinion, most of these people were supportive of gene editing if aimed at treating disease in infants.
For example, the majority (70%) said it would be appropriate to change a baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease, and about 60% were supportive of gene editing to reduce a baby’s risk of a serious disease later on in life.
But when it comes to intelligence, people draw the line: only 14% think it would be a smart move to change a baby’s genetic characteristics to improve its intelligence.
The survey also found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that religious beliefs are a prominent influence on people’s opinions, particularly in the West.
Christians are more wary of biotechnology than people without religious affiliations (self-identifying as atheists, agnostic, and “nothing in particular”); 21% of Christians in the US consider gene editing to be an appropriate use of technology, compared to 47% of non-religious people. These gaps are reflected across western Europe
However, in India, Hindus and Muslims are just as likely to support gene editing as others.
Age has a closer and more predictable link to views of biotechnology research. In almost every place surveyed, young people were more likely to support gene editing technology than older adults, and they tended to be more accepting when it comes to potential applications, as well as animal cloning research and pregnancy technology.
Cary Funk, Pew’s Director of Science and Society research, notes that the findings are decidedly mixed, and that acceptance is “strongly dependent on the uses and applications of these new tools”.
“Public acceptance of scientific advances in biotechnology can play an important role in their rate of adoption,” she says.
But the survey had a wider scope than just gene editing – it also gathered some intel about evolution.
While 74% of the people surveyed say humans and other living organisms have evolved, just 21% think we have existed in our present form forever.
Religion clearly factors heavily into such opinions, with Christians and Muslims generally less likely to accept evolution. In South Korea, for example, around half of Christians say living organisms have evolved, compared with 73% of Buddhists and 83% of those without religious affiliations.
Interestingly, the survey participants who rejected evolution are in two minds about whether science and religion are compatible. Nearly equal numbers thought that the scientific and religious explanations for life’s origin could or couldn’t be compatible, at 48% and 45% respectively.
The majority of people (62%) also think that their own beliefs are rarely or never at odds with science, though Christians tend to think that tensions occur more often for them than for those who are religiously unaffiliated.
On the subject of animal cloning, two-thirds consider research to be a misuse of technology, with disapproval particularly strong in Europe. In contrast, there is broad support (73%) for technologies that help women get pregnant, with men and women feeling similarly positive.
A full copy of the report can be found on the Pew Research Center’s website.
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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