Nature 21 March 2002
http://www.nature.com
(Correspondence)

Massimiano Bucchi, Federico Neresini

Biotech remains unloved by the more informed

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Sir – Public hostility towards biotechnologies is frequently
attributed to lack of information, due to poor and insufficient media
coverage. For this reason, scientific researchers and policy-makers
often call for journalists to give more attention to scientific
issues, for better information campaigns and for more communication
of science, to improve general understanding and thereby lead to
greater public support for biotechnologies and other innovations. But
is this approach correct?

In 2000 and 2001, with partial support from the Giannino Bassetti
Foundation, we carried out two surveys of Italian public opinion.
These were specifically to analyse the relationships between exposure
to science in the media, information on biotechnologies, trust in
science, and attitudes to biotechnologies. A representative sample of
1,022 Italian citizens aged over 18 were interviewed by phone in
September 2000; another representative sample of 1,017 citizens were
interviewed in November 2001. Some questions were identical for the
two groups, others were year-specific. (A copy of the full list of
questions used in the survey and the percentage response rates is
available from M.B.)

Respondents were asked about their level of exposure to science in
specified daily newspapers, television and radio science programmes,
popular science books and magazines. We used questions similar to
those of 1999 Eurobarometer (see
http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/pdf/eurobarometer-en.pdf), but
also asked additional ones about trust in science and scientists, and
the use, risks and moral acceptability of biotechnologies.

Our results confirm previous suspicions that exposure to information
does not always lead to greater trust in biotechnologies. We also
find that greater exposure to science in the media does not
necessarily mean a higher level of understanding. The proportion of
subjects who think "only genetically modified tomatoes contain genes
while ordinary tomatoes don't", for example, is almost identical
among those with high (29%) and low (31%) exposure to science in the
media. More than a quarter of the 'regular' consumers of science in
the media (28%) cannot give more than one correct answer to five
questions about biotechnologies, and more than half (57%) cannot give
more than two correct answers.

High exposure to science in the media does not significantly reduce
opposition to applications such as "taking genes from plant species
and transferring them into crop plants, to make them more resistant
to insect pests" or "introducing human genes into animals to produce
organs for human transplants, such as into pigs for human heart
transplants". But it does result in greater criticism for some
applications: 64% of the most exposed subjects consider embryo
research to be ethically unacceptable compared with 59% of the less
exposed, and 80% of regular consumers of science in the media
consider reproductive cloning useless compared with 76% of low
consumers.

Of course, media exposure to science does not guarantee accurate
information; indeed, there are frequent complaints about the quality
of science coverage by the mass media. People who are exposed to at
least one high-quality source of public communication of science (for
example, the Italian edition of Scientific American) are more likely
to have a positive attitude to biotechnologies. Yet this result
merely highlights a well-known paradox in the communication of
science: the greatest impact is on a small minority, who are most
likely to have the information already.

A high level of information does not guarantee a positive attitude:
49% of the better-informed respondents think that transferring genes
into fruit or vegetables is useless, and 54% think it is risky.
Embryo research fares poorly (60% in both groups consider it
unacceptable), whereas cloning for reproductive purposes is even more
severely judged by the better informed than by the less well
informed.

A higher level of information is associated with the desire for
stricter state regulation of biotechnologies, as well as with the
belief that regulation should not be left either to companies or to
scientists alone. The better informed are also more likely to trust
consumers' organizations and scientific institutions more than
potential beneficiaries (such as patients' groups) and, sometimes,
government institutions.

If media exposure to science does not account for different attitudes
to biotechnologies, what does? Attitudes appear to be rooted at a
deeper, cultural level where values (such as trust and conception of
risk) are heavily involved and media information does not reach.
Public awareness of biotechnologies is increasing and the level of
education seems to be more important than other factors in explaining
attitudes in this area. So it may be wise to recommend that at least
as much attention is devoted to science education — both in terms of
research and of programmes and investments — as to the mass-media
communication of science.

Massimiano Bucchi
Department of Social Sciences, University of Trento, via Verdi 26 -
38100, Trento, Italy
e-mail: mbucchi@soc.unitn.it

Federico Neresini
Department of Sociology, University of Padova, via S. Canziano 8,
35122 Padova, Italy


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