Europeans Sour on Biotechnology

LONDON--The more Europeans know about biotechnology, the less they like it, according to a new multinational survey. And when they ponder potential applications, they worry more about moral issues than perceived risks. The survey, published in today's issue of Nature, also finds little faith that industry and universities tell the truth about their work, or that governments can provide effective regulation.

Last October and November, an international team of researchers assembled by the European Union polled about 1000 households in each of the EU's 15 member countries. The team found that public optimism about the potential benefits of biotechnology and genetic engineering has declined since surveys in 1993 and 1991. People are least supportive in countries such as Germany that have a developed biotech industry and greater public knowledge of the issues and basic science. Enthusiasm is higher in countries with less developed industries like Portugal and Spain.

In a relative ranking of potential gains, genetic testing won the most public support, followed by new medicines and vaccines, pest-resistant crops, enhanced food production, and transgenic animals for biomedical research or cell or organ donation (xenotransplants). Almost all were considered risky, but the harshest criticism was reserved for genetic research on animals, which struck people as morally wrong. "The public is asking questions different from those of the regulators," who focus only on risk, says survey coordinator George Gaskell of the London School of Economics.

The most popular option for regulating biotechnology was through international organizations (such as the United Nations and World Health Organization), favored by over a third of respondents. Some 25% voted for scientific organizations, while less than 10% opted for either national governments or the EU. When Europeans looked for information on one particular biotech topic, xenotransplantation, 45% thought doctors were most trustworthy. Twelve percent would turn to animal welfare groups. Only 7% considered universities the most reliable source. Industry ranked even lower.

"The moral," says survey coordinator John Durant of London's Science Museum, is that biotechnology companies "certainly can't afford to take public support for granted." John Sime, chief executive of the U.K. BioIndustry Association, agrees: "It is the responsibility of industry to persuade the public that [biotechnology] is justified."