Unhappy meal. Mistrust over genetically modified food runs deep in Europe.

Europeans Apathetic Toward Science

They show little interest or knowledge in science, and many simply don't trust scientists--that's the gloomy outcome of a new poll that measured how Europeans feel about science. Still, public respect for scientists and support for research remains strong, according to the survey.

This spring, the European Commission (EC) asked more than 16,000 people--roughly 1000 from each of the 15 European Union countries--to fill out a wide-ranging survey entitled Eurobarometer. A majority of 55% declare themselves "uninterested" in science and technology, and their responses reveal little faith in science. Europeans tend not to think it will solve the world's problems: Most disagreed with statements such as "science and technology will help to eliminate poverty and famine in the world."

The poll also revealed a mistrust over the fruits of scientific research: 43% agree that "scientists are responsible for the misuse of their discoveries by others," while 80% call for authorities to enforce formal ethical rules for scientists. This skepticism occurs even among the highly educated, and it runs particularly deep over food safety issues such as mad cow disease and genetically modified crops. A majority (59%) feel transgenic crops may harm the environment, and 95% want the right to choose whether they buy genetically altered food.

On the bright side, scientists are second only to doctors in public esteem, and 75% favor public money for basic research, even if it does not lead directly to new technologies. In general, the European public has a fair amount of basic scientific knowledge, which has not changed much since the last major survey, in 1992. Most (80%) know that the oxygen we breathe comes from plants, but only 39% know that antibiotics do not kill viruses (this question was one of the few that more people answered correctly than in 1992). People in Northern European countries--Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and the Netherlands--are more knowledgeable about science than average, whereas Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain were lagging.

"Overall, the public perception remains positive," says EC spokesperson Michel Claessens, "but the fact that many are neither interested nor informed is a big concern." To address that issue, the EC on Tuesday adopted an action plan to burnish the public image of science. The plan includes a prize for science communication and the possible creation of a European science news agency.

Related sites

Summary of the Eurobarometer survey
EC science and society action plan