Quelle surprise. France, cradle of the Concorde, the face transplant, and the first isolation of HIV, is more wary of vaccines and the economic value of science than more than 140 other countries, according to a global survey of public attitudes toward science and health released this week. But French scientists say the skepticism is familiar and doesn’t affect their work; some suggest it instead reflects a deep-seated mistrust of institutions. “We think there’s a problem of trust in government, in particular in health authorities,” says Pierre Verger, an epidemiologist who studies vaccine hesitancy at the French biomedical research institute INSERM in Marseille.
When asked whether vaccines are safe, one-third of the 1000 French respondents to the survey disagreed—far more than in other nations. (In the United States, 11% disagreed.) The mistrust didn’t vary much across age, gender, or education, according to the survey, conducted by the Gallup World Poll for the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical charity based in London.
Verger’s research points to high-profile health scandals as an explanation. In 2009, for example, years after other countries, French regulators withdrew approval for Mediator, an amphetamine-based diabetes drug linked to hundreds of deaths, amid concerns of undue industry influence. The French have also been unhappy with heavy-handed public health campaigns, such as a costly mass vaccination for swine flu that same year. “France is one of a few countries where [such controversies] have been so frequent,” Verger says.
The survey also reveals French pessimism about the economic value of science. Some 55% say they see science and technology as a threat to local jobs in the next 5 years. Although France is the only country scoring above 50% on this question, a similar gloominess spans other parts of Europe, whereas most regions in Africa and Asia are optimistic about science boosting job prospects. The survey suggests France’s sluggish economy and relatively high unemployment as plausible causes. That fear about the future is understandable, says Catherine Pélachaud, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris. “We see factories closing down and it can be very hard for less-qualified people to adapt.”
It might be unfair to label France as averse to science based on a single survey. There is plenty of enthusiasm for specific technologies, according to a 2017 OpinionWay survey of 1059 people in France commissioned by Quattrocento, a scientific business incubator in Paris. It found that more than three-quarters of respondents were hopeful about research in transport and renewable energies. At the same time, about two-thirds were worried about nuclear energy research and studies of genetically modified (GM) foods. The French government, a global leader in producing nuclear energy and exporting its technology, has largely ignored public dissent in that arena, but it has taken up public suspicions about GM foods by, for example, banning the cultivation of GM maize.
Just say ‘non’
When asked whether vaccines are safe, a survey finds French people disagree the most.
Some French scientists are unsurprised by the survey results, and point out that opinions don’t always correlate to behavior. Of the French parents surveyed, 91% say their children are vaccinated, in line with the global average of 92%. “It’s the French paradox: We have doubts about many things; we grumble. But thankfully, vaccine coverage remains high,” says Olivier Schwartz, scientific director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, which depends on public donations to carry out its work, including vaccine research. “I don’t perceive a hostile climate,” Schwartz adds. “On the contrary, I feel that [people in France have] a thirst for knowledge.”
The survey data back this up: Some 71% of respondents in France say they know “some” or “a lot” about science—placing France in the top 10 globally. And 46% say they sought scientific information in the past month—compared with a median of 30% worldwide. Schwartz attributes the French vaccine skepticism to a lack of information, and says researchers and institutions need to fill that gap in a “simple and rigorous way.”
But Brice Laurent, a sociologist at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation in Paris, warns against this “deficit model” of communication, which implies that ignorance breeds skepticism and that people would embrace technologies if only they knew enough science. Studies show that more informed people are often more skeptical, he notes.
“It would be annoying if decision-makers saw this [survey] and thought, ‘French people just don’t get it, so we’ll repeat the message,’” Laurent cautions. He believes skepticism is ingrained in the culture of France, a place where all high schoolers are taught philosophy. “You could look at these stats and say: The French are critical thinkers; they are interested and ask questions,” he says.
Pélachaud agrees that a vigilant public can help push scientists to consider societal impacts. “When I started 30 years ago, we didn’t ask ourselves ethical questions” in the AI field, says Pélachaud, who works on animated chatbots capable of nonverbal communication. “The French may be grumblers, but their critical thinking is important.”