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Biotechnology in General

A plurality believes that to date the benefits of biotechnology have outweighed the harmful effects, and a modest majority believes that biotechnology will produce benefits in the future. However, this optimism about the future appears to be on the decline, and a solid majority worries about the potential harmful effects of biotechnology. The assessment of biotechnology is much less positive than for scientific research in general.

When asked about the broad field of genetic engineering in the present, a plurality believes it is a net plus for society, while the percentage saying it is a net negative is quite low. A December 1999 survey by National Public Radio, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 50% believed "genetic engineering" is "making life better for Americans." Just 21% said it was making life worse, and another 18% felt it "isn't making much difference." [1] In a 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation, a 40% plurality believed "the benefits of genetic engineering research outweighed the harmful results", but 34% believed the harmful results were greater than the benefits. Another 28% volunteered that they have been about equal. [2]

When asked about genetic engineering in the future, a modest majority expresses a positive view. In April 2000, a survey by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M asked whether "genetic engineering" would "improve our way of life in the next 20 years, will have no effect, or will make things worse." Fifty-three percent believed genetic engineering would improve our way of life, while 30% felt it would make things worse. Five percent thought it would have no effect and 12% said they did not know. [3] A May 2000 Wirthlin Group survey found that a solid majority (59%) felt that "biotechnology will provide benefits" for themselves and their families "in the next five years." Just 25% did not think this would happen. However, it must be noted that this Wirthlin question referred only to the potential benefits of biotechnology such as "improv[ing] crop plants." [4]

There are some indications that optimism about biotechnology seems to be declining. Most dramatic is the just-mentioned poll by Wirthlin. While, as mentioned, in May 2000 59% expressed optimism that biotechnology would provide benefits, when this question was asked in March 1997, 78% felt this way, and in subsequent repeats of the question the number dropped steadily. The NSF surveys found a much more modest decline, with 49% saying that the benefits outweighed the risks in 1985, coming down to 42% in 1997 and 40% in 2001.

A solid majority expresses concern about the potential harmful effect of biotechnology. In a June 2000 Harris survey, 56% felt that it was "very" (25%) or "somewhat" (31%) likely that "plants and crops developed by genetic engineering [would] upset the balance of nature and damage the environment." Thirty-seven percent said this was "not very" (22%) or "not all" (15%) likely. [5] Back in June 1993, another Harris poll found that a 60% majority felt it was "very likely" (22%) or "somewhat likely" (38%) that " animals, plants, or bacteria which are produced by genetic engineering will pose a serious threat to human life or the environment." Just 36% said this was "not very likely" (24%) or "not likely at all" (12%). [6]

In January 2002, a Zogby poll (commissioned by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology) gave a list of "possible effects of genetically modifying plants, fish and trees" and asked "how important to you personally" each effect was. Respondents answered on a 1-to-5 scale, with five being very important and 1 being not at all important. For all the positive effects listed majorities gave ratings of 4 or 5. For the negative effects, three of the six effects listed were given positive rating by a majority while this was not true for the other three. The same poll also asked if respondents felt the environmental risks or the environmental benefits were greater in using biotechnology to genetically modify plants, animals, fish, or trees. Forty percent of respondents felt the environmental risks were greater, while 33% felt the environmental benefits were greater. Nineteen percent answered that the environmental risks and benefits were "about the same". [6a]

Optimism about the effects of biotechnology is substantially lower than for scientific research in general. A near-unanimous 90% said in September 2004 that on the whole, developments in science have helped to make society better (Virginia Commonwealth University). In a 2001 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation, 72% believed the benefits of scientific research had outweighed the harmful effects (with only 10% saying the opposite); however, just 40% said that the benefits of biotechnology outweighed the harmful effects. This positive view of scientific research in general has remained very constant since 1985. [7]

Americans' approval of science as a whole is such that, even when asked in a question to do no more than express some concern about science's direction, a modest majority declines to do so. Pew asked respondents whether they agreed with the statement, "I am worried that science is going too far and is hurting society rather than helping it." Fifty-four percent disagreed, while 42% agreed (August 2003). [7a]

One reason for this positive evaluation of science may be that advances in medicine have a prominent place in public thinking. When asked "what one or two words come to mind when you hear the phrase 'new developments in science and technology'," the most popular specific responses mentioned medicine (27% of the sample); biotechnology was mentioned by only 4% (Virginia Commonwealth University, September 2003). Similarly, to the question "Of all the developments made in science over the last thirty years, which one would you say has made the most positive contribution to society?" the most popular response was 27% for "medicine and health," while only 2% mentioned biotechnology or genetic research (Virginia Commonwealth University). [7b]

While a 59% majority reports that having "heard or read" a great deal (16%) or a fair amount (43%) about biotechnology, public attention to biotechnology issues in the news has been only moderate, with 40% saying that they follow such news very closely (9%) or somewhat closely (31%), and 60% saying they follow it not too closely (35%) or not at all (25%; Gallup, July 2005). Public attention seems to have dropped slightly since the same question was asked in 2001. In October 2002 23% said they had heard or read "a great deal" about "genetic engineering," while 57% said they had heard "something, but not very much," and 20% had heard nothing (Johns Hopkins). [8]

A January 2002 Zogby International found similar awareness of the possible environmental risks of biotechnology. A sixty percent majority (17% a "great deal" and 43% "some") reported having "heard about the possible environmental risks of using biotechnology to genetically modify plants, animals, fish, or trees" 27% had heard "not too much" and 13% stated they had heard "nothing." [9]

There is confusion in the public about the government's role in regulating genetic engineering. Asked, "As far as you know, does the government regulate the quality and safety of genetic engineering, or not?" 30% thought the government did, 34% that it did not, and 36% did not answer (Johns Hopkins, October 2002). [10]