Public Interest


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Public Interest
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Public Interest Topics:

The public is inescapably involved in biosafety risk assessment. In some countries, members of public interest groups may sometimes be members of national or local committees and may be answerable to local communities, labour organizations, or bodies with a special interest in e.g., environmental issues. More generally the public at large may control through its political representatives the funding of basic science and, through the market place, the likelihood of commercial developments flowing from biotechnological advances. There is hence a twofold need: to ensure that the public is meaningfully informed of the nature and possible consequences of biotechnology, and to be able to ascertain and act on public concerns.

The language in which public involvement is discussed can distort thinking in this area. The impact of public perceptions on commercial biotechnology cannot be gauged purely scientifically since the perceptions may be founded on considerations that are scientifically unsound or are unrelated to science itself. Hence the notion of "educating the public" will have patronizing overtones for some readers and may founder if the nature of public concern is not fully understood or may become meaningless where the public in question sees an ethical principle at stake. Likewise the notion of "legitimate public concern" raises the question of what is legitimate. Yet biotechnologists can point to the Asilomar meeting (where scientists called for a voluntary moratorium on gene splicing research) as indicating a concern among pioneering scientists, perhaps unique, about the social consequences of their work. The so-called Eurobarometer surveys (1991 and 1993) indicate that those Europeans who believed that biotechnology makes a positive contribution to life is around 50%, although within this figure there are sharp differences between different EU countries. These same surveys, however, showed that most respondents answered incorrectly one or more questions designed to be value-free (e.g. "Are there test tube babies which develop entirely outside the mother's body?"). A similar lack of understanding is shown by a US sample questioned about clinical trials: almost half thought that the reason for keeping a group of subjects as controls in a drug trial was to save them from the risk of being poisoned.

It has been suggested that there are three types of public audience:

  • Those with little scientific literacy, who are unlikely to be reached either by scientific argument or by otherwise persuasive public advocacy groups.
  • Those who are highly scientifically literate: these will form their own informed opinion and will also be insusceptible to those advocacy groups that base their appeal on various types of prejudice.
  • Those who are intermediate between the above two. These will understand (at least up to a point) the issues under debate, but advocacy groups will contribute in a greater or lesser degree to their judgement.

It is this last group that is most likely to be reached by "educational" initiatives designed to inform opinion. In countries with a high level of general education and a strong democratic tradition, this group will not only be large but is most likely to be represented on decision-making bodies. As suggested by the EU findings, however, the widely differing views on biotechnology taken by countries with similar levels of public awareness indicates that the debate is a real one and that it is misleading to search for a "right" answer. The dilemma has led to fluctuations in time in the levels of regulation imposed by governments: at its extreme is the view that there is no necessity to conduct risk assessment experiments to ensure confidence about field testing of new plant varieties.

Whatever the prevailing public attitude, it is certain that risk assessment deliberations that are seen as secretive (or worse, scientists who neglect to inform biosafety committees of their proposed work or who ignore the advice given them) will result in damage to public relations. Some regulations require that notice of a field trial be given in prescribed form in the local press, and a climate of good relations with the media generally is often seen as worth the time and effort involved.