Public Release:  'Europeans and biotechnology' survey of public perception

Survey based on 16,500 respondents in 15 European countries

European Commission's Research Directorate-General

This release is also available in German and French.

The Eurobarometer 2002 survey on "Europeans and biotechnology" shows that when asked whether biotechnology will improve our way of life or not, 43% of Europeans are optimistic, 17% pessimistic, 12% said it would make no difference and as many as 27% said "don't know". In the period 1999-2002, optimism in biotechnology has increased to the level seen in the early 1990s after a decade of continuously decline. Europeans continue to distinguish between medical applications, for which support is clear, and agricultural and food applications, which are not widely supported. However, there is a change from the downward trend in attitudes to GM food over the past six years. While on average GM food is still not supported, in many countries attitudes have become more positive since the last survey was conducted in 1999. While the cloning of human cells and tissues is on average supported in all EU countries, the exploitation of genetic information is a source of concern for many Europeans.

This fifth Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology and the life sciences follows those conducted in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1999 and in 2002. The survey is based on a representative sample of 16,500 respondents, approximately 1000 in each EU member state (see report for exceptions). Survey design and analysis were conducted by a research group 'Life Sciences in European Society' supported by DG Research. In a year when many European countries are involved in public discussions on aspects of biotechnology, this survey stands as a contribution to the informed debate.

The European Commission has emphasised the need for "societal scrutiny and dialogue" in the Life Sciences and Biotechnology - A Strategy for Europe 2002 (COM(2002)27).

Europeans are not technophobes.

The greater majority thinks that telecommunications, computers and IT, the internet, solar energy and mobile phones will improve our way of life over the next 20 years. Trend data since 1991 shows that for telecommunications, computers and information technology, there is little change in optimism. For biotechnology, when asked whether it would improve our way of life or not, 43% of Europeans were optimistic, 17% pessimistic about biotechnology and 27% said they didn't know. This is about the same percentage as in 1999. It is interesting to note that, after a decade of continuously declining optimism in biotechnology, in many European countries the trend is halted in the latest survey. In the period 1999-2002, optimism has increased to the level seen in the early 1990s. This rise in optimism holds for the all the EU Member States with the exception of Germany and the Netherlands, where such a rise was observed between 1996 and 1999.

More support for medical application than for agri-food uses

Opinions differ significantly when asked about medical or industrial applications of biotechnology compared to agri-food. For instance genetic testing for inherited diseases, and cloning human cells and tissues are supported in all Member states. Xenotransplantation, however, which involves the use of transgenic animals, is perceived to be both moderately useful and moderately risky. The use of genetically modified enzymes to produce environmentally friendly washing powders is well perceived and supported by a majority of Europeans. For GM crops, support is lukewarm. While they are judged to be moderately useful they are seen as almost as risky as GM foods. Public opinion tends to supports GM crops in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Belgium, UK, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands, while France, Italy, Greece, Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg have publics that are, on average, opposed to GM crops. This is consistent with the fact that, with the exception of Belgium, these are countries that called for the extension of the de facto moratorium on the commercial exploitation of GM crops. A majority of Europeans do not support GM foods. These are judged not to be useful and to be risky for society. Overall support for GM foods is seen in only four countries - Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Finland. These varying degrees of acceptance show that Europeans continue to distinguish between different types of applications, particularly medical in contrast to agri-food applications.

Changes in attitudes in the 15 EU countries: a change since 1999?

All the EU countries, with the exception of Spain and Austria, showed moderate to large declines in support for both GM crops over the period 1996-1999. Thereafter support more or less stabilises in France and Germany and increases in all the other countries with the exception of Italy, which sees a 10% decline in support.

How Europeans rate different actors involved in biotechnology

Around 70% of Europeans have confidence in doctors, university scientists, consumer organisations and patients' organisations in their dealings with biotechnology. Around 55% have confidence in scientists working in industry, newspapers and magazines, environmental groups, shops, farmers and the European Commission. However, less than 50% have confidence in their own government and in industry. For all the actors mentioned more Europeans think they are doing a good job than a bad job. Yet, across Europe as a whole about 25% lack confidence in farmers, shops, government and industry. In 2002, all of the actors have a confidence surplus (the difference between the percentages seen as doing a good and a bad job). There is more confidence in the European Commission, than in national governments in relation to regulation - surpluses of 52% and 43% respectively. Confidence in university scientists is higher than for scientists working in industry - surpluses of 76% and 56% respectively. In 1999 industry had a confidence deficit of minus 10%, but by 2002 this has shifted into a surplus of 23%.

The acceptability of uses of genetic information

The results on the acceptability of various uses of genetic data confirm that this is controversial issue where public concerns need to be taken into account. On the one hand, medical applications of such tests for the detection of diseases attract majority support. On the other, however, for tests used in the public domain for crime detection, the European public is split - 43% in favour and 44% against. Access to genetic information by government agencies and by commercial insurance is widely seen as unacceptable. Across the 15 EU states there is a North/South divide in the willingness to allow access to genetic information. Greece, Spain and Portugal are more relaxed than Austria, Sweden, Finland, Germany and Denmark.

Social and cultural values and biotechnology attitudes

Many Europeans are concerned about the fragility of nature and about the impact of human actions and technology upon nature. At the same time materialist values are seen in the agreement that economic growth enhances quality of life. Yet, there is little perceived 'harmony of interests' between citizens and business or powerful multinationals. Those more optimistic about biotechnology tend to be more materialistic and less concerned about nature.

Source of survey and analysis

The Eurobarometer 58.0 Survey was conducted by Public Opinion Analysis Unit of the European Commission. The analysis and report was prepared by the 'Life Sciences in European Society' research project led by George Gaskell of the London School of Economics with the financial support of the European Union (Research contract QLG7-CT-1999-00286).

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The report on the Eurobarometer survey will be available on-line: http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/archives/eb/ebs_177_en.pdf

For further information regarding the analysis of the survey: George Gaskell, London School of Economics, UK. Email: G.Gaskell@lse.ac.uk

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