"Polls show that the public doesn't know much about the science or the policy surrounding stem-cell research, and that means they really haven't solidified their opinions," said Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University.
Stem-cell research may become a major issue again because of Ronald Reagan's recent death and bout with Alzheimer's disease. Some are using Reagan's death as an opportunity to push for support for the controversial research, which proponents argue could help find a cure for Alzheimer's and other diseases.
"The public is at a point where they are probably open to the appeals of both advocates and opponents of stem-cell research," Nisbet said.
"The battle is on among both sides to define the issue in terms that will help their cause. Reagan's death could make this a higher profile issue again."
Nisbet recently studied more than 150 polls of Americans concerning their views on stem-cell research. His findings appear in the current issue of Public Opinion Quarterly.
Stem cells are primitive cells from which other, more specialized cells, develop. Many scientists believe stem cells may someday be useful as therapies for a variety of diseases and conditions, including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and spinal-cord injuries. But the most useful stem cells come from early human embryos, which are destroyed in the process of retrieving them. As a result, many religious conservatives oppose stem-cell research, likening it to abortion.
Overall, Nisbet said polls indicate most Americans have strong reservations about the use of embryos for stem-cell research. But their support or opposition depends quite a bit on how poll questions are worded.
For example, results were quite different in polls conducted in 2001 by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the National Council of Catholic Bishops.
The JDRF poll questions talks about stem cells coming from extra embryos "donated to research" and discusses how stem cells may provide cures for eight high-profile diseases or injuries.
On the other hand, the NCCB poll talks about "experiments" using stem cells from "live" human embryos that would be "destroyed in their first week of development," all paid for with "federal tax dollars."
Not surprisingly, public support for stem-cell research was 65 percent in the JDRF poll, while 70 percent of respondents in the NCCB poll were opposed to funding this research.
"The fact that the public can be influenced so much by how the questions are worded tells me that Americans are susceptible to be influenced by groups on both sides. It depends on who crafts a message that appeals most to the public," Nisbet said.
Support also depends on the type of embryo used in research. Public support seems highest for funding of stem-cell research that uses either adult cells or extra embryos created and unused at fertility clinics. Public support for funding is lowest, by far, for research that used cloned embryos as sources, an important finding considering that many scientists consider cloned embryos to be a preferred source for stem cells.
Nisbet noted that much of what is known about public support for stem-cell research is several years old.
Until Reagan's death, there hadn't been much mention of stem-cell research in the media since 2002. The height of public interest and knowledge occurred in the summer of 2001, when President George W. Bush made a major speech in which he announced that researchers could only use federal funds to perform embryonic stem-cell research on currently available stem-cell lines.
But the collective attention of the public, the media, and pollsters was soon diverted by other issues, and when conducting his study last year, Nisbet found no publicly available polls after 2002.
That's why supporters of stem-cell research are hoping to use Reagan's death as a springboard to get federal support for new work in the area.
"Events like Ronald Reagan's death are very unpredictable, but it could cast the public's focus back on the issue and create momentum for one side or the other," Nisbet said. "If Nancy Reagan goes on a campaign in support of this research, it could have a real impact."
Already, legislators in New York and Illinois have introduced bills using Reagan's name that would fund stem-cell research in their states.
In California, a $3 billion proposition will be on the November ballot to provide funding for the controversial research.
Reagan's death has also spurred advocates to again see where the public stands on the issue. This spring and summer, Results for America, an advocacy group that supports funding for embryonic stem-cell research, conducted several polls on the topic. In several media reports, journalists used these poll results to characterize the public as strongly supporting funding for embryonic stem cell research. One poll taken immediately following Reagan's death was reported as indicating that more than 70 percent of Americans supported Nancy Reagan's call for the White House to lift restrictions on stem-cell research.
But Nisbet said he finds the recent survey results less than convincing.
"These polls were commissioned in part to test communication strategies that could be used by research advocates, not as scientific instruments that carefully and validly measure public opinion. For funding advocates, the results clearly show that if they can make overwhelmingly salient in media coverage the connections between research and cures, the public is likely to be swayed. Outside of this hypothetical, however, the polls don't provide good evidence that public opinion has changed since 2002," he said.
"Still, in contrast, other commissioned polls indicate that opponents of funding will do best by linking stem-cell research to abortion and make it into a moral and religious issue. In the end, it comes down to a battle to frame media coverage and campaign messages," he said.