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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 1998 > Article Detail

MACROSCOPE

The Biotech Future

Isaac Rabino

Public Attention: The Bright Side

Figure 1. Surveys of genetic-engineering scientistsClick to Enlarge Image

Public attention is the ultimate driving force behind science and technology funding—but also behind regulation, political opposition and drawn-out court battles. Looked at through the eyes of genetic-engineering investigators in the U.S., the public-opinion pendulum appears to be swinging in a direction beneficial to their field.

In a 1988–89 survey of 430 U.S. scientists, almost one-quarter saw more harmful than beneficial effects from public attention. However, almost twice as many perceived public attention as more beneficial than harmful in its effects. In 1995 I surveyed 1,257 scientists and found them to be even more optimistic, with more than half viewing public attention as beneficial to their field overall, and fewer than one-fifth seeing more harmful than beneficial effects.

In Europe, however, the perception is far more negative. In my 1992 survey of European genetic-engineering scientists, one-third perceived more harm than benefit, and only one-quarter saw public attention as beneficial overall. The picture was bleakest in Germany, where almost two-thirds view public attention as harmful.

What explains the optimism in the U.S.? Clearly, investigators were not feeling more optimistic because their funding was increasing. Almost two-thirds of my 1995 survey respondents said they had personally experienced a reduction in government funding of their research. This is significant in that government was by far the largest source of funding for our survey population, accounting for 69 percent of their support; only 16 percent came from industry, 8 percent from private foundations and 3 percent from universities.

If more money was not one of the benefits of public attention, what gains did scientists perceive? One was in the area of the reasonableness of regulations and regulators. Although surely people like to complain about government agencies, roughly half of my 1995 respondents rated the performance of regulatory agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency) as excellent or good. This is not to say that they saw no problems. Many wished for greater efficiency and more relevant product or research approval criteria, for instance. However, fewer than one-fifth thought that federal regulations were endangering U.S. competitiveness in genetic engineering.

This is a far more positive picture than the one found in my 1992 European survey. Even in the United Kingdom, now Dolly's home, more than one-third of the respondents worried about the loss of their nation's competitive edge because of controversy and regulation. In Germany that figure was a staggering 92 percent.





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