Social Values and the Governance of Science

Science  23 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5756, pp. 1908-1909
DOI: 10.1126/science.1119444

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I n recognition of the tensions between science and society (1), and as research increasingly enters value-laden areas, proposals have been made for scientists to engage with other communities on the ethical, legal, and social implications [HN1] of science and technology (2) and for the “public voice” to be brought into the formative stages of decision-making (3). Such measures, it is argued, should result in socially viable paths for scientific innovation.

As a contribution to this debate, we present findings from representative and comparable social surveys (4) in the United States (n = 1200), Canada (n = 2000), and the European Union (n = 25,000) on who the public thinks should make decisions on science policy and what criteria should guide such decisions. We then investigate how positions on science policy relate to people's opinions about the utility and regulation of technological innovation.

Survey respondents were asked two forced-choice questions (4). First, should decisions about technology be left to the experts or based on the views of the public? Second, should decisions be made on the basis of scientific evidence or on moral and ethical considerations? Clearly, forcing a choice between the pairs of options precluded a middle way. But we wanted to find out in whom and in what type of evidence the public had most confidence. The responses to these questions allowed us to divide the public into four “groups” reflecting different principles of governance: scientific elitists opted for decisions taken on expert advice based on scientific evidence; moral elitists opted for decisions taken on expert advice based on moral and ethical criteria; scientific populists opted for decisions based on average citizen's views of the scientific evidence; and, moral populists opted for decisions based on the average citizen's views of the moral and ethical issues.

The distribution of people in the United States, Canada, and Europe who opted for each principle of governance is shown in the table. The scientific elitists were the largest group in the United States, Canada, and Europe (54, 49, and 52% respectively). Overall, two-thirds opted for a scientific basis to decision-making and just under three-quarters wanted experts to be in the driving seat. This can be read as a vote of confidence in “sound science.” But is it a ringing endorsement? Just over a third of respondents valued moral and ethical considerations over scientific evidence; one-quarter of respondents preferred the public over experts in decision-making.

Were these different positions on the governance of science related to people's views about the utility of science? Survey respondents were asked whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for society of three technologies—computers and information technology, biotechnology [HN2], and nanotechnology [HN3] (see chart).

For each technology, the scientific elitists were more optimistic than the other groups, with the exception of the Canadian moral elitists on nanotechnology. The moral elitists were generally more optimistic than the scientific populists about nanotechnology and biotechnology. Finally, the moral populists were always the least optimistic of the four groups.

Furthermore, there were marked differences in optimism both between the scientific elitists and the moral populists, and among the United States, Canada, and Europe. The mean difference between scientific elitists and moral populists (across the United States, Canada, and Europe) was 13% for computers and IT, 18% for nanotechnology, and 26% for biotechnology. Thus, although the utility of computers and IT was relatively consensual, judgments about the societal contribution of biotechnology (and to a lesser extent nanotechnology) were more strongly associated with views on the governance of science.

A transatlantic divide was also apparent. The mean difference in optimism between scientific elitists and moral populists for the three technologies was greater for the United States (26%) and Canada (20%) than for Europe (9%). By implication, disagreements about the value implications of these technologies were stronger in North America than in Europe.

But is this plausible given the continued political conflict in Europe over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops and food? [HN4] We think so, and have argued as such elsewhere (5). The survey question asked about “biotechnology” not GM. Since the de facto moratorium on GM crops was introduced in Europe in 1999, media coverage across Europe on the issue has declined (6) and the continued discussions in Brussels (including an unofficial lifting of the moratorium in 2004) have gone largely unnoticed by the public. Europeans have become more positive about biotechnology (4), seemingly associating it with the human genome project and medical applications, rather than agriculture and food biotechnologies.

View this table:

What are the implications of the principles of governance for people's views on regulation? Both GM food and stem cell research [HN5] have stoked controversies about risks and benefits, moral and ethical issues, public consultation, and regulation. To determine how the different groups viewed the regulation of these technologies, respondents were given a brief description of stem cell research and GM food, and asked to choose one of the following alternatives: approve, approve with tight control and regulation, approve only in special cases, and not approve in any circumstances (4). For this analysis, we combined the first two of these response alternatives, because few chose unqualified approval, and the first two approximated current regulations.

Among the United States, Canada, and Europe, we found a relatively consistent pattern of response for stem cell research and GM food when comparing the scientific elitists and the moral populists (see table). The former were more likely to approve the applications than the latter. But even given tight regulation and control, Europe's scientific elitists were less likely to support the two applications than the same groups in the United States or Canada.

In the last column of the table, we show a “controversy index,” which is the ratio of approval offered by the scientific elitists and the moral populists. As this index increases, it is more probable that the technology is controversial or likely to be so. On this criterion, stem cell research was more controversial than GM food, and for both technologies, the United States had the highest score.

For stem cell research, in both the United States and Canada, it seems that being critical of the reliance on scientific evidence (moral elitists) reduced the extent of support far less than being critical of the reliance on experts (scientific populists). For GM food, being critical of either scientific evidence or of experts appeared to have a similar impact in terms of declining support. By contrast, in Europe, moral elitism was associated with a greater decline in approval than scientific populism for both stem cell research and GM food. The perceived absence of moral and ethical considerations in decision-making seems to be a greater concern in Europe than the absence of public participation. In summary, among the critics of sound science, it appears that in the United States and Canada, it is who decides rather than on what basis that is most important, while in Europe, it is the reverse—the grounds are more important than who makes the decision.

Finally, we explored the characteristics of people who opted for the different principles of governance. Common to the surveys were indicators of education, religiosity, age, gender, and a measure of institutional trust based on trust in politics and trust in the media. These characteristics were used as predictors of the groups using multinomial logistic regression [HN6]. Here, one group—the scientific elitists—was used as the reference category, and we determined whether each of the three other groups differed significantly on any given characteristic, holding the other factors constant (4).

By comparison with the scientific elitists, the other three groups had lower institutional trust. Furthermore, with the exception of Canada, these three groups have lower educational achievement. Of particular note was the contrast between the United States on the one hand, and Canada and Europe on the other. In the United States, religious beliefs were strongly related to critical attitudes to science and technology. For both the scientific and moral populists in the United States, it was the combination of strong religious beliefs, lower educational achievement, and lower generalized trust that most clearly distinguished them from the scientific elitists. Although Miller [HN7] (7) showed that in the past the U.S. public consistently reconciled conflicts between science and faith in favor of science, is this still true?

In summary, we found a majority in favor of current science policy, with this group seeing more utility in technology and more likely to approve technologies within current regulations. We also found a minority in favor of ethically informed decision-making and public engagement in science, with less positive views about technology, in particular emerging and controversial technologies.

What are the implications for science policy? Some might argue that because current policy achieved majority support, the status quo should prevail. But such an approach might be shortsighted for the following reasons.

First, there is the risk of alienating the more moderate sections of the minority, whose position finds support in influential journals, including Science (2). A positive response to their desire for greater involvement and more consideration of the moral and ethical issues may make a significant contribution to building trust in science policy.

Second, people ask: “What sort of society do we want, and how can new technology help in achieving it?” These are questions about ethics and social values; science alone cannot answer them. The public expect and want science and technology to solve problems, but they also want a say in deciding which problems are worth solving. This is not a matter of attracting public support for an agenda already established by science and scientists, but rather of seeing the public as participants in science policy with whom a shared vision of socially viable science and technological innovation can be achieved.

Supporting Online Material


HyperNotes Related Resources on the World Wide Web

General Hypernotes

Web Collections, References, and Resource Lists

The Google Directory offers a collection of Internet resources on science policy.

The Yahoo Directory includes a section on science and technology policy.

The PSIgate General Science Gateway offers links to Internet resources in science policy and public engagement with science.

The Wellcome Trust's psci-com is a gateway to Internet resources on public engagement with science and technology. A section on public opinion is included. Monthly bibliographies (with links) on public engagement with science are available.

A Science and Society Portal is provided by the Research Web site of the European Commission.

The University of Michigan Documents Center provides links to statistical resources on the Web.

The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research makes available the National Science Foundation Surveys of Public Understanding of Science and Technology, 1979-2001.

PollingReport.com provides summaries of polls of U.S. public opinion on science and nature.

General Reports and Articles

The articles in Public Understanding of Science are available in PDF format.

The 11 February 2005 issue of Science had an Editorial by A. I. Leshner titled “Where science meets society” (2). The 9 December 2005 issue had the Presidential Address by S. A. Jackson titled “The nexus: Where science meets society.”

The September 2000 issue of Nature Biotechnology had an article by G. Gaskell et al. titled “Biotechnology and the European public,” an article by E. F. Einsiedel titled “Cloning and its discontents—A Canadian perspective,” an article by D. Macer and M. A. Chen Ng titled “Changing attitudes to biotechnology in Japan,” and an article by S. H. Priest titled “US public opinion divided over biotechnology?”

The British Association for the Advancement of Science makes available in PDF form an April 2005 report Connecting Science: What We Know and What We Don't Know about Science in Society.

The Role of Scientists in Public Debate is a 2000 report available in PDF format from the Wellcome Trust.

The Public Value of Science: Or How to Ensure That Science Really Matters by J. Stilgoe, J. Wilsdon, and B. Wynne is a 2005 report available in PDF format from Demos.

Science and Society: Rights and Responsibilities is a July 2005 panel report from the International Council for Science.

Social Values, Science & Technology and Europeans, Science & Technology are June 2005 reports available in PDF format from the Public Opinion Analysis Web site of the European Commission.

The 2004 study Americans and GM Food: Knowledge, Opinion & Interest by W. Hallman et al. is available from the Food Policy Institute of Rutgers University.

First Impressions: Understanding Public Views on Emerging Technologies is a September 2005 report available in PDF format from Canada's BioStrategy Web site.

A September 2005 study titled Informed Public Perceptions of Nanotechnology and Trust in Government by J. Macoubrie is made available by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Numbered Hypernotes

1. Ethical, legal, and social implications. The Human Genome Project Information Web site provides a resource page on ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI). The World Health Organization's Genomics Resource Centre includes a section on ethical, legal, and social implications of human genomics. The ELSI Project at Berkeley National Laboratory offers a collection of educational modules. The Environmental Genome Project at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences offers a presentation on ELSI, with a FAQ and links. The Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides links to ELSI resources on the Internet. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics examines ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine. The Center on Nanotechnology and Society offers an introduction to ethical, legal, and social issues.

2. Attitudes to biotechnology. Consumer Perceptions of Food Biotechnology is a project of Rutgers' Food Policy Institute. The psci-com Web site offers links to resources on genetically modified food, government biotechnology policy, and public opinion of biotechnology. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a biotechnology project. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology was established in 2001 to be an independent and objective source of credible information on agricultural biotechnology for the public, media, and policymakers; a section on public opinion and ethics is included. The American Society of Plant Biologists provides links to biotechnology Internet resources, as well as links to news and reports on plant biotechnology issues. The Science, Technology, and Innovation Web site provides links to publications and other resources on biotechnology issues. SCOPE provides annotated links to organizations for and against genetically modified foods.

3. Nanotechnology issues. The April 2005 issue of HYLE (a special issue on nanotech challenges) had an article by B. V. Lewenstein titled “What counts as a ‘social and ethical issue’ in nanotechnology?” The NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer offers a 12 December 2005 news article titled “How the public makes sense of nanotechnology” about research by D. A. Scheufele and B. V. Lewenstein. The January 2005 issue of Public Understanding of Science had an article by G. Gaskell, T. Ten Eyck, J. Jackson, and G. Veltri titled “Imagining nanotechnology: Cultural support for technological innovation in Europe and the United States.” The National Nanotechnology Initiative Web site has a section on society and safety. The Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future offers a presentation on nanotechnology. The 24 November 2000 issue of Science (a special issue on nanotechnology) had an article by R. F. Service titled “Is nanotechnology dangerous?” The 18 June 2004 issue had a News Focus article by R. F. Service titled “Nanotechnology grows up.” The 5 November 2005 issue had a News of the Week article by R. F. Service titled “Nanotech Forum aims to head off replay of past blunders.” BBC News makes available a 23 May 2005 article titled “Citizens' jury to tackle nanotech.”

4. Conflict in Europe over genetically modified (GM) crops and foods. The European Commission's Food and Feed Safety Web site proves information about GM food. The GM Debate is a special feature of the Guardian Unlimited. The European Commission's Biosociety Web site makes available in PDF format a July 2003 report by G. Gaskell et al. titled “Ambivalent GM nation? Public attitudes to biotechnology in the UK, 1991-2002.” GM crops: An Action Network briefing is a presentation by the BBC Action Network. The 7 November 2003 issue of Science had an Enhanced Perspective by R. P. Freckleton, W. J. Sutherland, and A. R. Watkinson titled “Deciding the future of GM crops in Europe.” The Public Opinion Analysis Web site of the European Commission makes available in PDF format the Eurobarometer report Europeans and Biotechnology in 2002 (5).

5. Controversy over stem cell research. Wikipedia's article on stem cells includes a section on the ethical debate. The National Institutes of Health provides a resource page on stem cell information. The Genetics and Public Policy Center at the Phoebe R. Berman Bioethics Institute, Johns Hopkins University, makes available an October 2005 survey report titled Values in Conflict: Public Attitudes on Embryonic Stem Cell Research. The AAAS's Science and Policy Program offers a policy brief on stem cell research. Time.com offers a 2001 special feature on the stem cell debate. The PBS Online NewsHour offers a special report on stem cell research. PBS's Innovation Online includes a special report on the stem cell controversy. The Spring 2004 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly had an article by M. C. Nisbet titled “The polls: Public opinion about stem cell research and human cloning.” Yahoo News offers links to stem cell articles.

6. Multinomial logistic regression. G. D. Garson, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, North Carolina State University, provides lecture notes on logistic regression for a course on quantitative research in public administration. A tutorial on logistic regression is provided by the SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) on-line training workshop.

7. Miller's findings on faith and science. The July 2004 issue of Public Understanding of Science had an article by J. D. Miller titled “Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: What we know and what we need to know” (7). Jon D. Miller is at the Center for Biomedical Communication and in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Northwestern University Medical School.

8. George Gaskell and Jonathan Jackson are at the Methodology Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science.

9. Edna Einsiedel is in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary, Canada.

10. William Hallman is at the Food Policy Institute, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

11. Susanna Hornig Priest is in the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

12. Johannus Olsthoorn is in the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat, Ottawa.

References and Notes


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