Even authoritative sources consider European citizens, and especially Italian ones, to be sceptical about biotechnologies mainly because of lack of information; victims of “scientific illiteracy”, they would be bearers of prejudiced aversion, fomented by mass medias, to science.
Is this really true? Federico Neresini, Giuseppe Pellegrini and I have been periodically surveying Italian public understanding of science, and especially of biotechnologies (with studies allowing also international comparison).
The results- in line with those of other studies, like the Eurobarometer Survey Series- marked that Italians’ attitude towards biotechnologies is anything but a coherent structure.
A quite strong aversion to GMO (70% think that they are dangerous) is coupled with an open attitude to medical biotechnologies (except reproductive cloning), higher than that of many European countries.
Indeed, more than half of Italians are in favour of continuing researching on GMO (57%) and 84% is in favour of the prosecution of research on medical biotechnologies.
Such a layout is difficult to explain if we take the argument according to which public opinion would be completely “antiscientific”.Of course we’re not denying that a big part of the population is under-informed about the subject; even though lack of information can’t be considered as the only reason of negative attitudes towards biotechnologies. In fact, even the most informed on biotechnologies are not for this reason less critical of them.
Actually, some times the opposite is true: the best informed are the most sceptical. Besides, millions of smokers do ignore the writing on packets of cigarettes informing them about the dangers of smoking: a clear proof that risk communication is not enough to make someone change his/her attitude.
But, if lack of information is not the reason , how can we explain aversion to biotechnology?
Our hypothesis is that the reasons of this attitude are much deeper and do not specifically concern biotechnologies. Citizens have not lost trust in science but recently their perception of science and of its relationships with politic and business has changed. Faced with the new complex themes of biotechnologies, traditional forms of political representation and decision seem inappropriate, not enough transparent and above all unable to manage a science that seems to them to have lost indipendence, impartiality and internal cohesion.
It is no accident that the ones who see the scientists disagreeing on GMO are the most sceptical about agriculture and food biotechnologies.
It could be said that Italians do not fear biotechnologies as such: they fear the lack of reliable decision making procedures in the fields of research and innovation; as a matter of fact, more than one fifth think that decisions on biotechnologies cannot be left to scientific experts nor to traditional political istitutions, stating the need to involve all citizens, and 14% think that at the moment “nobody is able to decide”.
A more informed public opinion is surely to be hoped; but, if we really want to get out from the current impasse on themes as biotechnologies, we need institutions and forms of political representation more thoroughly able to face science and innovation’s new challanges.
This article has been published in Quark magazine (October 2004).