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Opinions about scientific advances blur party-political lines

Reading about the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research…

Science has come a long way, it’s time for communication to catch up. Pieter Kuiper

Reading about the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the politically conservative US.

History and happenstance play a role, but these differences also reflect public concerns that do not conform to traditional left or right political ideologies.

As debates over stem cell research continue and as conflicts over other biomedical advances emerge, a recurring set of questions is likely to be seen. Do scientific breakthroughs promote or undermine social progress? Is research being pursued too cautiously or too quickly? Do scientists respect or cross moral boundaries?

In a study, just published in PLOS ONE, we analysed a series of surveys collected between 2002 and 2010 to better understand what the US public thinks about stem cell research and how they formed these opinions. We were able to distinguish between the different factors influencing their beliefs. At play were factors such as traditional loyalties to political parties and more fundamental beliefs about science and society.

Our results indicate that, more than political party identification, ideology or religious beliefs, an individual’s beliefs about science and society had the strongest influence on their support for stem cell research. It was also possible to identify distinct segments who differ substantially in what they thought about science’s social implications. Traditional political labels do not easily define these groups.

Based on our data we classify the US public in four categories:

  1. Scientific optimists: These comprise about a third of the public. They believe strongly in the link between science and social progress. They are likely to support most scientific advances and three quarters of this group are in favour of embryonic stem cell research. Optimists are on average highly educated, financially well off and disproportionately white. They are split almost evenly along political lines, with slightly more Democrats among them. In terms of political ideology, they are the most moderate in their outlook.

  2. Scientific pessimists:This group comprises just under a quarter of the public. They have strong reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists and believe science may lead to new problems. They are the most likely to oppose advances in biomedical research, with only 40% in favour of stem cell research. Compared to optimists, this group scores much lower on average in terms of educational attainment and income. More tend to be female and from a minority background. Pessimists split evenly along party lines, but tend to be disproportionately either moderate or conservative in their ideological outlook.

  3. The conflicted: This group represents another quarter of the public. They view science in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. Though they are socially similar to the Pessimists in their background, they tend to be older on average than members of other segments. They appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasise the benefits of research. By 2010, more than 60% of this segment had come to favour embryonic stem cell research.

  4. The disengaged: About 15% of the public lacks strong beliefs about how science might impact society. As a result, they are likely to be the most susceptible to shifts in opinion driven by political messages. For example, between 2008 and 2010, support for embryonic stem cell research among this group increased by 20 percentage points.

A better informed public

As advances in stem cell research, synthetic biology, personalised genomics and other scientific fields move forward, our current media is unlikely to adequately address the deeper set of public concerns reflected in our study.

Cable TV, social media and the tabloid press tend to favour sensationalism over context. These complex debates are all too likely to be distorted in terms of simplistic left-right distinctions or exaggerated to be miracle breakthroughs or morally repugnant. At more prestigious news outlets, budget cuts and layoffs will limit the opportunity for in-depth coverage and analysis.

Given these challenges, academics need to invest in encouraging respectful debate about the future of science and what it means for society. The place to start may be in the cities and regions where research is taking place. Here we need to better understand the different questions being asked about scientific advances and invest in local media and public forums that encourage constructive discussion and debate.

But, given the international nature of science, we also need to think more broadly and ensure conversations transcend national boundaries. We need to take advantage of online media platforms to build what journalists Andrew Revkin and Krista Tippet have called the “Knowosphere,” a global classroom where interested people can learn about and discuss the social and ethical implications of science.

Revkin’s blog Dot Earth and Tippett’s multimedia series On Being are prototypes for designing these new types of forums. So too is The Conversation. Yet more support for these forums and similar ventures are needed and it will ultimately be up to scientific institutions to lead the way.