Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by Professor Barrie Gunter, Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield


  1. The evidence provided in this submission will focus specifically on research conducted into public understanding and perceptions of biotechnology. It derives from a study conducted by the University of Sheffield (Department of Journalism Studies and Sheffield Institute for Biotechnological Law and Ethics (SIBLE)) which was funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF).

  2. The research was undertaken over a 12-month period (1 April 1997 to 31 March 1998) in four stages: (1) focus group interviews with 48 members of the public, recruited from the north and south of England; (2) a nation-wide survey of 2,185 respondents recruited across England, Scotland and Wales, interviewed face-to-face in their own homes; (3) focus group interviews with 48 teenagers (aged 16 to 19 years) recruited from the north and south of England; and a survey of 30 scientists and 31 journalists.

  3. Among members of the public, this research was concerned with assessing awareness, understanding, beliefs and perceptions, attitudes and behavioural orientations in regard to biotechnology and its application in the sphere of food production. Awareness referred to the salience of biotechnology-related issues and developments in the collective public consciousness. Understanding referred to how much factual knowledge people held about biotechnology. Beliefs and perceptions focused upon sets of judgments about the truth or falsehood of different claims about biotechnolgy, with special regard to perceptions or the relative benefits or risks associated with it in its various forms. Attitudes embodied a more evaluative dimension in the public's appraisal of biotechnology. The question here was not one of whether biotechnology is safe or harmful (a belief) but whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable as an activity. At this level of analysis, the enquiry entered into the realm of the ethics of biotechnology. Behavioural orientations referred to the likelihood that a consumer would engage in a particular behaviour, such as the consumption of foods knowing that biotechnology has been involved in their production.

  4. A decision was taken to survey scientists and journalists because of the signficant role both of these groups play in the production and dissemination of scientific discoveries and applications of biotechnology. The sample of scientists were all currently active biotechnologists working either in the academic or commercial sectors. The journalists were recruited equally from broadcasting and the print sectors and were all known to have written or presented stories about biotechnology over the preceding 12 months. In addition to being asked questions concerning their personal beliefs and opinions regarding biotechnology (e.g., its relative risks and benefits), these two samples were asked for their views about the extent of public knowledge and understanding, the significance of the mass media in relation to the public's understanding of this branch of scientific enquiry, and the roles and responsibilities of journalists and scientists in the communication of accurate and digestible information about biotechnology.


  5. A series of open-ended and pre-structured questions were administered to members of the public to assess their general awareness and knowledge about biotechnology. Preceding questions which asked directly about biotechnology in both the adult focus groups and main public survey were a number of questions concerned with food consumption habits, diet and nutrition, and farming which provided a wider context in which to consider public awareness of biotechnolgy. Such questions provided an opportunity to see to what extent biotechnology and related concepts such as genetic modification were mentioned even when not directly prompted.

Perceived Changes in Diet and Farming

  6. Asked about whether their personal eating habits had changed in the past 10 years, more than 70 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they had. The most commonly mentioned changes were a reduction in eating fats and fatty foods (34 per cent), red meats (22 per cent), and sugars (22 per cent) and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables (13 per cent). No mention was made of biotechnology in this context.

  7. In relation to food production, most respondents (71 per cent) were able to identify changes in farming practices in the past 10 years. Among the changes mentioned most often were the perceived increase in use of pesticides, fungicides and chemicals (24 per cent), as well as the growth of technology in farming (20 per cent). It was in this context that the first unprompted mention of biotechnology occurred, with a small proportion of respondents (3 per cent) making mentions of genetic engineering, cloning and more especially, Dolly the sheep.

Awareness of Biotechnology

  8. On turning their attention to biotechnology, more than half the respondents in the main survey (55 per cent) and a similar proportion in the focus groups exhibited some general awareness of the term "biotechnology". Further probing, however, revealed few respondents with any clear understanding of what this branch of science is about.

  9. Upon being given more specific prompts, survey respondents most often associated biotechnology with such activities as the use of pesticides in farming (30 per cent), cloning (26 per cent), genetic modification (especially with bacteria) (24 per cent), and applying preservatives to food (23 per cent). Wider connotations emerged upon discussing the subject further in the focus groups which included the notion that biotechnology involved tampering with nature, an activity which was regarded as potentially risky and fraught with ethical problems.

Awareness of Biotechnology Regulation

  10. Current public opinion in Britain sides more with the view that there is insufficient or inadequate regulation of biotechnology. More than one in two survey respondents (55 per cent) thought there was too little regulation. The responsibility for regulation of this area of science was most often spontaneously perceived to reside with the "government" (54 per cent) with more specific mentions being made by some respondents of MAFF (23 per cent), or the Department of Health (13 per cent). With prompting, one in three respondents (34 per cent) endorsed the MAFF as the primary regulator, while nearly one in four (23 per cent) chose the Department of Health.

  11. There was indications from the focus groups that biotechnology awareness for many respondents was stimulated by media coverage of stories about cloning and genetic modification experiments. There was a degree of confusion over the range of events which were connected with biotechnology, as some respondents referred to issues such as E. coli and thalidomide as exemplars of biotechnology-related phenomena.

  12. Overall, the findings indicated that public understanding of biotechnology is not very sophisticated. Respondents' uncertainty over what biotechnology entails may contribute in turn to anxieties about its implications for their own lives, especially where it represents a process which is increasingly involved in food production. There is a need to improve the general level of public knowledge and understanding of biotechnology, its implications and the way it is currently controlled and regulated.


  13. Public perceptions of risk associated with biotechnology, concerns about various biotechnology applications, and orientations towards the use of genetically modified or otherwise biotechnologically-influenced foods were examined in the main survey and adult focus groups. At the outset of each interview, respondents in the main survey exhibited balanced views on the risks connected with biotechnology in general (33 per cent perceived more risks; 30 per cent perceived more benefits), but after further questions about the risks associated with specific biotechnology applications had been asked, the overall opinion about biotechnology shifted towards a position where risks were seen to outweigh benefits (42 per cent perceived more risks; 32 per cent perceived more benefits).

Benefits and risks associated with genetic modification and cloning

  14. Turning to specific biotechnology processes or applications, members of the public were found to associate greater risk than benefit with the genetic modification of plant life where such plant life comprises crops in the human food chain, but identified net benefits for the application of genetic modification to garden flowers and shrubs which do not normally form part of the food chain. With genetic modification of garden flowers and shrubs, the prevalence of perceived benefits (50 per cent) was far in excess of the prevalence of perceived risks (28 per cent). This pattern was reversed in the case of opinions about risks and benefits associated with genetic modification of crops for animals feeds (52 per cent risks versus 29 benefits) and the genetic modification of crops for human consumption (58 per cent risks versus 25 per cent benefits). The more direct the connection between the human food chain and genetically modified crops, the greater was the perceived overall risk. Respondents were generally of the opinion that the genetic modification of animals was a risky pursuit.

  15. Risk perceptions also clearly outnumbered benefit perceptions in the case of the genetic modification of animals (66 per cent versus 15 per cent), simple organisms such as bacteria and viruses (48 per cent versus 32 per cent), and farm animals such as cows, sheep or pigs (67 per cent versus 15 per cent).

  16. The cloning of animals was regarded as the most risky pursuit of all, with well over half of all survey respondents (57 per cent) saying that risks outweighed benefits. The responses of focus group participants reinforced the survey findings. Respondents continued to express the view that many genetic modification and cloning applications carried net risks.

Risk perceptions for other biological processes

  17. Respondents were equally concerned about other non-biotechnology biological processes, such as the use of pesticides, antibiotics and steroids in farming, and the irradiation of food products. Clear majorities of survey respondents perceived risks to outweigh benefits in the case of pesticides (61 per cent versus 25 per cent), steroids (60 per cent versus 23 per cent) and irradiation of foods (71 per cent versus 13 per cent). Only in the case of antibiotics in farming were risk and benefit perceptions more evenly matched (44 per cent versus 40 per cent).

Images and Concerns

  18. Concerns about biotechnology, whether in the form of the genetic modification of plants or animals or in the form of cloning of animals, seemed to stem from perceptions that it represented the tampering with nature and was therefore potentially dangerous or harmful. Clear majorities of main survey respondents regarded the genetic modification of crops (52 per cent) or animals (66 per cent), and the cloning of animals (80 per cent) as interference with nature. There were also question-marks over the ethics of such research and the ability of authorities to regulate it effectively. While a clear majority of respondents (70 per cent) regard cloning of animals as ethically or morally wrong, this opinion was less widely held about the genetic modification of crops (29 per cent) or animals (51 per cent). The genetic modification of crops was less often seen as impossible to regulate (29 per cent) than either the genetic modification of animals (42 per cent) or cloning of animals (48 per cent). Thus, although some respondents regarded these examples of biotechnology as inevitable (24 per cent to 30 per cent) and as representing progress (20 per cent to 30 per cent), many others felt it should either be restricted or banned, and were not willing to consider buying food derived from such processes. Banning was more closely associated with cloning (65 per cent) than either the genetic modification of animals (46 per cent) or of crops (27 per cent). Rejection of foods derived from these technologies was again more widespread in the case of cloning (48 per cent) or genetic modification of animals (42 per cent) than for the genetic modification of crops (29 per cent).

  19. Other biological processes such as the use of steroids and pesticides in farming and the irradiation of food were regarded as tampering with nature (35 per cent to 48 per cent), worrying (33 per cent to 51 per cent), dangerous (26 per cent to 54 per cent) and harmful (29 per cent to 49 per cent) by many respondents. While a substantial minority also felt that the application of such processes was inevitable (22 per cent to 34 per cent), relatively few regarded it as progress (14 per cent to 27 per cent).

  20. Concerns about biotechnology varied with the type of application, however. There was great deal of concern about cloning of humans (85 per cent), and the use of genetic modification on farm animals (79 per cent), other animals (such as monkeys) (74 per cent), and even upon simple organisms such as bacteria and viruses (73 per cent). There was much less widespread concern about the application of genetic modification on crops destined for animal consumption (57 per cent were concerned a great deal). Only in the case of garden flowers and shrubs were respondents generally unconcerned (just 21 per cent concerned a great deal).

Justifications for Biotechnology

  21. In considering the reasons for biotechnology, respondents felt that the strongest justifications were those related to medical applications such as understanding how diseases work (76 per cent), diagnosing and treating disease and illness (69 per cent) or environmental applications aimed at reducing pollution levels (71 per cent). Food-related applications such as increasing crop yields (54 per cent saying this was a strong reason for biotechnology) or producing pesticide resistant crops (60 per cent) were less widely supported. An application such as making farm animals grow larger or faster (15 per cent) and pure research in biotechnology to create new animal species (13 per cent) were much less widely supported.

Opinions about Genetically Modified Foods

  22. Looking further into opinions about genetically modified foods, respondents continued to express doubts and concerns, but also indicated very clearly that they needed more information about such products and the scientific processes underpinning them (70 per cent expressed this need). Deep-seated suspicion about genetic modification and other forms of biotechnology when applied to food production were also revealed in the cautious or negative orientations observed towards such food. A majority of survey respondents not only roundly rejected meat derived from genetically modified animals (60 per cent), but also meat from ordinary animals fed on genetically modified crops (53 per cent). Even with government or manufacturer reassurances and endorsements, many respondents remained uncertain and unconvinced about such foods. Fewer than one in three respondents said they would buy genetically modified foods endorsed as safe by government (31 per cent) or by manufacturers (32 per cent). Most respondents indicated an unwillingness to buy foods from crops sprayed with pesticides (53 per cent) and tended increasingly to purchase food products where all ingredients were clearly shown on the packaging (53 per cent).

  23. The net outcome of this part of the research was that members of the public expressed considerable concerns and reservations about biotechnology and especially about the derivation of foods from genetically modified plant and animal life forms. They perceived such products and the processes which underpin them as carrying more risks than benefits, as problematic, as unnatural and perhaps also unethical, and as something, for the time being at least, to be avoided. Although certain sections of the population (e.g., the young) were more inclined than others to give genetically modified foods the benefit of the doubt, there remains a considerable amount of successful persuasion to be done to create general public support for and likely consumption of genetically modified foods.


  24. Respondents in the main survey were questioned about their media consumption patterns, especially their consumption of specialist media output, such as magazines, radio and television broadcasts which dealt with subjects of potential relevance to biotechnology awareness. They were also asked more directly about their main sources of information concerning biotechnology.

Biotechnology Information Sources

  25. The sources which received the most mentions were television news and documentaries (58 per cent), newspapers or news magazines (47 per cent), consumer programmes on television (24 per cent), and talking to other people (17 per cent). Radio broadcasts of any kind were identified far less frequently (by 6 per cent or fewer respondents) as information sources of significance in this context. Primary information sources did vary in certain ways between subgroups within the sample. Teenage respondents (29 per cent), for example, mentioned studying science at school or college as being among the most important sources of information about biotechnology far more often than did older age groups. There were a few mentions, by minorities of respondents, of government-released information and labels on food products.

  26. Respondents were also asked which information sources they would mistrust. Sources mentioned most often as being potentially unreliable were newspapers (23 per cent), government (22 per cent), other people (20 per cent), and food manufacturers (20 per cent). Food retailers (15 per cent) and food labels (11 per cent) were the next most often mentioned after the aforementioned. It is clear then that official sources do not hold the public's trust. Among the mass media, the broadcast media were generally regarded as more reliable than print media. Despite the relatively high rank achieved by supermarkets and food retailers in the league table of mistrusted information sources, most respondents (59 per cent) nevertheless acknowledged picking up and taking away information leaflets provided by supermarkets. A substantial minority of respondents (44 per cent) also expressed at least some interest in watching in-store videos with food-related information and others (54 per cent of VCR owners) said they would be prepared to take such videos home with them to watch provided they were available for free. The popularity of the latter idea dropped dramatically with the suggestion that a £5 charge would be levied for such videos (13 per cent expressed some interest on this basis).

Media habits and Biotechnology Awareness and Opinions

  27. Although the results reported in this research cannot prove cause-effect relationships between media exposure and biotechnology-related awareness, attitudes, perceptions and orientation, they do reveal that different amounts and types of media consumption differentiate levels of public biotechnology knowledge and the kinds of opinions held about biotechnology. At a very basic level, awareness of biotechnology was greater among respondents who were regular than irregular consumers of the major print and broadcast media.

  28. Broadsheet newspaper readers (85 per cent) were more likely to have heard of biotechnology than tabloid readers (52 per cent). Respondents who reportedly read, listened to or viewed specialist magazines (66 per cent), radio (73 per cent) or television broadcasts (59 per cent) were more likely than non-consumers of these programmes (51 per cent, 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively) to say they had heard of biotechnology.

  29. These differences in reported media consumption also distinguished respondents in terms of their awareness of biotechnology regulation as well. Broadsheet readers were more likely than tabloid readers to say there was far too little regulation of biotechnology (37 per cent versus 26 per cent). This opinion was also more likely to be expressed by specialist magazine readers than non-readers (34 per cent versus 26 per cent), special interest radio progamme listeners than non-listeners (40 per cent versus 26 per cent), and special interest television programme viewers than non-viewers (31 per cent versus 19 per cent). In other words, people who regularly tune in to the major news media and more particularly those who make a point of consuming special interest publications and productions are more informed and more opinionated.


  30. The main aims of this survey were:

    (1)  to find out if the perceptions of biotechnology risks and benefits, and other opinions about different biotechnology applications were similar among these two specialist groups as they had been found to be among members of the public;

    (2)  to ascertain journalists' and scientists' perceptions of the public's need to know about and their current level of understanding about biotechnology;

    (3)  to examine journalists' and scientists' perceptions of the role of the media in enhancing public understanding and opinion about biotechnology; and

    (4)  to explore scientists' and journalists' perceptions of their own respective roles and responsibilities in relation to helping members of the public understand what they need and ought to know about different applications of biotechnology.

Perceptions of Benefits and Risks

  31. Scientists and journalists were much more confident than the public about the risks and benefits associated with biotechnology. An overwhelming majority of the scientists (93 per cent) interviewed in this survey and a clear majority of the journalists (65 per cent) interviewed here, believed that benefits outweighed risks. The public had been found to be much more circumspect in their opinions and consequently were less convinced about the benefits and absence of serious risks.

Perceptions of Public Knowledge and Opinion

  32. Scientists and journalists showed general agreement about the public's need to know more about biotechnology, especially in the context of food production. A majority of both groups also believed that only a small minority (less than 20 per cent) of the public had any real knowledge of biotechnology (journalists-71 per cent; scientists-80 per cent) or genetic modification (journalists-67 per cent; scientists-80 per cent).

  33. If the public were largely ignorant, what role if any could the media play in alleviating this position? When asked to judge the quality of media coverage of biotechnology issues, scientists revealed a series of largely negative opinions. Media coverage of biotechnology and genetic modification in general, for example, was regarded as too sensational and dramatic (journalists-58 per cent; scientists-83 per cent), too speculative (45 per cent and 73 per cent) with too much emphasis on risks (45 per cent and 63 per cent), and as failing in its scientific accuracy (42 per cent and 20 per cent) and balance (39 per cent and 10 per cent). Journalists, not too surprisingly, held a different and somewhat more positive set of opinions. Even so, many of the journalists interviewed shared the scientists' reservations about media coverage of biotechnology. Thus, even media professionals were inclined to question the quality of treatment accorded to this complex subject by the major news media.

Principle Functions of Journalism

  34. Given that there was a broad implication from these opinions that media coverage could be better, whose responsibility is it to ensure that improvements occur? Both groups were asked to consider, in particular, the functions of journalism in regard to reporting of science and biotechnology. Spontaneous and prompted opinions were sought. In both instances, there was widespread agreement that journalism had a duty to inform the public and to do so objectively. Both journalists and scientists widely and spontaneously mentioned the need for objectivity in reporting on scientific matters (71 per cent and 67 per cent). While it was generally agreed spontaneously that there was little room for undue emotion in reporting on science and biotechnology (journalists-39 per cent; scientists-47 per cent), it was also, with prompting, seen as important to use reporting techniques which would make the subject matter interesting (journalists-97 per cent; scientists-80 per cent) and comprehensible to non-experts (journalists-97 per cent; scientists-97 per cent).

Interactions between Scientists and Journalists

  35. Journalists (94 per cent) and scientists (93 per cent) both overwhelming agreed that journalists should be technically prepared before interviewing scientists. Journalists should not enter into an interview with a scientist on a technical subject without having first done some homework and attained a degree of understanding on their own part. This opinion would seem to fit sensibly with the further opinion, widely endorsed by scientists and journalists, that part of the journalist's task, was to translate complex science into everyday language (journalists-97 per cent; scientists-80 per cent).

  36. A majority of both groups also believed that scientists should restrict themselves to statements about their field of expertise and not wander into territory where they are less sure of themselves (journalists-58 per cent; scientists-73 per cent). In addition, both groups agreed that journalists should not accept the word of scientists at face value (journalists-58 per cent; scientists-70 per cent). The implication of this opinion is that journalists have a professional duty to check the facts at their disposal and to verify any statements they might quote even though these may have been obtained from scientific "experts". However, a possibly complicating factor in this respect was that journalists were much keener than were scientists for science experts to venture opinions in addition to simply stating facts (61 per cent versus 43 per cent). Where scientists and journalists seriously disagreed was on the right of scientists to check a journalist's copy before publication. Nearly every scientist (93 per cent) interviewed wanted to be able to do this, while three out of four journalists (74 per cent) voiced outright rejection of such an idea.

The Role of Scientists

  37. It was argued that scientists have a role to play in the enhancement of public understanding of science as well as journalists. In this regard scientists and journalists appeared to be of one mind. The great majority of those interviewed in this survey agreed that scientists had such a role (journalists-97 per cent; scientists-97 per cent) and need to make more effort to fulfil it (94 per cent and 97 per cent). Both groups readily acknowledged that scientists often distrust journalists (71 per cent and 90 per cent) and suffer also for a lack of training and ability in communicating their findings in lay terms to the general public (journalists-71 per cent; scientists-73 per cent). Most specialist respondents agreed that scientists need more training in communications skills (journalists-87 per cent; scientists-97 per cent).

  38. The only respect in which journalists and scientists differed in their viewpoint was that two-thirds of scientists (67 per cent), as compared with one-third of journalists (35 per cent) who were interviewed, recognised that getting their research into the news is not important for most scientists. This opinion, among the scientists, is undoubtedly conditioned by the need, in the case of many of them, to publish academic papers as a primary aspect of gaining professional recognition and career advancement. The solution to this problem lies in a change of attitude among scientific researchers in the value attached to non-academic and non-technical as well as academic and technical forms of publication of scientific research findings. Scientists need not only the training, but also the incentives to commit themselves to "going public" on their research in a wider sense than airing the results of their endeavours in publications only likely to be read by their professional peers.

28 May 1998

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