BRUSSELS, Belgium - Only 11 percent of Europeans feel they are adequately informed on biotechnology, according to a new survey by the European Commission. The survey, released last week, reported that 81 percent of Europeans say they do not get sufficient information.
The survey was mounted by the European Commission as part of an extended exercise it has launched to try to bring policy and public opinion more closely in line with one another on biotechnology.
The recent tangled European debates on bioscience issues such as the cloning of human embryos, genetically modified organisms, sequencing of the human genome, and the question of granting patents for scientific results has prompted Philippe Busquin, the European Commissioner for Research, to ask prominent scientists to advise the European Commission on how to communicate the implications of these new technologies to the public. "I want to ask scientists back to the debating table, as Europe needs to make sure that it has a sound basis for discussing these issues," Busquin said in releasing the survey results. He added, "A conscious political decision in this field is not possible without informed advice and public debate."
The first meeting of this new high-level scientific group on biosciences took place on April 27. Busquin said its first task is to enter into dialogue with all interested parties in Europe - the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers, the industry, nongovernmental organizations, consumers and the media. It will prepare the groundwork for a Biosciences Summit scheduled for November, which is being designed to enable leaders of the life sciences communities to engage in debate with other stakeholders in "the beneficial application and diffusion of the new knowledge in these fields," Busquin said.
He added, "Europe should not stagnate in the field of biotechnology." He said there is a need to take more account of scientists' views on the opportunities and the risks associated with biosciences.
But the scientists face an uphill task to win over public opinion, the new survey suggests. While it showed that 72 percent said they "would take time to read articles or watch television programs on the advantages and disadvantages of the advances in biotechnology," scientists and government officials come well down the list of the information sources the public will trust. Asked to rank who they trust in bioscience matters, survey respondents most commonly cited consumer organizations (26 percent), just ahead of the medical profession (24 percent), and environmental protection organizations (14 percent). These are all well ahead of universities (7 percent), international institutions (4 percent), or national public authorities (3 percent).