Brussels, 25 March 2002
Exposure to information does not lead to greater trust in the work of scientists, according to two researchers who have studied the relationship between exposure to science in the media and trust in science in Italy, particularly in biotechnology.
Massimiano Bucchi of the University of Trento and Federico Neresini of the University of Padova interviewed over 1,000 Italians towards the end of 2000, and a similar number one year later in a study partly sponsored by the Giannino Bassetti foundation for responsibility in innovation. Respondents were asked about their level of exposure to science in specified daily newspapers, television and radio science programmes, popular science books and magazines. The researchers used questions similar to those used in the Eurobarometer of 1999 http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/pdf/eurobarometer-en.pdf ) but added questions on trust in science and scientists and the use, risks and moral acceptability of biotechnologies.
'Our results confirm previous suspicions that exposure to information does not always lead to greater trust in biotechnologies. We also find that greater exposure to science in the media does not necessarily mean a higher level of understanding,' write Mr Bucchi and Mr Neresini in an open letter explaining the results of their study.
The researchers also note that more information does not necessarily mean more acceptance of applications, and often results in greater criticism for some activities. The survey found that 64 per cent of the most exposed subjects consider embryo research to be ethically unacceptable, compared with 59 per cent of the less exposed, while 80 per cent of regular consumers of science in the media consider reproductive cloning useless, compared with 76 per cent of low consumers.
The researchers point out that media exposure to science does not necessarily guarantee accurate information, and emphasise that while those who are exposed to at least one high quality source of public communication of science are likely to have a more positive attitude towards biotechnology, 'this result merely highlights a well known paradox in the communication of science: the greatest impact is on a small minority, who are most likely to have the information already.'
The majority of those questioned felt that scientists should not be given the freedom to conduct research on biotechnologies, with 63.9 per cent stating that private enterprises should not be able to make decisions in this field. Respondents were themselves eager to be involved in such decisions. In answer to the question 'who should decide?', 'all citizens' ranked in second place with 22 per cent, after 'government', but before the scientists themselves with 20 per cent. Some 28 per cent of interviewees also expressed a desire to participate in a public event in order to discuss biotechnology issues with scientists, politicians and journalists.
Believing that the media alone is ineffective in influencing public opinion, Mr Bucchi and Mr Neresini suggest more attention is given to education.
'Public awareness of biotechnologies is increasing and the level of education seems to be more important than other factors in explaining attitudes in this area. So it may be wise to recommend that at least as much attention is devoted to science education - both in terms of research and of programmes and investments - as to the mass media communication of science,' write the researchers.
The media alone is insufficient to tackle public concerns as 'attitudes appear to be rooted at a deeper, cultural level, where values (such as trust and conception of risk) are heavily involved, and [which] media information does not reach.'
Further details on the study are available in Italian at the following web address: http://www.poster.it/biotech.html