Thursday, 23 February 2012

Public Attitudes on Reproductive Technologies

The ‘Public’ in Public Understanding of Science is not singular but plural. The Public with a capital ‘P’ encompasses within it several publics with a lowercase ‘p’, each guided by its own perceptions, contexts, and worldviews. This week, our guest blogger is Rebecca Bollard, a doctoral candidate at the University of Waikato, whose PhD thesis is titled, Using Sustainable Citizenship to Form a Deliberative Policy Framework: An Analysis of Reproductive Technology in New Zealand. In this blog, Rebecca looks at recent research on public attitudes towards new and emerging reproductive technologies. Here is her post:

Reproductive technologies have often been cast as a sort of technological Pandora’s Box, containing both great promise for ameliorating suffering and the potential for radical and undesirable change to the process of reproduction. The recent development of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis (NIPD) fits squarely into this mold. NIPD offers the promise of a future where parents can have fetuses tested for chromosomal abnormalities (such as Down’s syndrome) without the risk associated with amniocentesis. However the subsequent abortion of such fetuses or the use of NIPD for more ‘superficial’ reasons creates concerns for some.

NIPD raises many of the same bioethical issues that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PIGD) does. PIGD is a technique used in conjunction with IVF that can test embryos for specific diseases or conditions before they are implanted into a womb. It is often used to prevent a genetic disease, but can also be used for more ‘social’ reasons including sex selection.

In an article forthcoming in Public Understanding of Science, Hannah Farrimond and Susan Kelly provide one of the first attempts to understand and quantify public reaction to the use of NIPD. Their UK study employs Q methodology to identify four distinct viewpoints:
1. NIPD as a new tool in the ongoing societal discrimination against the disabled;
2. NIPD as a positive clinical application offering peace of mind in pregnancy;
3. NIPD as a medical option justified for severe disorders only; and
4. NIPD as a valid expansion of personal choice
(Farrimond & Kelly, 2011).

So how do their findings compare to earlier studies on PIGD? Gerhard Meisenberg, in a 2009 article, used surveys to study attitudes towards PIGD among medical students in Dominica (mostly US citizens). He found these attitudes varied across a number of variables, including gender, religion, and perception of nature. Religiosity, post-modern values and low familiarity are all more likely to produce negative attitudes towards PIGD. The use of the technology was also important in how the students perceived its value, with medical uses (prevention of disease) being more acceptable than non-medic al uses (physical or psychological enhancement).

In another study, Doolin and Motion used focus groups in New Zealand to understand Christian lay perspectives on the use of PIGD. Their study revealed the difficultly of integrating science into value systems. Participants were generally ambivalent about the potential benefits but they were aware of the potential of science to relive suffering and of the need for balance and choice. A range of factors, including “emotion, religious and secular values and beliefs, and non-institutional knowledges”, were identified as contributing to these beliefs.

While each of these studies looks at attitudes towards the use of NIPD and PIGD, each employs a different methodology to study different groups in different countries. However the results show a similar variation in results; there is not one ‘public’ opinion, but rather a range of opinions between people and across the use of technology.

So, there is clearly no dearth of evidence that there are multiple publics amongst us (scientists and non-scientists), with a diversity of values and beliefs. But does this evidence make a difference – to public policy? To politics? To institutional rules and practices? We take this question up in future blogs.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Perception Puzzle

In our last blog, we talked about how public perceptions on science, scientists, and scientific research are hugely varied and a lot depends on the personal, cultural, organizational, or societal context within which each individual lives and views the world. As on every aspect of scientific research, public perceptions on animal experimentation vary according to individual contexts.

In a forthcoming piece in Public Understanding of Science, Fabienne Crettaz von Roten, shares some interesting findings on a multi-country research on ‘Public perceptions of animal experimentation across Europe’. Perhaps, not surprisingly, there is greater acceptance of research on mice but opinions on research on dogs and monkeys are a lot more divided. The research shows that “men, older people, and tertiary educated people are more likely to accept animal experimentation” than others. But then, the research also shows that general acceptance of animal experimentation in at least nine European countries had “significantly dropped” between 2005 and 2010.

Clearly, the issue of perception is a complex one. For one, perceptions are not necessarily stable and then they vary according to external inputs, including cultural, political, economic, and medical imperatives. Public engagement with science is, therefore, an increasingly complex and challenging process.

In line with the objectives of forums such PUS, the National Academy of Sciences in the US is organizing a two-day colloquium on The Science of Science Communication in Washington, DC, on 21 and 22 May, 2012. The colloquium will, as its organizers say, provide an opportunity to “scientists to improve their understanding of the public” and “for communication practitioners to enhance their knowledge of the state of the science”.

A greater and more fluid interaction between scientists and communication practitioners, as well as with what is called the “lay public”, would go a long way in closing the perception gap. One pathway to a collaborative approach, according to physicist-turned-writer and a protagonist for collaborative science, Michael Nielsen, is “Open Science”. See also a Q&A session with him on the TED Blog.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mind the Gap

That there is still a huge communication gap between “scientists” and the “public” is well-known. Quite a few scientists continue to lean on the knowledge-deficit model to view people of non-scientific backgrounds, especially activists, as ignorant and unable to grapple with the intricacies of science. Many members of the public, on the other hand, tend to see scientists as people living in cocoons with limited understanding of social, economic, or political contexts. Yet neither scientists nor the public are homogenous groups. Perceptions, often misplaced, have a lot to do with the gap.

This then might be a good time to refer to John Besley and Matthew Nisbet’s forthcoming piece in PUS on ‘How scientists view the public, the media and the political process’. These two scholars analyse two large surveys of scientists in the US and in the UK to see how and why scientists tend to, or are perceived to, look at the public and the media with hostility and contempt. The homogenization of categories is an issue, the authors of the analysis point out. There could, perhaps, be better engagement if future research could “carefully examine how factors such as personal experience, gender, ideology, worldview, selective information sources and other communication processes shape how scientists perceive the public and the media”. This holds true for public perceptions of science and scientists too.

Indeed, the significance of perceptions on how scientists understand the public was clearly evident in the very first article of the inaugural issue of PUS in 1992 by Walter Bodmer and Janice Wilkins. While bemoaning the lack of trust the British public placed in scientists, the authors then said that “it is going to be very difficult to bring science into the lives of unskilled working women”. The authors were, of course, trying to see how science could be made part of the lives of ordinary people. But then ordinary people are not all the same. First of all, “unskilled working women” may well be skilled in areas that are not formally recognised and may not necessarily be ignorant of all things scientific. And second, are they really representative of the entire spectrum of the "non-scientific" public? Indeed, each of us makes sense of science in line with the context within which we live.

As always, we invite comment and discussion.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Welcome to the PUS Blog!

Around the time PUS was launched two decades ago, public understanding of science was largely limited to science fiction. Since then, science communication scholars and teachers have used the platform of PUS to provide an interface between science and society, to open the doors to the walled world of science and technology, to explore the impressive range of life-changing research in a variety of areas, and to generate informed and nuanced discussion on controversial aspects of scientific research. We intend to expand the reach of these explorations and discussions through this blog, highlighting contemporary issues, linking current articles, and provoking debate in an enlarged public sphere.

So who are we? One of us is Priya Kurian, an Associate Professor of Political Science & Public Policy at the University of Waikato Hamilton, New Zealand. And the other is Debashish Munshi, an Associate Professor of Management Communication at the same University. Although our roots are in different disciplines, we share a common interest in making science accessible, equitable, and socially-relevant and are currently co-principal investigators of a Royal Society of New Zealand-funded Marsden project on “Sustainable citizenship: Transforming public engagement on new technologies”.

We see ourselves as facilitators. While we will ourselves make frequent posts, we will also invite and coordinate contributions from both science and social science scholars and students as well as from a range of people, often referred to as “the public”, for meaningful discussions on topics which may attract polarised opinions.

We look forward to your thoughts and comments. If you have specific topics or questions you would like to see discussed or debated on the blog, please post them to the blog and we will take them up and invite responses.