Over one quarter of North Americans and Europeans think science policy decisions should be based on the views of the public, not experts.

About half of the American, Canadian and European population is content to let scientists make policy decisions based on scientific evidence.

In an article recently published in Science, researchers report how individuals from the above regions believe science policy should be decided. Their survery found that while a clear majority support making policy decisions about biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology based on the scientific evidence of risk and benefit, a sizeable minority believe decisions should be made on moral grounds. They also found that just under three-quarters of these people believe scientific experts should make science policy decisions, while the remaining quarter believe policy should be based primarily on public opinion.

“This can be read as a vote of confidence in ‘sound science,’” the authors wrote. “But is it a ringing endorsement?”

University of South Carolina professor Susanna Hornig Priest, a coauthor of the study, said she supports the people who want decision-makers to listen to their political views.

“Many people, if not most people, are content in all three categories with the decisions being made by experts of one sort or another,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a mandate or an opportunity…for more public engagement.”

The authors asked respondents two primary questions: “Should decisions about technology be left to the experts or based on the views of the public?” and “Should decisions be made on the basis of scientific evidence or on moral and ethical consideration?”

From the responses, they created four demographics: scientific elitists, who want experts to make decisions based on evidence; moral elitists, who opted for experts creating policy on ethical grounds; scientific populists, who desire decisions based on the average citizen’s view of the scientific evidence; and moral populists, who think decisions should be based on the average citizen’s perspective on ethical issues.

The researchers found that, on the whole, scientific elitists were significantly more optimistic about technology’s potential. They found the scientific elitists and the moral populists had the greatest optimism divide in the United States; the two groups differed most on how to govern biotechnology.

But according to Priest, people are less alienated by biotechnology than by nanotechnology. She believes the controversies surrounding biotechnology make people feel they have a voice, and that debate is desirable because it engages people in a scientific democracy, investing them in science.

“That’s how democracy’s supposed to work, right?” she said. “We don’t always get our way, but at least we have our say.”

Priest said scientists and governments should recognize that the public is fairly divided over how scientific policy should be determined.

“People are not of one mind about how these decisions should be made,” she said. “So however we proceed in terms of public engagement and science policy making, we have to do so in recognition that there’s not going to be a consensus about how the decisions should even be made, let alone what the decisions are, about a particular technology.”

Originally published December 23, 2005


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