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Poll Reveals Americans' Deep Conflict Over Direction of Science and Technology

A national opinion poll commissioned by Columbia's Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes (CSPO) and the Funders' Working Group on Emerging Technologies found that the American public wants a great deal more input into the direction scientific discoveries and new technologies are taking society.

According to the poll conducted by two Washington, DC, firms well known for their bipartisan political "Battleground" surveys, The Tarrance Group and Lake, Snell, and Perry, most Americans (77 percent) are concerned about how much say they have in the way science and technology alter their everyday living. Less than one-third of Americans (30 percent) believe the public has a good deal of input into the shape of the new world science and technology are inventing for them.

"With research in the works in controlling the weather, slowing the aging process and using genetically-modified pig organs for human transplant, Americans are saying 'hold on, we want more say in what's happening before it happens,' " said Daniel Sarewitz, executive director of CSPO.

The role of the public and the government in guiding science and technology will be the focus of a 3-day conference -- Living with the Genie: Governing the Scientific and Technological Transformation of Society in the 21st Century -- to be held March 5-7 at Columbia. A wide range of leading international experts will participate, including: Bill Joy, Chief Scientist and Co-founder of Sun Microsystems; John Podesta, Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University and former White House Chief of Staff; Susan Eisenhower, President of the Eisenhower Institute; Ray Kurzweil, developer of innovative technologies and author of several books including "The Age of Spiritual Machines," and Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer prize-winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." Panel discussions will explore the complex political, cultural, ethical and economic challenges that are raised by how society manages the scientific and technological revolution.

The poll revealed some deep conflicts between public opinion and current policies about science and technology. For example, while society has moved towards private ownership of human genes through patents, only eight percent of Americans believe human genes should belong to the company or entity that funded the research identifying the gene.

"The poll shows that public values may not be well represented in our current approach to governing new knowledge and innovation. At Living with the Genie, we want to spark a widespread public discussion about the current goals of science and technology and whether those goals match the public's needs," said Chris Desser, Executive Director of the Funder's Working Group on Emerging Technologies.

The poll also showed that most Americans (68 percent) think the poor are least likely to benefit from science and technology. This view was the same for respondents whose households earned less than $20,000 annually and for those whose households earned more than $100,000 per year. There was much wider variation on who benefits the most: 33 percent believe that society as a whole benefits most; 29 percent believe that business and industry do.

"Living with the Genie will also look closely at the question of who is left behind by science and technology," said Sarewitz. "We all know about the digital divide and the high price of AIDS drugs and other medical advances. The question is: Can we do a better job of ensuring that the benefits of science and technology are more widely available?"

Intriguingly, when asked if they would be interested in slowing down or halting their own aging process were the technology available, the poll found that a majority of Americans (53 percent) said no.

"When it comes to the scope and pace of scientific and technological advances, more and more people are simply asking, 'just because we can, should we,'" added Sarewitz. "This is what Living with the Genie is all about."

The American public has confidence in some fields of research, but is skeptical about others. When asked about five areas in which research is currently ongoing, the 1,000 adults surveyed responded as follows:

  • 61 percent believe that research into breeding pigs that contain human DNA for potential human transplant would improve their quality of life;
  • 59 percent believe that research into cloning to provide cells that could be used to treat various diseases would improve their quality of life; and
  • 53 percent believe that research on a strain of corn that would not only be a food source, but would also be a contraceptive would improve their quality of life.

In contrast,

  • 68 percent believe that research aimed at controlling the weather, such as stopping the rain, would harm their quality of life; and
  • 52 percent believe that research into linking human nerve cells to silicon computer chips to create a part mechanical/part living circuit would harm their quality of life.

Other findings include:

  • A majority (53 percent) of Americans say they would not be interested in using science that could slow down the aging process. However, more men (44 percent) would be willing to do so than women (37 percent). Also, almost half of non-churchgoers (48 percent) would be interested in slowing their aging; a majority of churchgoers (58 percent) would not.
  • Only 20 percent of Americans are very comfortable with the current rate of technological change, while 37 percent are only somewhat or not at all comfortable. Men are more comfortable with the rate of change than women, with 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women saying they are very comfortable. More than four in 10 women (42 percent) are either only somewhat or not at all comfortable.
  • A large majority of Americans (72 percent) believe the government has a good deal of input into the direction of science and technology. A small majority (53 percent) believes the government should have a good deal of input.

For a copy of the survey, please contact Shannon Hinderliter at (202) 879-9369.

Published: Mar 04, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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