Genome editing, friend or foe? Exploring public attitudes in four European countries

Genome editing, friend or foe? Exploring public attitudes in four European countries

Key points:

  • In March, the ORION Open Science project published a report: ‘Public Dialogue on Genome Editing’ summarising the findings of four public dialogue events which took place in Cambridge in the UK, Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
  • Analysis of the dialogues indicated that participants had a limited understanding of genome editing, but recognised science and technology as key to solving global issues.
  • The dialogue project sought to explore public attitudes towards the use of genome editing technology in life science research, including an understanding of how and when research and funding organisations should engage the public with research that involves emerging and potentially disruptive biotechnologies.

Public acceptance and understanding is key to the success of the biggest scientific breakthroughs. The ORION Open Science project, supported by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 funding programme, commissioned a public dialogue to explore attitudes towards genome editing technology. With the final reports published in March, the findings will be used to inform the Babraham Institute’s research and engagement strategies, and strengthen open science practices throughout the Institute.

Asking the big questions
There are few discoveries that touch as many areas of science and technology as genome editing. From agriculture to medicine, editing the DNA of organisms has already been successful in providing new vaccines, safer cancer treatments, and pest resistant crops. As the tools that scientists use for genome editing become more efficient and precise, they could explore more ways to improve people’s lives. How much do the public know about this cutting-edge research, and how do they feel about it?

To gather public opinions, 30 members of the public participated in workshops over one and a half days in Cambridge, Berlin, Stockholm, and Prague, along with scientists and representatives from ORION member organisations. The participants were introduced to scientific concepts before discussing case studies on current and future uses of genome editing and associated topics about regulation, and the best way to communicate about the use of this technology in research.

Public priorities include ethics and societal impact
The participants recognised the potential for new technologies to address global challenges such as climate change, healthcare, and food security. Participants showed strong support for basic research for the acquisition of new knowledge to help ensure the realisation of potential benefits of the technology. After discussing the details of genome editing technology, people expressed their support for somatic genome editing (changes to the genome that are not passed on to the next generation) for medical purposes with direct and clear benefits to people who suffer from debilitating diseases. On the other hand, editing of aesthetic traits was seen as unnecessary, with the potential to exacerbate inequality. Overall the report concludes that attitudes towards fundamental research were positive, especially as part of the journey towards real-world benefits.

 

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A summary figure from the report summarises the recommendations for scientists, communications experts, policy makers and research managers.

Ethical considerations also featured heavily in the dialogue, covering a wide range of issues. Topics included unintended consequences on natural eco-systems, regulation, and equal access to benefits. As well as possible accidental side effects, there were concerns about the misuse of genome technology. Views gathered from across the workshops reveal the importance of communicating the processes in place that regulate experiments alongside the aims of genome editing research.

Putting scientists at the centre of communications
Spokespeople for science come from a variety of backgrounds, from celebrities to researchers, to politicians. In this dialogue, the participants viewed scientists as best placed to communicate about genome editing. It was important to the participants that scientists were open about experiments that didn’t meet their aims, as well as sharing their success stories.

When discussing methods of communication two themes emerged: mechanisms with large reach and the importance of a two-way dialogue with the public. TV and social media were recommended as methods of communicating with a mass audience, with a suggested narrative style and accessible language.  

The shared benefits of public dialogue were recognised by Dr Peter Rugg-Gunn, Head of Public Engagement and a research group leader in the Institute’s Epigenetics research programme, who participated in the UK-based dialogue workshops. “Participating in the dialogue workshops has certainly provided feedback into how I view my research programme. It was interesting to hear the public’s strong support for fundamental research, as well as the areas of research that they valued the most, such as health and social equality. These conversations serve as good reminder to think more broadly about our research portfolios and to reflect on where to prioritise our research efforts.”

The ORION public dialogue synthesis report, the individual national dialogue reports and additional resources can be found on the ORION website. Dr Emma Martinez will be discussing her experience coordinating the public dialogue on the 25th June as part of the Future of Science Communication Conference.

Notes

Contact
Honor Pollard, Communications Officer, Honor.Pollard@babraham.ac.uk
Dr Emma Martinez, Public Engagement Officer, Emma.Martinez@babraham.ac.uk

Additional information
The commissioned service provider was Ipsos MORI and the project evaluator was the Centre for Research in Science and Mathematics Education. An independent evaluation was commissioned for the dialogue in the UK to Richard Watermeyer and Gene Rowe.

Related resources
Babraham Institute ORION Open Science page
ORION website
Blog 27 January, 2021: Public dialogue to spur genome editing engagement?

Image description
Digital illustration of the DNA double helix

About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through Institute Strategic Programme Grants and an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.

About BBSRC
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £451 million in world-class bioscience in 2019-20. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.