Our Biopolitics Future

Public Debates Will Blur Left/Right Differences

If you follow the rapid pace of advances in biomedicine and the life sciences, you may have wondered why more politically liberal countries like Germany and Canada have stronger restrictions on embryonic stem cell research than the more politically conservative United States. To be sure, history and happenstance play a role, but these differences also reflect public concerns that blur traditional left/right distinctions, suggesting the need for experts and their institutions to invest in a new type of public and media conversation about what scientific innovations mean for society.

In coming years as debates over stem cell research resurface and as conflict over other scientific advances emerge, publics across countries are likely to focus on a recurring set of questions. Do scientific breakthroughs promote or undermine social progress? Is research being pursued too cautiously or too quickly? Do scientists respect or cross moral boundaries? Does research serve the public interest or private interests? And who ultimately decides the answers to these questions?

In a co-authored study I published today at PLOS ONE, we analyzed a series of nationally representative surveys collected between 2002 and 2010 with the goal of better understanding how the U.S. public came to form opinions about stem cell research and what the implications might be for engaging the public and policymakers on future advances in the life sciences. We used a variety of statistical procedures to differentiate the influence of traditional partisan and ideological factors from more fundamental beliefs about science and society.

Our results indicate that—more so than political party identification, ideology, or religious beliefs—an individual’s beliefs about science and society had the strongest unique influence on their support for stem cell research. Moreover, identifiable segments of the public differ substantially in how they perceive the social implications of science, and traditional political labels do not easily define these groups.

“Scientific Optimists” comprise a third of the public, believe strongly in the link between science and social progress, and are likely to support most scientific advances with three quarters of this group across years favoring embryonic stem cell research. Optimists are on average highly educated, financially well off, and disproportionately white. They also tend to split almost evenly by partisan identity, although they trend slightly more Democrat. In terms of ideology, they are the most moderate in their outlook.

“Scientific Pessimists” comprise about a quarter of the public, have strong reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists, and believe science may lead to new problems. They are the most likely to oppose advances in biomedical research and related fields with only 40 percent across years favoring stem cell research. In comparison to Optimists, this group on average scores much lower in terms of educational attainment and income and trends more female and minority in background. Pessimists split evenly relative to partisan identity, but tend to be disproportionately either moderate or conservative in their ideological outlook.

The “Conflicted” comprise about a quarter of the public and view science in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. Though they are socially similar to Scientific Pessimists in their background, they tend to be older than members of other segments. They appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasize the benefits of research. By 2010, more than 60 percent of this segment had come to favor embryonic stem cell research.

The “Disengaged” comprise about 15 percent of the public; appear to lack strong beliefs about how science might impact society, and as a consequence are likely to be the most susceptible to shifts in opinion driven by focusing events or political messaging. For example, between 2008 and 2010, support for embryonic stem cell research among this group increased by 20 percentage points.

As advances in stem cell research, synthetic biology, personalized genomics and other fields move forward, our political system and news media are not likely to be able to adequately address the deeper set of public concerns reflected in our study. On cable news, via social media, in the tabloid press and other outlets that favor sensationalism over context, these complex debates are all too likely to be distorted in terms of simplistic left/right distinctions or hyped as either miracle breakthroughs or morally repugnant advances. At more prestigious news outlets, budget cuts and layoffs will limit the opportunity for in depth coverage and analysis.

Even in the U.S., political leaders on the left and the right seldom split into easily identifiable “pro-science” and “anti-science” factions, underscoring the need for a more careful and nuanced discussion of the reservations and concerns generated by advances in biomedicine and the life sciences. Consider that in 2009, when President Obama expanded federal funding for research, he chose not to provide funding for stem cells derived from cloned embryos, going against the requests and recommendations of scientists.

Public opinion surveys show that since 2002, less than a majority of Americans have favored medical or therapeutic cloning procedures, indicating that the public holds intuitive reservations about some areas of biomedical research, concerns that transcend partisan and ideological differences. Moreover, among groups and intellectuals on the political left, therapeutic cloning and the creation of embryos for research purposes have been the target of criticism, as these advocates warn of using human life for instrumental or market purposes and of the possible exploitation of egg donors.

Research in countries other than the U.S. also indicates strong public reservations about embryonic stem cell research when it is conducted by private companies rather than publicly funded university scientists. Studies in the U.S. have yet to carefully explore public judgments about the privatization, patenting, and commercialization of stem cell related therapies and other biomedical advances, but it is likely that when these issues become the subject of news attention and political debate, reservations about privatization and control are likely to transcend partisan differences.

How various segments of the public may respond to debates over commercialization and privatization is especially relevant given that bioethicists led by Timothy Caulfield of the University of Alberta warn of an intensifying “cycle of hype” in the claims made about biomedical research. Specific to stem cell research, researchers have also called for a more “honest acknowledgement of the expected therapeutic benefits and the timelines to achieving them.” As uncertainty about the clinical applications of embryonic stem cell research lingers and the timeline to such applications remains in doubt, then at risk is the broader public’s trust in science as an institution.

Given these challenges, academic leaders and funders need to invest in a new civic infrastructure that enables public learning and respectful debate about the future of science and what it means for society. The place to start may be in the cities and regions where research is taking place. In these contexts, we need to better understand the questions that different publics are asking about scientific advances and invest in local media and public forums that encourage constructive discussion and debate.

But given the international nature of science, we also need to think more broadly in terms of conversations that transcend national boundaries, taking advantage of Web-based media platforms to build what journalists Andrew Revkin and Krista Tippet call the “Knowosphere,” a global media classroom where interested publics can learn about, discuss and debate the social and ethical implications of science.

Revkin’s Dot Earth blog and Tippett’s public media series On Being are prototypes for designing these new types of forums, and so too are The Breakthrough, The Conversation, and Ensia magazine, innovative web platforms that feature in depth journalism, commentary and interviews that blur common left/right distinctions in discussion of complex problems, issues and trends. Yet more support for these forums and similar ventures are needed and it will ultimately be up to expert institutions including universities and major foundations to lead the way.

* Adapted from an article appearing at The Conversation UK.


Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014). Understanding Public Opinion in Debates Over Biomedical Research: Looking Beyond Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88473.

See Also:

Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014, Feb. 18). Beyond Partisanship in Biopolitics. The Scientist.

Nisbet, M.C. & Markowitz, E. (2014, Feb. 19). Opinions about Scientific Advances Blur Party/Political Lines. The Conversation UK.

Fahy, D. & Nisbet, N.C. (2013, July). Opinion: Debating Bioethics Openly. The Scientist.