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Environment & Science

Study: Most people distrust biotech enhancements — for now




Quality control technician Frank Pantaleon works at his lab station on part of the development of the synthetic blood substitute PolyHeme at Northfield Labs in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Quality control technician Frank Pantaleon works at his lab station on part of the development of the synthetic blood substitute PolyHeme at Northfield Labs in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

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Gene-editing to prevent illness in newborns? Implants that make people sharper and healthier?

These cutting-edge technologies may soon be available for the masses, but a Pew Research Center survey showed that the public may not welcome these alterations with open arms.

The research examined attitudes towards three emerging technologies: gene-editing to reduce the risk of diseases, brain implants that enhance human performance and blood transfusions to give people strength and stamina. When Americans are surveyed on the prospects of these applications, the results showed suspicion, concern and resistance. In fact, a majority of adults say they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene-editing (68 percent), brain chips (69 percent) and synthetic blood (63 percent).

Guests:

Cary Funk, Associate director of research on science and society at Pew Research Center

Ronald Bailey, Science correspondent for Reason Magazine. He’s the author of the book "The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century

Interview highlights

Why did Pew decide to do this poll?
 
Funk: We are experiencing such rapid changes in biomedical technology, and they are raising new concerns. One example of that is gene-editing. We have seen so many breakthroughs that create new urgency for a public discussion for social and ethical implications.
 
Most of the public are new to this ongoing medical research. How did you formulate the right questions in order to give people a sense of what you are asking for?
 
Funk: This is particularly difficult, because we are talking about the potential use of these technologies, technologies that are not available right now. We started with some focus groups and listened to their existing concerns. Then we pilot-tested a lot of questions to try to capture wording that people could understand. The final survey is nationally representative. We asked around the three scenarios — gene-editing to reduce risk of diseases, brain implants that enhance human performance, blood transfusion to give people strength and stamina.
  
Is part of this fear of unintended consequences? In the process of making us smarter, you wonder what you give up for that exchange. You think much of that is driving the concern?
 
Bailey: My main thought is that when people are offered these vague technologies, they are afraid of them. Their first reaction is “let’s slow down, we really don’t want the consequences, intended or unintended.” The truth is we’ve seen when new technology emerges and people eagerly embrace them when their benefits became obvious. In fact, the Pew research mentions that in vitro fertilization was much the same way.  The first test-tube baby was born in 1978, and a series of surveys were taken before that — about two-thirds of Americans opposed in vitro fertilization. One month after the baby was born, 60 percent of Americans said they would be happy to use the technology. If you see these things being used successfully, most Americans will sit back and embrace them.
 
Does the ethical debate trail the technology significantly?
 
Bailey: What we should do is allow a bit of a tolerance. Clearly, all of these things will have to be tested for safety. But if they turned out to be safe, then there’s no reason why some of us are using the technology while others wait to see the consequences.
 
What about a class divide on access to these medical breakthroughs?
 
Bailey:  Right now there are technologies that enhance human cognition through the use of certain pills. It doesn’t have to be a class divide, anybody can take the pill if they feel the need to do so. And a lot of these technologies will be the same way. Essentially they will be very expensive in the beginning, but very soon we’ll see their prices go down, especially the ones related to information technology. I think that will not exacerbate class differences, but in fact reduce them over time.

This story has been updated.