Revealed: What the UK public really thinks about the future of science

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THE UK public is well-informed and positive about science and technology, but its hopes and fears are largely being ignored by politicians. That is the key finding of an exclusive New Scientist survey of public attitudes to science, technology, medicine and the environment.

The 2018 New Scientist Asks the Public survey reveals that the issues uppermost in people’s minds are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, cancer and climate change. They believe these things are “most likely to have an impact on society and human life”.

But people are not expecting a sci-fi apocalypse – public opinion is surprisingly upbeat. A majority of respondents expect the benefits of genetic engineering and AI to outweigh the downsides and think cancer can be cured. The poll also reveals broad support for genetically modified foods, with 69 per cent of people in favour of such crops saying they could help feed the world.

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Of the top four issues, the only source of pessimism was climate change (see diagram, below). Half of people chose it as the environmental problem with the greatest impact; two-thirds of these say it is a threat to human civilisation and the natural world.

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The survey questioned a representative sample of the UK population, not just New Scientist readers. It shows that the general public’s knowledge aligns more closely to scientific opinion than to coverage in mainstream media. AI researchers and genetic engineers repeatedly warn that scare stories about their work in the press are overblown, while cancer researchers are more optimistic than ever about survival rates and cures. It seems scientists’ messages are getting through to the public.

“I have found the same myself,” says Helen O’Neill, a molecular biologist at University College London (UCL) who is speaking about gene editing at New Scientist Live this week. “People have come up to me after talks saying ‘when can we do this?’, presuming it is already in the clinic.”

On climate change, the public also appears to be in tune with scientific opinion rather than voices in the media. Researchers are deeply worried about whether we can avoid dangerous climate change and fear the consequences for humans and nature.

“It seems that, despite some politicians and climate sceptics denying climate change is real, the UK general public recognise it as a major threat and already know how it should be dealt with – using renewable energy,” says geographer Mark Maslin of UCL, who is also speaking at New Scientist Live. “This shows that the public are deeply aware of the issues and do put threats and solutions together – it is just a shame that the politicians do not see what the public does.”

You might think that politicians would want to follow the views of the public, yet none of these issues are currently high on the political agenda. Climate change especially seems to have slipped political minds, even though the UK is not on target to meet its long-term commitments and has just experienced a long bout of freak weather almost certainly caused by climate change.

Public optimism

When it comes to AI, the government recently set up an Office for Artificial Intelligence to support this growing industry, but there has been little political debate about the possible impacts on society and human life.

Genetic engineering of humans is similarly low on the agenda despite a recent call from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics for a widespread debate on its implications. The UK will reportedly continue its strict policies on GM crops after leaving the European Union, but there has been little public discussion.

The survey reveals other ways politicians are out of step with public opinion. It found strong support for legalised assisted dying, a complete ban on animal experiments, and compulsory childhood vaccination. Neither of the two main UK political parties advocates any of these policies – perhaps because they are also out of step with mainstream scientific and medical opinion.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, told New Scientist: “The most optimistic part of the report is to see how engaged the public is with science. I think it shows an encouraging level of public understanding of science and the issues around it.”


Can we save the planet?

Environmental issues are a source of great pessimism. Close behind climate change as areas of concern are air pollution, plastic waste, extinctions and overpopulation. Only renewable energy is seen as cause for optimism, with just 7 per cent of people rating it as the environmental issue they worry about most.

The public is more divided when it comes to reversing our impact on the planet. Roughly a third of respondents think resurrecting extinct species is a good idea, and about the same number don’t like the prospect. They say it could be dangerous and make us less inclined to conserve other endangered species.

First on the list people would like to be brought back is the western black rhino, followed by dodos and Tasmanian tigers. Forget Jurassic Park though – just a third would like to see a return of the dinosaurs.


Hurrah for genetic engineering

One unexpected finding of the survey is that 53 per cent of people support genetic engineering. This was driven mostly by its potential to cure or eradicate disease – seen as a positive by 80 per cent of the people who support the tech. Almost half of them also say they are optimistic about using it to improve human capabilities such as intelligence.

The main reason people worry about genetic engineering is that “it is too dangerous, we don’t know the real consequences”. Designer babies and the ethics of “playing god” also loom large, along with fears that the technology might only be used to benefit the rich.

GM crops enjoy more support than opposition, with 31 per cent of people saying that this environmental issue is one they worry least about, and only 16 per cent rating it as one of their biggest environmental worries. Popular reasons to support GM crops are that they could help feed the world and save the environment. Opponents are most concerned about possible impacts on health.


Fears that tech will take over

Our survey reveals a variety of anxieties about current or near-future technology. Social media is seen in a negative light, largely because of fake news, trolls and peer pressure on young people.

Drones also stir up worries, with fears they can be used for surveillance or to deliver drugs and weapons into prisons. Brain implants are seen as highly dangerous, while virtual reality is seen as a positive, but only just. And even though 30 per cent of people say they are positive about artificial intelligence, 24 per cent are concerned about its possible downsides, such as its capacity to put millions out of work or outsmart us and take over the world. Robots inspire similar concerns.

  • See Helen O’Neill, Mark Maslin and many more discuss the science that will shape our future at New Scientist Live from 20-23 September in London.

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