INSIGHTS | POLICY FORUM
Consistent with other recent studies, we
found that 59% of respondents expressed at
least some support for human genome editing to treat human medical conditions or restore health, whereas only 33% expressed at
least some support for using these techniques
to enhance or improve human abilities.
What drives attitudes? Previous research, including some of the existing
survey data on human genome editing,
Our survey data supported those findings.
Among those reporting
low religious guidance, a
large majority (75%) express at least some
support for treatment applications, and a
substantial proportion (45%) do so for enhancement applications. By contrast, for
those reporting a relatively high level of
religious guidance in their daily lives, corresponding levels of support are markedly
lower (50% express support for treatment;
28% express support for enhancement).
Most previous surveys of emerging technologies have measured only self-assessed
familiarity with new technologies. When
we looked at the number of factual questions about genome editing that respondents could answer correctly (questions
are listed in the supplementary materials), greater command of facts related to
genome editing was positively associated
with support. For those unable to correctly
answer any of our nine factual questions,
32% expressed support for treatment and
19% did so for enhancement. At the other
end of the knowledge scale, those able to
correctly answer six or more factual questions expressed much higher levels of support, with 76% indicating at least some
support for treatment and 41% indicating
support for enhancement. Individuals in
the middle and high factual knowledge
groups were evenly split between support
and opposition to enhancement, whereas
individuals in the low
knowledge group were
much more likely to indicate that they neither
support nor oppose gene
editing (50%). Knowledge, then, does not necessarily relate to more
support for enhancement-related edits
but does appear to relate to more extreme
views on enhancement overall (5).
What does this mean for public en-
gagement? This past year, U.S. National
Academies reports related to genetically
modified crops (6), gene drives (7), and
human genome editing (1) have called for
societal debates that progress well beyond
the technical aspects of genome editing
and additionally focus discussions on its
political, regulatory, ethical, and moral im-
plications. Our data show relatively broad
consensus among all groups in support
of the idea that the scientific community
“should consult with the public before ap-
plying gene editing to humans.” How much
the public embraces the views of public en-
gagement expressed in these reports, how-
ever, also depended on respondents’ levels
of religiosity and information. Despite op-
posite levels of support for human gene ed-
iting, both the highly religious and highly
knowledgeable respondents have the high-
est (and statistically indistinguishable) lev-
els of support for public engagement. Close
to three-quarters of the most knowledge-
able respondents and the most religious
respondents in our sample embraced the
idea of consulting the public.
We also asked about the public’s view on
the role of scientists themselves in guiding
the development of new technologies. Our
data show that highly religious and less
knowledgeable respondents were much
more doubtful about the ability of the scientific community to provide enough oversight by themselves than were those with
low religious guidance or high knowledge
(see the second figure).
In sum, our findings show a broad mandate for public engagement, even across
groups who otherwise differ in their evaluation of potential applications of human
genome editing and in their assessment of
the scientific community’s ability to navigate emerging science independently of
public input. j
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1. National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of
Medicine, Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and
Governance (National Academies Press, Washington, DC,
2. STAT&Harvard T.H.Chan Schoolof Public Health,“The
public and genetic editing, testing, and therapy” (Harvard
T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, 2016).
3. C. Funk, B. Kennedy, E. P. Sciupac, “U.S. public wary of biomedical technologies to‘enhance’ human abilities” (Pew
Research Center, Washington, DC, 2016).
4. S.S.Ho, D.Brossard, D.A.Scheufele, Int. J. Public Opin.
Res. 20, 171 (2008).
5. Higher factual kno wledge was significantly related to
support for gene editing for therapy uses but not for
enhancement uses, where those in the higher-knowledge
group had higher levels of support than those in the lower-knowledge groups, but not to a significant level. This could
be owing to respondents overall being less supportive of
enhancement-related edits or to higher factual knowledge
levels leading to more split opinions on enhancement.
These effects are reflected in the lower levels of variance in
the models predicting support for enhancement-related
edits compared to the models predicting support for
therapy-related edits (see tables S2 and S3).
6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine, Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and
Prospects (National Academies Press, Washington, DC,
7. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine, Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science,
Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public
Values (National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2016).
The authors acknowledge the Office of the Vice Chancellor
for Research and Graduate Education at the University of
Wisconsin–Madison (with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni
Research Foundation) for its support of this research.
High Medium Low
Religiosity Knowledge Religiosity Knowledge
"The scientifc community is capable
of guiding the development of new
technologies in a responsible way."
"Scientists should consult the
public before applying gene
editing to humans."
“…our findings show
a broad mandate for
Influence of religiosity and knowledge
More religious and more knowledgeable respondents agree on the need for public engagement. Highly religious
respondents differ from highly knowledgeable ones in how capable they think the scientic community is of guiding
the development of new technologies, but both groups agree that scientists should consult with the public before
applying gene editing to humans.