The global public is taking a cautious stance towards scientific research on gene editing, according to an international survey from the Pew Research Center. However, most adults (people 18 years of age or older) make the difference when it comes to specific applications of human gene editing, including showing broad support for therapeutic uses.
These results come amid a period of rapid development in biotechnology as new tools, such as CRISPR gene-editing technology, have expanded the possibilities of science, increasing the need for scientists, governments and people around the world to engage with accompanying society, ethical and legal considerations.
A 20-year average of 63% says scientific research on gene editing is an abuse – not an appropriate use – of the technology, according to the survey of audiences across
However, views on specific cases where gene editing can be used highlight the complex and contextual nature of public situations. The majority say that it would be appropriate to alter the genetic characteristics of the child to treat a serious disease that the child may have at birth (average 70%), and a somewhat smaller share, although it is still about half or more, less use these techniques to reduce risks Of the serious illness that could occur throughout the child’s life would be appropriate (60%). But only an average of 14% say it would be appropriate to change a child’s genetic characteristics to make him smarter. A much larger share (average 82%) may view this as a technology abuse.
The global audience also distinguishes between areas of scientific research that they see as appropriate and inappropriate. There is broad support in most of the surveyed places for scientific research on new technologies to help women conceive (an average of 73% believe this is appropriate) but research on animal cloning faces opposition to a large extent, with an average of two-thirds (66%) considered. Scientific research on animal cloning is a misuse of technology.
Religious beliefs are related to attitudes about many aspects of biotechnology across global audiences, but the influence of religion is far from unifying. For example, Christians are often more wary than those who are not religious, especially in the West. In the United States, nearly half of Christians as non-religious adults consider scientific research on gene editing an appropriate use of technology (21% versus 47%). Similar gaps are seen in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and elsewhere across Western Europe.
But in India, a majority of adults (56%) see research on gene editing as appropriate – the highest level measured across places surveyed – and Hindus and Muslims are likely to express this view just as much. In Singapore – a country with a diverse religious population – nearly half or more Christians, Hindus and Muslims view gene-editing research as an abuse of scientific technology. Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated in Singapore are deeply divided on this issue.
Age – not religion – has a relationship more consistent with the opinions of biotechnology research and applications across 20 of the surveyed audiences. In nearly all places surveyed, younger adults (those of or below average age) are more likely to say that scientific research on gene editing is appropriate, although both groups often express a general caution. In Sweden, for example, 38% of young Swedes and half of older Swedes (19%) see gene-editing research as an appropriate use of the technology.
There are similar age differences in opinions about the potential uses of human gene-editing techniques.
The survey also looks at public beliefs about evolution, an area often seen as a friction point between science and religion, especially for adherents of Abrahamic religions such as Christianity or Islam.
The survey found wide acceptance of the development across these audiences. their current form since the beginning of time.
Beliefs about evolution are closely related to religious affiliation. Christians – and especially those to whom the religion emerges – is less accepting of the idea that humans and other living things have evolved over time. In Canada, for example, 93% of adults unaffiliated with any religion say that humans and other living things have evolved over time compared to a smaller majority of all Christians (70%) and 49% of Christians who say religion is very important to them. In South Korea, half of Christians say humans and other sentient beings have evolved, compared to 73% of Buddhists and 83% of non-believers.