Outside Voices: Pew Research Center Director of Science and Society Research Cary Funk, PhD
June 2019

Pew Research Center Director of Science and Society Research Cary Funk, PhD

Pew Research Center Director of Science and Society Research Cary Funk, PhD

ASHG: How does the public perceive human genetics science – what are the high-level positives and challenges for scientists as we work to advance public understanding of scientific progress and potential?

Cary: A key insight from Pew Research Center surveys about the use of human gene editing is that public acceptance depends on the editing’s intended use and purpose. For example, a 2018 survey with a nationally representative sample of Americans found a 72% majority said that changing an unborn baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease or condition that the baby would have at birth is an appropriate use of medical technology. In contrast, just 19% said it would be appropriate to use gene editing to make a baby more intelligent; 8 in 10 Americans thought that would be taking medical technology too far.

Americans anticipated both positive and negative effects from gene editing. Roughly 6 in 10 in the same survey thought that gene editing is either very (18%) or fairly likely (42%) to lead to new medical advances that benefit society as a whole. At the same time, an even larger share expected the widespread use of gene editing to increase inequality because it will only be available to the wealthy. A similar share anticipated a slippery slope, saying it’s very likely that “even if gene editing is used appropriately in some cases, others will use these techniques in ways that are morally unacceptable.”

ASHG: The fast pace and long-term progress of science is not limited to genetics. How do public reactions to genetics relate to views about other emerging scientific and technological developments?

Cary: Pew Research Center’s studies on advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and biomedical innovations find a number of common patterns in how the public thinks about such developments, including concern about potential risks and unintended consequences from emergent science and technology.

A Center study from 2016 underscores how the context around the use of such technologies influences views. The survey looked in-depth at public views about the potential use of gene editing to “enhance” human health by reducing an unborn baby’s risk of developing a serious disease over his/her lifetime.  Overall, the public was closely divided over whether they would want such gene editing for their own baby (48% said they would and 50% would not). Some 46% of Americans thought “this idea is meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross,” while 51% said this idea is no different than other ways humans try to better ourselves.

The context of how such techniques would be used and their effects on human abilities were important factors in public views. Public support was greater for uses where humans would have more control over the nature and permanence of genetic changes. For example, 41% of Americans in that study said gene editing to reduce risk of serious diseases over a baby’s lifetime would be more acceptable to them if people could choose which diseases would be affected, while 17% said this would make gene editing less acceptable. And people were more reluctant to embrace gene editing when it could affect future generations.

ASHG: Fast-moving science can pose challenges for public acceptance. How should geneticists address potential public resistance to gene editing?

Cary: Advocates sometimes argue that public resistance to scientific and technological developments will fade as people become accustomed to them. Pew Research Center studies have found that people who report having heard more about gene editing tend to be more accepting of it. But whether a connection between familiarity and acceptance persists over time is difficult to predict. History includes examples such as in vitro fertilization where initial resistance faded over time, but public concerns about others, such as cloning, have persisted.

Given the vigorous debates in the scientific community over responsible research practices in human genomics, it is perhaps not surprising that there are public divides over the potential use and applications of gene editing. Center studies find women to be less accepting than men of gene editing. Similarly, women are more inclined than men to expect negative effects from the widespread use of gene editing. And there are large differences in acceptance of gene editing between the highly religious and less religious. People who are high in religious commitment (that is, those who say they attend religious services at least weekly, pray at least daily, and consider religion very important in their lives) are less inclined than those with medium or low levels of religious commitment to consider changing an unborn baby’s genetic characteristics to treat a serious disease an appropriate use of medical technology.

Those wishing to engage with the public over these issues would do well to think beyond the public as a single entity and, instead, consider the reasons for pockets of greater acceptance and resistance to gene editing among the populace.

ASHG: What do we know about public trust in science and whether it has been going up or down over time?

Cary: The scientific enterprise is wide and varied. As people think about science writ large, most hold that science has benefitted society. A 2018 survey by the Center found that public confidence in scientists is relatively strong compared with many other institutional groups. Only the military garners more confidence from the public. And the General Social Survey conducted by NORC since the mid-1970s has found that public trust in scientists has been stable over time. By contrast, trust in the leaders of many other institutions has gone down over time, while trust in military leaders has gone up.