Social reactions to rapid scientific change

4.12 The pace of scientific advancement in biotechnology and in other related fields creates a degree of social ambivalence about the potential benefits and potential dangers of change. On the one hand, there is very strong public support for breakthroughs promising better medical diagnosis and treatments, and for assisting with law enforcement; on the other, there is some general fear about uncontrolled or ‘mad science’, the spectre of eugenics, threats of biological warfare, reports of xenotransplantation (transplants from one species to another), the loss of privacy, and the increased possibilities for genetic discrimination.[33]

4.13 It is an important lesson for Australians that Europeans appear to be losing faith in the ability of public authorities to regulate biotechnology adequately in the public interest. In part, this is because of perceived inadequate government and corporate responses to crises in Europe over foot and mouth disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, genetically modified foods, and human cloning.[34] European surveys indicate a deepening suspicion of public authorities, technical experts and commercial organisations operating in this area, as well as a high (and growing) degree of scepticism about international institutions, farmers’ associations and religious organisations as sources of information about biotechnology.[35]

4.14 Similarly, a recent survey conducted in the United States by the Genetics and Public Policy Center of Johns Hopkins University found that ‘Americans are both hopeful and fearful about the rapidly advancing power of scientists to manipulate human reproduction’. There was strong opposition to human reproductive cloning, but general support for health-related applications of the new genetic technologies. There also was strong support for government regulation in this area, across all political party lines. The Center expressed concern that the survey results for the eight ‘knowledge questions’ asked of respondents indicated that the ‘public’s knowledge about these technologies is not keeping pace with the steep growth in genetic science’.[36]

4.15 By way of contrast to the position in Europe, recent Australian surveys commissioned by Biotechnology Australia have found an increased level of trust in Australian government agencies as both a source of factual information and as regulators. The CSIRO was regarded as a credible source of information by 85% of respondents; Food Standards Australia New Zealand (formerly the Australia New Zealand Food Authority) and the Office of Gene Technology Regulator both scored 73%; and Biotechnology Australia was rated as credible by 58% of respondents.[37]

4.16 However, this survey also found a high level of anxiety about the pace of biotechnological change and society’s capacity to regulate it effectively:

Most respondents felt that biotechnology is changing at such a rapid pace that developments cannot possibly be anticipated and legislated against. In addition, it was generally felt that Australian society and government are powerless compared to the international financial and political power of the large multinational companies driving biotechnological innovations. A key component of concern was the perception that there are no or inadequate controls over the process, motivations and outcomes of the development and application [of] biotechnology and gene technology in Australia. This was particularly a concern for those applications which were seen to raise complex and disturbing questions about human life.[38]

4.17 The major challenge for the Inquiry, then, is to steer a sensible path through these concerns in order to make recommendations that meet the public desire for further advances in genetic science in aid of human health, while providing sufficient reassurance to the Australian community that any such work will be subject to searching ethical scrutiny and effective legal controls.

[33] Australian Law Reform Commission and Australian Health Ethics Committee, Protection of Human Genetic Information, IP 26 (2001), ALRC, Sydney [2.7].

[34] Only 45% of Europeans agreed with the statement that their governments regulate biotechnology well enough, compared with 29% who disagree, and 26% who are not sure: Eurobarometer 52.1, The Europeans and Biotechnology, <>, 19 February 2003.

[35] Consumer organisations, the medical profession and environmental protection organisations fared best, while universities, animal protection organisations and the media (20%) had modest levels of support. See Ibid.

[36] Genetics and Public Policy Center, Americans Deeply Divided about use of Genetic Technologies in Reproduction, <>, 24 February 2003.

[37] Millward Brown Australia, Biotechnology Public Awareness Survey Final Report, Biotechnology Australia, <>, 21 August 2002.

[38] Ibid, 29.