Who do we trust and think should have a say, when it comes to controversial scientific issues such as human gene editing?

Author: Dominique Brossard – Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States

Patrice Kohl
Nicole Krause
Diatram Scheufele
Michael Xenos

As CRISPR-based technologies in gene editing open new ways to alter human genomes, a growing chorus has been calling for broad deliberations among lay and expert publics about consequences and responsible governance. In this study, we empirically examine what the public thinks about having various lay and expert actors inform and contribute to regulatory decisions involving controversial science. Using data from a nationally-representative survey of U.S. adults (N=1,600; completion rate=41.7%) we examined public trust in five expert and non-expert groups, regarding information about science issues. We also asked people which of these groups should have a say in the development of human gene editing regulations.

Overall, people trusted ethics experts and university scientists most as sources of information, and they trusted religious groups and industrial scientists least, with trust in citizens falling in the middle. Survey respondents most frequently identified citizens as a group that should have a say in regulation, followed by ethics experts and university scientists. There were also important value-based differences of opinion among individuals and, in some cases, attention to news media accentuated those differences. For example, individuals with higher religiosity trusted non-scientist groups more and were less likely to want scientists involved in regulation. Meanwhile, attention to political news polarized views about religious groups and university scientists among people with conflicting political ideologies.

The case for broad participation in deliberations about the consequences and governance of controversial science rests, in part, on the assumption that it increases legitimacy and trust in decision-making processes. However, our results suggest that this assumption may oversimplify the situation. Our study shows that trust and perceptions of legitimacy might not uniformly increase with each new group that participates in decision-making about scientific issues, particularly if public stakeholders perceive specific groups to be in conflict with their values.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Science
Area of interest: Influencing policies through science communication