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As the latest study on the New Zealand public’s perception of science is released, a similar study across the Tasman focusing more narrowly on biotech has identified some similar trends.

The survey of 1000 people from across Australia commissioned by the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research shows support for biotechnology techniques like genetic modification and stem cell treatments remains high overall, but has slipped since 2007.

GM food continues to be one of the least well supported biotechnologies, according to the study.  While the Australian public perceive the benefits (70%) to outweigh the risks (48%), this is a drop from 2007 in benefits (77%) and risks (54%), yet still much higher than the 2005 figure of perceived benefits (64%) but lower than the 2005 figure of perceived risk (71%).

So over five years it seems as though Australians have become more comfortable with the risks GM technologies pose, but more sceptical of the benefits they potentially offer. Or as the report sums up:

Despite some shift in opinion about genetically modified food crops, there remains widespread acknowledgement of the potential benefits they may provide. Many recognised the value of a number of objectives of genetically modifying crops, particularly the need to adapt to the Australian climate by producing plants that are drought or salinity resistant. In addition, the majority of those who do not accept genetically modified food crops would be swayed by longterm tests (50% would change their minds), and labelling describing what component had been genetically modified, and why (45% would be influenced).

Australia is much further along that New Zealand when it comes to employing genetic modification in agriculture. Most states allow GM food crops to be grown – the main crops are canola and cotton (particularly New South Wales and Queensland). But a good deal of Aussies surveyed (43%) didn’t know if there were GM crops being grown in their own state. Only 49 per cent said they’d be in favour of GM crops being grown in their state.

The table below suggests there’s been a slip since the last survey in 2007 when it comes to using GM technologies in general. The report takes a stab at suggesting why this is. Take for instance, the use of GM crops to try and reduce environmental impacts:

The need to recycle water is likely to be less pressing in 2010 than in 2007, following severe rainfall deficiencies in 2006. In addition, items related to fuel use and alternative fuels are likely to be less pertinent than they were in 2007, when fuel prices were particularly high.

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Source: IPSOS-Eureka Social Research Institute

Interestingly, there was a drop in the perceived value of using biotechnology to address climate change. The researchers note “this may be due in part to rising scepticism about anthropogenic climate change per se, rather than doubt in the ability of biotechnology to address the problem”.

That finding mirrors the research conducted here by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology into the public’s perceptions of science, which shows a dip in the perceived benefits of research into climate change relative to 2005 and 2002.

The New Zealand research doesn’t ask survey participants particularly about genetic modification (that would be pretty interesting) but you get a sense that recent GM-related scares, such as a biosecurity breach at a containment facility at Lincoln have had an impact on the public’s confidence in this type of research. A increased number of people felt there should be tight controls on what scientists are able to do and there was a slight increase in the number of people agreeing with the statement that “science is out of control these days” – though the majority disagree with that.

So, overall, the public is still strongly supportive of science, but a bit of fatigue and scepticism setting in in some areas, reflecting changing circumstances and changing perceptions we have seen reflected in the media, particularly on issues like climate change

Here’s the Australian report in full…