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Belief in Public Efficacy, Trust, and Attitudes Toward Modern Genetic Science

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Government and policymakers want to engage the public in a dialogue about the conduct and consequences of science and increasingly seek to actively involve citizens in decision-making processes. Implicit in this thinking is that greater transparency and public inclusion will help dispel fears associated with new scientific advancements, foster greater public trust in those accountable, and ultimately increase the acceptability of new technologies. Less understood, however, are public perceptions about such high-level involvement in science and how these map onto public trust and attitudes within a diverse population. This article uses the concept of public efficacy—the extent to which people believe that the public might be able to affect the course of decision making—to explore differences in trust, attentiveness, and attitudes toward modern genetic science. Using nationally representative data from the 2003 British Social Attitudes Survey, we begin by examining the characteristics of those who have a positive belief about public involvement in this area of scientific inquiry. We then focus on how this belief maps on to indicators of public trust in key stakeholder groups, including the government and genetic scientists. Finally, we consider the relationship between public efficacy and trust and attitudes toward different applications of genetic technology. Our findings run contrary to assumptions that public involvement in science will foster greater trust and lead to a climate of greater acceptance for genetic technology. A belief in public efficacy does not uniformly equate with more trusting attitudes toward stakeholders but is associated with less trust in government rules. Whereas trust is positively correlated with more permissive attitudes about technologies such as cloning and gene therapy, people who believe in high-level public involvement are less likely to think that these technologies should be allowed than those who do not.

Keywords: Attitudes; engagement; genetic science; public efficacy; trust

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2007-08-01

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