Survey: U.S. Public Wary of Biotech Advances

Respondents worry about gene editing and synthetic blood

Cutting-edge biomedical technologies that could push the boundaries of human abilities may soon be available, making people’s minds sharper and their bodies stronger and healthier than ever before. But a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults shows that majorities greet the possibility of these breakthroughs with more worry than enthusiasm.

The survey examined public attitudes about the potential use of three emerging technologies that could fundamentally improve people’s health, cognitive abilities, or physical capacities. The specific examples were: gene editing to give infants a lifetime with a reduced risk of serious diseases; implanting brain chips to give people an improved ability to concentrate and process information; and transfusing synthetic blood to give people greater speed, strength, and endurance. These are just three of many enhancements that scientists and bioethicists say could arise from biomedical technologies now under development. None of the three is currently available for clinical use.

Key survey findings include:

  • Majorities of U.S. adults said they would be “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing (68%), brain chips (69%), and synthetic blood (63%), whereas no more than half said they would be enthusiastic about each of these developments.
  • More respondents said they would not want enhancements of their brains and their blood (66% and 63%, respectively) than said they would want them (32% and 35%). The respondents were closely split on the question of whether they would want gene editing to help prevent diseases for their infants (48% would and 50% would not).
  • At least 70% of the respondents predicted that each of these new technologies will become available before they have been fully tested or understood.
  • Majorities said that these enhancements could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots. For instance, 73% believed that inequality will increase if brain chips become available because initially they will be obtainable only by the wealthy.
  • In addition, many of the respondents thought that recipients of enhancements would feel superior to those who have not received them; 63% said this about synthetic blood transfusions in particular.
  • Substantial shares said they were not sure whether these interventions are morally acceptable. But among those who expressed an opinion, more respondents said brain and blood enhancements would be morally unacceptable than said they were acceptable.
  • More respondents said that the risks of brain and blood enhancements would outweigh their benefits for society than vice versa. The respondents were slightly more positive about the possibility of gene editing to reduce diseases; 36% thought it would have more benefits than risks, whereas 28% thought it would have more risks than benefits.
  • Opinion was closely divided when it came to the fundamental question of whether these potential developments are “meddling with nature” and cross a line that should not be crossed, or whether they are “no different” from other ways that humans have tried to better themselves over time.

The findings were drawn primarily from a survey conducted among U.S. adults in March 2016 (4,243 by web and 483 by mail). Both the web and mail components had a response rate of 68%. Some of the data were also drawn from a survey conducted in April and May among 4,685 respondents (4,207 by web and 478 by mail). The web component of this survey had a response rate of 83%, and the mail component had a response rate of 77%. 

Source: Pew Research Center; July 26, 2016.