Biomedical research spells “hope” in Europe, despite certain lack of knowledge

Poll shows health topics lead in public interest and confidence in researchers is strong, though science understanding may be basic

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INSERM, France’s national institute for health sciences, recently commissioned a study of Europeans’ perceptions of research. The poll addressed questions related to citizens’ interest in different research subjects, their confidence in the actors involved, their understanding and what it means for them. The results show health topics inspiring the most interest and researchers garnering confidence, even if the public’s understanding of science topics sparking debate in society is not high: only one term of 20 tested was truly understood by the majority of Europeans polled.

Now celebrating its 50th year, the French INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) is Europe’s top institution for biomedical research. To mark its first half-century, a survey was conducted in January 2014 among 4,000 Europeans from four countries (France, Germany, Italy and the UK). The “Europeans and Biomedical Research” study, conducted by Ipsos, revealed that health subjects continue to interest Europe’s citizens above all other research and that people put considerable confidence in their biomedical researchers. They find hope and pride in this field of endeavor, yet acknowledge their lack of mastery of the subjects in question—even when debate rages. 

Health, by a long shot

Nearly half of respondents (45%) cited health as the most interesting subject in research news. This was especially true for the French and Germans, women, and people over 35. While health has reigned supreme in the past, the other realms of research lagged far behind in people’s top pick: computer science and new technologies (21%), environment (14%), social sciences (9%), energy (6%) and space (5%). In terms of the most important medical innovations from the last 50 years, organ transplants, medical imaging and gene therapy were most often named among the top five.

Biomedical Hope

Biomedical research fuels in Europeans a sense of pride in their countries, as well as a bright outlook on the future, the study showed. Asked for the words that this sector most strongly evokes for them, 67% included “hope” in the top three. People were most likely to express hopefulness in France – a country not always known for its overwhelming optimism! A vast majority across Europe (82%) feel biomedical advances will make life better for their children.

Trustworthy Ethics

This sense of trust and positivity extended to the people carrying out such research. During a public health crisis, the question of whom to trust is always present. Over a third of respondents would count researchers among their top three most trusted sources of information. In terms of scientific ethics, the public trusts these same research professionals to consult them when significant consequences for society are at stake, to prevent their work from leading to uses with negative consequences for public health, and to resist pressure around study results.

Knowledge Lacking

While many Europeans have faith in their researchers and appreciate the results of their work, overall understanding of the relevant subjects is not great, and the survey respondents know it. A similar majority (around 60% each) considered themselves poorly informed about advances in biomedical research, the consequences for their everyday life and societal debates around certain research topics. In terms of the necessary vocabulary, participants stated that they “really” understood an average of only 4.5 out of 20 terms. Only one word (animal testing) could be claimed to be understood by most people. A majority do not understand the terms nanoscience, genome sequencing, viral vector, endocrine disruptors and epigenetics.

The results of INSERM’s poll are encouraging for biomedical researchers: Europeans value your work and have confidence in those of you carrying it out. But the fact that the citizens largely leave it to the experts to understand, even when these subjects fire serious discussions in the public sphere, shows that there is more work to be done in communicating science. Now that you have their vote, researchers, is there any reason not to bring your work within reach of your fellow citizens?

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