Public Reactions to Innovations in Science: Genomics, Race, and Identity
Posted: 31 Oct 2010
Date Written: October 30, 2010
Although science and technology are touching people's lives in ways unimaginable only decades ago, political scientists and policy analysts are still exploring how the public understands and assesses new, highly technical scientific information. This study uses a new public opinion survey to examine Americans’ reactions to and understanding of one scientific innovation: the use of genomics technology to trace ancestry, typically defined as race or ethnicity.
This arena has three analytic virtues. First is its importance: genetics research may soon revolutionize medical practice in the United States, and possibly decisions in the criminal justice system as well as the way Americans understand race. Second is its novelty: elite or partisan opinion on genomic science has yet to coalesce, and policies of support or regulation are just beginning to be developed. Our study can thus capture the early stages of opinion formation on a new issue. Third is its popular appeal: many Americans are being introduced to genomic science through racial ancestry tests, as seen in popular television shows or direct-to-consumer ads.
Our goal is to refine existing models of public trust in science and technology by adding a new substantive focus, and placing two analytic elements at center stage: racial or ethnic identity as a lens through which other individual characteristics are channeled, and the relationships among emotional, cognitive, and salience responses to scientific innovation. More broadly, we argue that people with different immutable characteristics (such as race, gender, and age) respond to scientific innovation in intelligibly different ways, and that types of response to scientific innovation are related but vary in intelligible and important ways. We posit, although we cannot show it in this paper, that all of these reactions inform support for science funding or regulation.
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