'Get Your Swabs Out of My Face!': Americans’ Optimism and Pessimism About Scientific Innovation
47 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2015
Date Written: August 22, 2015
This paper examines when and why Americans are optimistic or pessimistic about societal uses of scientific innovation. Public opinion is not, of course, dispositive in shaping policy choices about innovations in science, but neither is it immaterial. Constituents’ views may be especially important to elected officials in the case of issues about which they have no prior record, views, or expertise; in such a case, politicians may follow the lead of their voters. Our vehicle for examining optimism about science or technology is genomics, in particular, Americans’ views of medical and forensic biobanks. The theoretical framework is the interaction between ideology and the institutionalization, or lack thereof, of the innovation. The evidence comes from a new national survey of about 4000 Americans , with parallel items on medical and forensic biobanks and almost 4000 open ended comments explaining the respondents’ stances on biobanking.
We find that Americans tend toward optimism about medical biobanks, which are not institutionalized, and even greater optimism about forensic biobanks, which have much broader and deeper roots in the policy arena. Despite the fact that Americans know nothing about medical biobanks, Republicans are less enthusiastic about them than are Democrats, extreme conservatives are more pessimistic than are other conservatives, and Blacks are less enthusiastic than are Whites or Asians. Supported by insights emerging from the open-ended responses, we interpret these results as further evidence of the importance of institutionalization on attitudes -- through partisanship in the case of Republicans and Democrats, rejection of all institutions in the case of extreme conservatives, and experience-based mistrust of institutions in the case of African Americans.
We conclude that comparison across of types of biobanks offers a fairly precise way to measure the impact of institutionalization on public opinion, and the relative importance of the scientific innovation itself compared with respondents’ prior histories, stereotypes, or commitments. We open the possibility of comparing views on genomics across countries as a way to further explore the interaction of ideology and institutionalization.
Keywords: genomics, biobanks, public opinion, scientific innovation, institutionalization, ideology, race
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