Engineering vs editing. What difference does it make to people?

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The destiny of new technologies greatly depends on their social acceptance. It makes sense, therefore, to try to understand whether the editing metaphor could make CRISPR appear more reassuring than other approaches to genetic modification. This idea has gained some ground and was discussed by several bioethicists in the American Journal of Bioethics. However, it is still an unproven hypothesis. A contribution to the debate comes from the journal Frontiers in Public Health, with a study suggesting that biotech metaphors have little impact on public perception.

Steven Weisberg and his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania carried out an online survey on nearly 2,500 Americans, probing their attitudes on scenarios worded similarly except for some keywords. Each respondent was randomly assigned to a vignette and was unaware of contrasting versions. According to the first one, “Recently, scientists have figured out precise, cheap, and easy ways to modify genes. These advances mean that they might be able to correct disease-causing genes, like those that cause hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease. It means that they might be able to add genes that are protective for future problems like the cognitive decline of aging or the risk of contracting immune diseases. It also means they might be able to improve genes to enhance normal traits, like height and maybe even intelligence. Even as the methods are worked out, there are risks. For individuals, this could have unintended consequences, or lead to unexpected mutations. In our society, this could lead to eugenics”.Alternative vignettes keep the same structure while framing the issue in the context of different biotech metaphors, ie. editing, engineering, computer science and surgery. The word “to modify” is replaced by to edit, to engineer, to hack, to perform surgery on. The word “to correct” becomes to find-and-replace, to fix, to debug or to repair. “To add” becomes to insert, to build in, to program, to implant. Finally “to improve” is replaced by the verbs to refine, to optimize, to upgrade and to augment. After reading their short text, people scored their level of support to the question: “Should we be actively researching these technologies?”. Respondents supported genetic modification research but – as expected, on the basis of previous surveys on technological issues – some demographic variables influenced attitudes: conservatives, women, African-Americans, and older people were more cautious than liberals, men, other ethnicities and younger subjects. But the most interesting point is that the use of different metaphors or frames did not affect the scores. It would be useful to investigate to what extent the wording becomes more relevant for interviewees after they learn the technical differences between engineering and editing a gene. It would also be interesting to probe if the word “editing” in place of “genetic engineering” modulates perception differently when talking about genetically modified crops and food.

Alternative vignettes keep the same structure while framing the issue in the context of different biotech metaphors, ie. editing, engineering, computer science and surgery. The word “to modify” is replaced by to edit, to engineer, to hack, to perform surgery on. The word “to correct” becomes to find-and-replace, to fix, to debug or to repair. “To add” becomes to insert, to build in, to program, to implant. Finally “to improve” is replaced by the verbs to refine, to optimize, to upgrade and to augment. After reading their short text, people scored their level of support to the question: “Should we be actively researching these technologies?”. Respondents supported genetic modification research but – as expected, on the basis of previous surveys on technological issues – some demographic variables influenced attitudes: conservatives, women, African-Americans, and older people were more cautious than liberals, men, other ethnicities and younger subjects. But the most interesting point is that the use of different metaphors or frames did not affect the scores. It would be useful to investigate to what extent the wording becomes more relevant for interviewees after they learn the technical differences between engineering and editing genes. It would also be interesting to probe if the word “editing” in place of “genetic engineering” modulates perception differently when talking about genetically modified crops and food.

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