National survey looks at ‘worldview’ and public attitudes to gene drive technologies

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What do you know about gene drive technology? How do you feel about it? Would knowing more make you feel more supportive of gene drive as a future means of eradication?

DNA strand.
DNA strand. Image credit: Supplied

These were some of the questions posed in a recent study looking at public opinion towards gene drive and how it relates to people’s underlying worldviews. The study was carried out by Edith MacDonald and a large team of researchers from the Department of Conservation, Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, Predator Free 2050 and several New Zealand universities.

“A key goal of our study was to provide policy and decision makers with a baseline understanding of New Zealanders’ (and people in general) opinions to novel pest control technologies and the underlying worldviews that shape their opinion. Our goal is for the research to be used to develop a more empathic path forward when consulting with the public and avoid the traditional paradigm that providing more knowledge to the public will convince them to accept the new technology.”

Whether or not to use gene drive or other new pest control methods if and when they become possible, is a discussion that we should all have the opportunity to be involved in.

“Understanding the underlying values associated with the public opinion towards novel pest control methods, and integrating them into structured decision making, may help reduce or avoid conflicts over future management. Should gene drive become a technically viable approach for pest control, such engagement would ensure a responsible process that empowers society to participate in informed decision making about if and how gene drive should be used for conservation purposes.”

The study looked at how people currently felt about several possible gene drive technologies and what effect giving people more information had on their degree of support. Rather than divide up survey respondents according to age, sex, location, education, occupation or other demographics, the survey also questioned people about their worldviews through a Personal Values Questionnaire (PVQ).

Who are New Zealanders? What are our various worldviews? Image credit: Psuedopanax (Wikimedia Commons).
Who are New Zealanders? What are our various worldviews? Image credit: Pseudopanax (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Responsible science mandates that society be engaged in a dialogue over new technology, particularly where there exist global ramifications as with gene drive. We hypothesize that public attitudes towards gene drive are not formed on scientific knowledge or demographics alone, but are heavily influenced by underlying worldviews, which encapsulate a broad and interactive system of attitudes, beliefs, and values.”

A representative sample of 8199 New Zealanders was surveyed using the online Colmar Brunton Panel™. To develop a segmentation model that explains attitudes towards novel pest control technology the researchers used previous international research on public attitudes to select constructs that may influence people’s perceptions of novel pest technology.

“We term the following chosen constructs collectively as worldviews and introduce the theoretical rationale for their inclusion in the segmentation model:

Environmental attitudes
Conservation and environmental behaviours
Scientific knowledge
Socio-political views”

The researchers found that respondents clustered into four distinct segments with underlying worldviews, better able to explain attitudes toward gene drive than either the participants’ scientific knowledge or other explanatory factors such demographics, political ideology or religiosity.

“Identifying these subgroups, rather than looking at overall national opinion, is essential to effective communication as smaller groups with vastly different attitudes and values require different approaches to be reached, communicated with or motivate.”

So what are the subgroups – and where might you fit?

1. The ‘Humanitarians’ (2443 survey respondents = 32%):
• had the highest levels of environmental concern
• strong levels of conservation behaviour
• lower levels of pest-specific knowledge
• the lowest level of support for current pest control
• moderate levels of trust in science and scientists, trust in organizations and objective general science knowledge
• the lowest score for social dominance orientation and system justification
• Analysis of New Zealand pest management attitude scale revealed this segment are least likely to support killing possums and stoats to protect New Zealand’s native species, less likely to agree native species have greater rights over exotic species and believe pest control interferes with nature.
• high levels of universalism (tolerance and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature) and benevolence (preservation and enhancement of the welfare of people with whom one is in frequent personal contact)
• low levels of achievement (personal success) and conformity (restraint of actions, inclinations and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms)

The humanitarian perspective had the least support for a new pest-specific toxin baiting system (29%), moderate support for the Trojan Female Technique (39%) and gene drive (36%)

2. The ‘Individualists’ (1449 respondents = 18%):
• a high degree of environmental concern
• high levels of objective scientific knowledge, pest-specific knowledge and New Zealand pest management attitude
• the lowest rate of conservation behaviors, trust in organizations and trust in scientists
• low scores for social dominance orientation and system justification
• highest in benevolence, universalism, and self-direction (Independent thought and action-choosing, creating, exploring)
• lowest levels of conformity, achievement, hedonism (pleasure and sensuous gratification), and power (social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources)

The individualistic perspective had low level of support for the Trojan Female Technique (29%) and gene drive (28%) and greater levels of support for a new pest-specific toxin baiting system (45%).

3. The ‘Pragmatists’ (2536 respondents = 31%):
• highest rate of conservation behaviours
• but the lowest level of environmental concern, pest-specific knowledge and New Zealand pest management attitude
• rated pest species as a significant threat to conservation at the highest rate
• moderate levels of trust in scientists and attitudes towards current pest control methods
• highest score for social dominance orientation
• high level of system justification

This segment was the highest in security, conformity, and tradition (respect, commitment and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide the self). The pragmatic segment had the lowest level of support for gene drive (22%) and Trojan Female Technique (28%) but a high level of support for a pest-specific toxin baiting system (52%).

4. The ‘Scientific’ segment (1771 respondents = 22%):
• highest level of scientific knowledge, pest-specific knowledge, New Zealand pest management attitude, trust in scientists, trust in organizations
• moderate levels of environmental concern
• low levels of conservation behaviour
• the highest level of system justification
• lower rate of social dominance orientation

The scientific perspective exhibited the lowest tradition score. The scientific segment had the highest level of support for all three new technologies: gene drive (53%), Trojan Female Technique (68%), and pest-specific toxin baiting system (72%).

Overall, participants supported gene drive (32%) the least when compared with the Trojan female technique (42%) and the pest-specific toxin (52%).

“Based on choice modeling, average importance ratings indicated that delivery method was slightly more important than the technology itself in determining participants preferences; outcome and target species were substantially less important.”

Providing more information didn’t automatically lead to more support, but instead polarised concern.

“Overall, when presented with the technical term only, most participants felt uncertain about gene drive. The subsequent provision of short technical descriptions resulted in the polarization of attitudes with a shift towards greater concern, contrary to the knowledge-deficit model.”

“Scientists commonly adopt the knowledge-deficit model of public engagement, which assumes that public concern arises from a lack of scientific knowledge (ignorance) and can be overcome through the provision of technical information. However, this approach often exacerbates public concern and the polarization of social views evidenced by experience with climate change, GMO food, nano-technology and synthetic biology in general.”

“A greater understanding of the human decision-making process and implementing engagement initiatives derived from social science research may result in a more constructive public conversation about novel methods pest control methods. Should gene drive become a technically viable approach for pest control, understanding the worldviews that shape public decision-making can guide a more empathetic engagement process and empower society to participate in informed decision-making about if and how gene drive should be used for conservation purposes.”

Overall, the survey had two key findings:

  1. Simply providing facts about nascent technologies counter-productively increased polarization of societal views. Future public engagement regarding gene drive that relies solely on educating people by providing more scientific information and facts seriously risks limiting (and potentially inflaming) public discourse.
  2. Worldviews explained opinion towards the emerging technologies better than demographics reiterating that decision making is often based on underlying values and heuristics. Engaging the public on emerging pest control technology must be values-based and not rely exclusively on providing facts about the emerging technology to meaningfully empower society to participate in informed decision-making about if and how gene drive should be used.

“New Zealand presents an interesting case when considering public attitudes to genetic technologies in the environmental space. First, New Zealand has a well-established and deeply entrenched identity as an environmentally and conservation-focused nation. Second, New Zealand is currently pursuing ambitious conservation goals, most notably the 2016 government announcement of the “Predator Free 2050” initiative that aspires to eradicate key introduced predators impacting native biodiversity by 2050 from the entire country. Finally, New Zealand has strong anti-GMO attitudes and legislations. This mix of pro-environmental and anti-GMO attitudes, and the fact that New Zealand has arguably one of the most ambitious conservation policies in which genetic technologies might play a role, makes the public attitudes of New Zealanders an interesting counter point to the better rehearsed EU and US cases.”

For New Zealanders, it’s not simply about our politics and religion.

“Interestingly, unlike what has been found in much of the research in the US, political ideology and religiosity has little bearing on attributes in New Zealand. The four segments our analysis found showed diverse attitudes and aspirations and understanding these underlying worldviews offers opportunities to optimize engagement towards responsible science development and ultimately integrating public opinion into policy decisions.”

The full research report is published in Environmental Communication and is freely available online:

Public Opinion Towards Gene Drive as a Pest Control Approach for Biodiversity Conservation and the Association of Underlying Worldviews (2020)