COMMENT: Podium - People will embrace genetic testing - in time

Michael Willmott From a lecture given by the social researcher to the Royal Society for the Arts, in London
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The Independent Culture
ON THE whole, the general public is pretty positive about genetic science. The British Social Attitudes survey showed, as they put it, that "the public `unambiguously' supports genetic manipulation on clear medical grounds".

Research by an insurance group, Swiss Re, found that significant numbers of people had high expectations for the development of genetic science over the next 10 years. Nearly a half felt that most genetic diseases would be diagnosable, with a similar number expecting it to provide cures for common diseases such as heart problems and cancer. About a third could envisage the ability to choose the characteristics - such as sex and eye colour - of a newborn baby.

Clearly, in terms of diagnosis and treatment the public can see the benefits of genetic science and has some high expectations of it.

Also, people are not against the principle of genetic testing as such. But there isn't blanket acceptance, with some applications of tests receiving a much more ambivalent response. Half the population say they wouldn't take a test if it were available, with a further 10 per cent who are not sure. The overwhelming reason why people wouldn't ever take a genetic test is that they don't want to worry about what it might turn up.

But it's when we get to the issue of who should have access to the results of genetic testing that opposition becomes strongest. A two-to-one majority does not believe sharing test results should be obligatory. Of the total population, a mere 8 per cent think an insurance company that you are applying to should have access to the results, and 6 per cent an employer.

If anything, I think opposition to genetic testing in the short term (by which I mean the next five to 10 years) is likely to harden. My reasons for thinking this are as follows.

First, I'm concerned that positive attitudes to genetic science may be undermined by the debate over genetically modified foods.

Over the last 20 years, for example, there has been fairly steady support for scientific research, with two-thirds of the population agreeing that "scientific breakthroughs are our main hope for a better life". The main issue here is a decline in confidence not so much in science and the medical profession, but in companies, and multinational companies specifically. One of the main concerns over genetically modified crops is the role of multinationals, and particularly concern about monopolistic control of markets via genetic manipulation and patents. The recent troubles at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle were as much about large companies and globalisation as they were about free trade as such.

Another factor is what Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, has called the emerging "culture of fear". Despite being richer, healthier and safer we seem to worry more - about food, crime, disease or whatever. It seems as though in the lack of real threats - such as nuclear war - we generate new fears to supplant the old ones. The American sociologist Barry Glassner has just published a book, also called The Culture of Fear. In it he charts the same paradox in the US - an objective and measurable improvement in many aspects of people's lives alongside an increase in concerns, fears and hysteria - the same predominant pathology that Furedi identifies in Britain.

Glassner argues that three forces are stoking up people's irrational hysteria: politicians, who win elections by heightening fears; the media, conscious that fear and scaremongering sell; and advocacy groups that pursue their goals (and, it has to be said, improve their fundraising capabilities) by exaggerating concerns. Where does this leave genetic tests?

Eventually, it is likely that the general public will embrace genetic testing when it is recognised that all of us have some "undesirable genes". This will act as a leveller; we're all different, yet none of us is perfect. Or, as Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, says: "A good rule in evolution is that nobody gets a free lunch; success in one walk of life must be paid for by failure in another." The important development, though, will be when genetic cures are available - then we will readily have tests in order to correct any defects.

Before then, I fear there will be quite a lot of hysteria as the debate develops, and a lot of resistance to tests themselves - and especially to disclosure of them to companies.