A new survey shows that Europeans hold generally optimistic opinions about life sciences and biotechnology, but also that a lack of knowledge about important areas such as nanotechnology is widespread.

53% of people responding to the Eurobarometer survey said they believe biotechnology will have a positive effect in the future while 20% feel its effects will be negative - a further 20% said they did not know. But the poll also reveals a significant lack of knowledge in some important areas; for example, 55% have never heard of nanotechnology, 67% are unaware of the existence of biobanks and 83% have no knowledge of synthetic biology.

Optimism about biotechnology was found to be particularly strong in Estonia, where 77% held positive views, and also in Sweden (72%) and Finland (69%). The only European Union (EU) member state where those who felt biotechnology will have a negative effect outnumbered the optimists was Austria, with 41% for and 35% against. The Eurobarometer study took opinions from citizens of 32 European countries.

It found overwhelming support for medical applications of biotechnology, subject to strict laws. 68% of respondents said they approve of stem cell research and 63% now support embryonic stem cell research, compared to 59% in 2005, while 69% conditionally support other stem cell research, up from 65% five years ago, and 63% are positive about gene therapy, up from 54%. Another 15%-18% said they were prepared to accept these applications in special circumstances. The countries where most respondents were supportive of these applications overall were the UK, Spain and Denmark.

Xenotransplantation – an application which has long been subject to moratoria in various EU countries – now finds approval with 58% of respondents, while their solid support for medical applications of biotechnology spreads over to non-therapeutic applications, the study notes. “Moving from repair to improvement, we find that 56% of the European public approves of research that aims to enhance human performance. However, support for regenerative medicine is not unconditional. Approval is contingent upon perceptions of adequate oversight and control,” say the researchers, who were led by a team from the London School of Economics (LSE).

The researchers conclude that this latest survey shows that there is no rejection by Europeans of the impetus towards innovation; in general, people are in favour of responsible innovation with appropriate regulation to balance the market, and wish to be involved in decisions about new technologies when social values are at stake. They also note that there has been an increase since 2005 in public trust in most of the key actors - such as doctors, scientists, the EU, national governments and industry - to do a good job in taking decisions on biotechnology issues.

Commenting on the study’s findings, EU Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn said it reveals three things. “First, Europeans are mostly rather positive about biotechnology, although they remain uneasy about some particular aspects. Second, many people feel that they lack basic information on important aspects of biotechnology, so there is a major communication challenge. I intend to take it up and I urge all stakeholders to do the same. Third, all decisions on biotechnology should be rooted in sound science and take due account of ethical, health and environmental factors - we cannot be led either by emotional reactions or by short-term commercial considerations,” she said.

• The study also found that 61% of Europeans are opposed to genetically-modified (GM) food, up from 57% in 2005, and only 18% support animal cloning for food.