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Although the average European has a relatively high regard for science — and for scientists — he or she is not optimistic about the prospects that science will get rid of poverty and famine, or that it will help avoid the world running out of natural resources.

Furthermore, a survey carried out for the European Commission in Brussels, whose results were released last week, suggests that the overall view of science is deteriorating.

In a previous survey carried out in 1992, 61.2 per cent of those interviewed said that they felt that the benefits of science outweighed its negative effects. In the new survey this proportion had fallen to 50.4 per cent.

The survey found that found that more than four-fifths of those questioned expressed confidence that scientific and technological progress will cure diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Similarly, 71 per cent of those asked said that they agreed with the statement that “science and technology make our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.”

But just over half of the 16,000 individuals from all 15 of the European Union member states disagree with the statement that science and technology “will help to eliminate poverty and famine in the world”.

And an even greater proportion — 60.2 per cent — disagreed with the idea that “thanks to scientific and technological progress, the natural resources of the world will be inexhaustible.”

Furthermore, intense efforts by governments over the past few years to boost the general public’s awareness of scientific issues seems to have little impact on raising its knowledge of science.

Apart from a single example — an increase from 27 to 40 per cent of those aware that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses — the scores on a set of a basic scientific questions were virtually identical to those obtained on the previous survey, which was carried out in 1992.

There was clear evidence that scientific information is taken on board when it has direct implications. The report speculates, for example, that increased knowledge about antibiotics “is probably due to the fact that discussions on the problems of using antibiotics, such as new forms of resistance, the risks of treating benign illnesses with antibiotics, etc., have proliferated in Europe.”

Similarly, it found that three-quarters of those surveyed believes that the sea level could rise as one of the physical effects of the greenhouse effect. This proportion rises to 84.0 per cent among those who replied that they understood the ‘greenhouse effect’.

Commenting on the results, the EU’s research commissioner, Philippe Busquin, said that it was important to address the concerns and scepticism that people address about some specific issues; the survey found, for example, that almost 60 per cent of those questioned expressed the belief that genetically modified organisms could have negative effects on the natural environment.

Similarly, while expressing general confidence in the products of scientific research, the survey revealed strong demands for greater social controls on the way that science is carried out. Indeed, a surprisingly high 80 per cent of respondents supported the idea that “the authorities should formally oblige scientists to observe ethical rules”.

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Link to full report and summaries