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The average South African knows very little about biotechnology, says the country's first detailed study of public perceptions of the subject.

Launched on 6 April, the survey concludes that the country needs better science communication about biotechnology so that people can have a clearer picture of how it affects their lives.

"We hope this will empower them to become participants in this area of science," said Helen Malherbe, coordinator of the Public Understanding of Biotechnology programme, which ran the study in collaboration with another government-funded agency, the Human Sciences Research Council.

Although South African scientists are among their continent's leaders in biotechnology, the survey showed that the term means nothing to 82 per cent of the general public. A similar proportion is unaware of the meanings of 'genetic engineering', 'genetic modification' and 'cloning'.

The study, in which researchers interviewed 7,000 people in the language of the participant's choice, was designed to be representative of the adult population of South Africa.

It reveals that even among the few South Africans who were aware of biotechnology, most were indifferent to it.

Malherbe said notable findings were that nearly half of those interviewed wanted to know more about medical uses of biotechnology, and about one-quarter wanted more information on genetically modified food and other agricultural uses of biotechnology.

Asked whom they most trust to tell the truth about biotechnology, 24 per cent of interviewees said universities, 19 per cent said the media, and 16 per cent said the government. Respondents were less likely to trust consumer groups and environmental organisations, religious groups or the biotechnology industry.

Brian Wilmot, director of the country's leading science outreach programme, the annual Sasol SciFest science festival in Grahamstown, says the survey results are "disappointing, but unfortunately, they come as no surprise".

"Our experience over the last nine years has been that there is an enormous task facing South Africa in making the population scientifically literate," says Wilmot. "Our school results in science and mathematics lag behind other, poorer countries on the continent. Our government is aware of it, and their plans are good, but it will take time."

"There are many reasons — not least of all economic ones — why South Africans should be better informed on biotechnology," adds Wilmot. "It is a given fact that all the leading economies are based on science, engineering and technology. A well-educated, well-informed citizenry makes for good business — and they can make a more meaningful impact on government policy, rather than leave it up to experts. This includes being informed about biotechnology."

Wilmot suggests using multilingual theatre to raise awareness of biotechnology and its applications.

Already, thousands of South Africa high school students have seen a performance that the Sasol SciFest commissioned about a community suspicious of scientists using indigenous plants.

"Educational theatre has a vital role to play in promoting the public understanding of science. The reason is simple. It is a non-threatening experience," says Wilmot.

Ed Rybicki, a virologist at the University of Cape says the survey revealed "a huge gap between science and society". He suggests using everyday products of biotechnology such as milk and cheese as educational tools in public outreach at shopping malls and other local centres.

Read more about science communication in SciDev.Net's e-guide to science communication.