Despite this lack of understanding, an average of 57% indicated that different applications of biotechnology should continue.
So say the results of the most comprehensive survey on public perceptions of biotechnology undertaken in South Africa to date. This national study involved a sample of 7000 adults aged 16 and older in households geographically spread across the country's nine provinces, including urban and rural communities of all race groups. The sample was designed to represent the total adult population, more than 29 million adults, of South Africa. Respondents were interviewed in person in the language of their choice.
The survey was undertaken by the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) Programme in collaboration with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). The aim was to "find out what people think, feel and understand about biotechnology" according to Helen Malherbe, Coordinator of the PUB Programme. Prepared with input from national and international survey experts, the survey included adapted questions from polls undertaken elsewhere, to enable a comparison of South African public perceptions internationally.
The survey results reveal a number of interesting findings:
The PUB Programme, funded by the Department of Science and Technology, is implemented at arms length from government to enable autonomy and an unbiased approach, through the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) which is a business unit of the National Research Foundation. The PUB Programme aims to promote a clear, balanced understanding of the potential benefits and risks of biotechnology and ensuring broad public awareness, dialogue and debate about biotechnology and its current and potential future applications to enable informed decision-making.
Malherbe says: "Of particular interest to the PUB Programme is that 44% of people would like to know more about medical biotechnology and about 24% about GM foods and agricultural biotechnology. This information will help the Programme to focus its information resources and respond to specific information needs."
The PUB Programme is now working on complementing this study with more in-depth, qualitative studies through focal groups to investigate people's knowledge, perceptions and attitudes in more detail.
"This will help us to focus our resources and to supply South Africans with the most appropriate information regarding the potential benefits and risks of biotechnology. We hope this will empower them to become participants in this area of science that already receives significant government funding and is said to be a growth sector for South Africa," Malherbe concludes.
The survey report is available on www.pub.ac.za along with a selection of other surveys undertaken in South Africa and internationally.