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Medicine of the Future Makes Many Russians Suspicious

According to a recent survey, Russians are more likely to accept flying cars, smart homes and other futuristic wonders than genetically-engineered biomedical interventions.
STUDY'S AUTHORS:
Yury Voinylov, Expert, HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK).
Valentina PolyakovaResearch Fellow, HSE ISSEK.

Most Russians share ‘wait-and-see’ and similar defensive attitudes towards attempts to 'improve' the human body by using stem cells, genetic engineering and other biomedical technologies, according to Voinylov and Polyakova's articleMy Body is My Fortress: Public Opinion on Biomedical Technologies, published in Sociology of Power, special issue onSocial Studies of Biomedicine, No. 1, 2016.

While such attitudes have somewhat softened since the 2000s, they have not radically changed, as shown by ISSEK's surveys of Russians aged 16 and older in 2003 (2,107 respondents), 2006 (2,107), 2009 (1,600), 2010 (2,843), 2011 (1,703 respondents), and more recently in November 2015 as part of theMonitoring Survey of Innovative Behaviour based on a representative sample of 1,671 respondents in 137 settlements of various types. The latter survey clearly indicates that Russians tend to be skeptical of biomedical technologies — even though they may be accepting of other types of technological innovation — and such attitudes have little to do with people's awareness of biomedical science: in fact, according to surveys, Russians tend to know more about biomedical technologies than about ICT and some other innovations. It appears instead that Russian society's main concern is about the legitimacy of human intervention in nature.

"The body is still considered a sacred object, and attempts to transform it through invasive procedures are looked on as unacceptable," note the study's authors.

Ethics Struggling to Keep Up with Science

The progress of biology and medicine in the 20th century changed our understanding of the human body, allowing people to identify and change its hidden characteristics like never before. Formerly unimaginable things, such as in-vitro fertilization, cell cultivation in bioreactors and others, have become reality. No longer limited to treating symptoms, gene technology helps detect and address the risks of disease before they manifest themselves. These new realities have entered into public discourse. Yet ethical norms struggle to keep pace with technological progress, and although biomedical innovations are widely discussed, public attitudes towards them remain die-hard. In particular, human cloning and use of stem cells raise multiple ethical issues.

That said, consecutive surveys have found slightly more liberal public attitudes towards cloning. Between 2003 and 2011, the proportion of Russians accepting human/human tissue cloning increased by 38% for human cloning and and 52% for tissue cloning. Between 2003 and 2006, the proportion of respondents who accepted cloning as a solution for people unable to have children naturally increased from 8% to 14%. Between 2006 and 2009, the proportion of people who would accept cloning of human tissues to mend diseased organs increased from 30% to 37%. At the same time, the 2010 survey findings suggest that Russians are still cautious about gene technologies. Despite general endorsement of their application, about half of the respondents are suspicious and insist that the use of such techniques must come with strong external oversight, the study's authors note.

The survey respondents tend to reject techniques such as conceiving a baby as a tissue donor, cloning babies from just one parent (to avoid passing on a genetic diseases), and implantation of microchips in the brain. On average, half of respondents reject such approaches altogether or would limit their use to exceptional circumstances. In short, attempts to interfere with the human nature are generally met with disapproval.

Benefits of Innovation Underestimated

In addition to that, the researchers measured public attitudes towards other emerging technologies and found contrasting perceptions depending on the sphere of innovation. Using foresight methods to anticipate future trends in public acceptance of science and technology, they found that none of the innovations on a proposed list — from clothes that can adapt to weather to hand-held detectors of toxins in food to smart home systems — attracted a potential audience of more than 50% (positive responses ranging from 42% to 48% depending on the type of innovation). Even less popular — 22% to 31% of positive responses — were techniques involving interference with the human body; more than 50% of respondents found 19 of 24 such innovations irrelevant and useless.

Nonetheless, most respondents are concerned about the problems for which innovations could provide solutions. While 78% would be worried about the birth of a baby with a genetic disease, only 30% are prepared to take a genetic test; 88% and 87%, respectively, are concerned about air and water pollution, but only 48% would want to use devices to detect pollution. Thus, there is a gap between public awareness of various problems and acceptance of potential solutions.

According to Voinylov and Polyakova, people do not quite understand how certain innovations work and therefore refuse to accept them as helpful tools in dealing with problems.

Technology Perceived as Dangerous or Useless

More often than other innovations, those used on the human body, such as gene technology, microchips, etc. cause suspicion — mainly because of their invasive nature rather than fear of the unknown. Ironically, other innovations which might potentially be more unsafe — such as smart home systems that can spin out of control — are far less likely to cause concerns.

Other categories of innovative solutions, such as ICT, energy efficiency, etc., cause less anxiety, but more doubts as to their effectiveness. The study's authors conclude that Russians tend to find biomedical technologies too dangerous and other innovations largely useless.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, May 26, 2016