As stem cell research continues to be a very divisive topic, a new study has revealed that the general public is much more willing to accept it than politicians.
The Swiss are very liberal with their referendums -- they have quite a few every year. This offers a unique and direct perspective to see how voters think about a variety of topics including (in this case) embryonic stem cell research. They found that people were much more willing to accept the research than politicians.
"By analysing the outcomes of a referendum on a liberal new bill regulating such research, we reveal an about 10 percentage point lower conditional probability of the bill being accepted by politicians than by voters," the study reads.
The motivations for the two categories of people are also quite different. For politicians, it's all about the politics, whereas general people are swayed by different aspects.
"Whereas the behaviour of politicians is driven almost entirely by party affiliation, citizen votes are driven not only by party attachment but also by church attendance."
Old and new
If you've kept up with stem cell research, you're probably wondering why we're talking about embryonic stem cell research (taking stem cells from embryos), when the science world is moving away to different types of stem cells, most notably induced pluripotent cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells are a type of pluripotent stem cell that can be generated directly from adult cells. But this study analyzed the 2004 referendum when embryonic stem cells stirred heated debates, and its conclusions are more about social science than biology.
The study showed that citizens care whether scientists are trustworthy, act transparently, and serve the public interest. Even scientists themselves have asked that journal editors and funding agencies enforce high standards of ethics. However, politicians play a different ball game. For them, it's all about affiliation and, although this study doesn't address it, personal interests.
"According to our findings, in this environment, citizens are more likely than politicians to favour embryonic stem cell research, suggesting that social discussion may help bring about agreement on shared principles, professional norms, and procedural conditions related to stem cell research. Citizen involvement through direct democracy might thus provide a way to bridge polarization in the stem cell debate."
But as we all know, direct democracy is tricky and referendums can also backfire dramatically. The key here is an informed population. The people care about science and they want it kept to a good standard but they need to be accurately informed about the vote they are about to cast.
"Because of the high level of direct democracy in Switzerland, its citizens are generally well informed about upcoming referenda through intense public discourse and official booklets. These latter, which include the exact text of the legislative paragraphs to be modified or introduced into the law or constitution, provide objective information on the referendum issue."