Constructing Public Images of New Genetics and Gene Technology: The Media Discourse on the Estonian Human Genome Project

By Tammpuu, Piia | Trames, March-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Constructing Public Images of New Genetics and Gene Technology: The Media Discourse on the Estonian Human Genome Project


Tammpuu, Piia, Trames


1. Introduction

The perceptions and attitudes people hold towards science and technologies at large are often characterised by a certain ambivalence in which optimism about prospective outcomes of scientific research and technological advances is mingled with scepticism and anxieties about misuse of scientific knowledge and long-term implications of technological progress (Felt 2000). Recent developments in genetics and biotechnology, the most outstanding and far-reaching of which has been perhaps the sequencing of the structure of the human genome, have likewise evoked great expectations with respect to the application of genetics and gene technology in medical domain, as well as critical reflection and ethical concerns about impacts that new genetics may have on individuals and society on the whole.

Provided that most people are neither directly involved in scientific research nor hold particular scientific knowledge, information about science and its applications is seen to reach the broader public mainly in a mediated form. Here one of the key agents is the mass media that provide people with various kind of information about scientific advances and new technologies. However, far from being a channel that merely mediates scientific and technological news to the public, the media perform rather as a public arena where various versions of social reality, including those of science and technology, are constructed by different social groups and institutions, all competing for legitimacy, authority and public trust. As such, the contemporary media appears as a crucial site for exploring the range of various images and meanings of genetics and biotechnology, as well as the mechanisms by which these images and meanings are produced, sustained and transformed (Petersen 2001:1256). Although the influence that the media have on people's views and attitudes cannot be seen as one-directional or uniform, different interpretations, representations and arguments proposed by the media inevitably come to frame and shape public reception on a particular issue or phenomenon. Hence, the analysis of public discourse is supposed to form an inseparable aspect of the broader research into public opinions and perceptions held about genetics and biotechnology (Gutteling et al. 2002, Condit 2001, Petersen 2001).

The current paper examines the construction of public images and meanings of new genetics and gene technology by using the example of the Estonian Genome Project (EGP). Being one of the few countries where such a large-scale population based genome bank is being planned, Estonia serves as an interesting case for investigating public representation and reception on gene technology and its application in human genetic research. Since the EGP is founded on the principle of voluntary participation, where individuals are left with the choice as to whether they are willing to donate their blood sample to the national gene bank or not, public images of genetics and gene technology become of particular relevance, evoking questions about the credibility and authority of science and scientists, particularly of those working in the field of biotechnology. Furthermore, the possibility to decode the codified genetic samples and link them to particular individuals, like the right granted to gene donors to know their personal genetic data, make individual choices and questions of personal risks and benefits, including those of privacy and responsibility, especially sensitive in the Estonian context. As a recent survey from 2002 reveals, while the Estonian public conceives the genome project on the whole in a positive frame, associating it with various advantages in medical, scientific and national terms, people tend to be much more sceptical and hesitant when asked about their personal participation in the project (Korts 2004). Considering that the media, particularly printed press, appear as the primary source of information about the EGP, the ways issues of genetics and gene technology have been treated in the domestic press, including the risks and benefits that have been constructed in public, have apparently a certain impact on how the public comes to perceive and evaluate the potentials of genetics and gene technology.

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