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The public career of the 'gene': trends in public sentiments from 1946 to 2002

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The paper shows, on the basis of longitudinal analysis of the British press, that public opinion of genetic research and biotechnology varies over two long-term waves: from 1946 to 1972 and from 1973 to the 2000s. Each wave shows a nested phase of enthusiasm and of scepticism. During the first wave, biological news has little salience and evaluation parallels the attitudes to general science. During the second wave, genetic engineering becomes a major news item and its phase of evaluation separates from that of general science and technology. While general science improves its public profile, biotechnology becomes publicly controversial during the 1990s. Public perceptions, as far as data is available, follows the changing trends of the press with some lag. For both waves of public sentiment, the paper highlights events and topics that fuelled public imagination and that led to the present mix of controversies over genetic technology in food production, biomedicine and law enforcement. The watershed events of 1996 (GM soya) and 1997 (Dolly the sheep) did not initiate the trend changes which started already in the mid-1980s, but catalysed an already established trend towards more sceptical sentiments in the late 1990s.

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