The legacy of European science and biotechnology is good - Europeans say that health research is important - but modern acceptance of science remains lacking. However, a new survey by Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale - Inserm - shows that Europeans may discard their recent stance against science and embrace progress again. It will take a culture of science literacy on par with the United States and a culture that shakes off government control, according to the results.

Inserm is a biomedical research organization in Europe, and to mark its 50th anniversary, wanted to assess the perceptions of Europeans regarding biomedical research. An Internet survey of over 4,000 Europeans (with 1,001 French, 1,004 German, 1,001 Italians and 1,005 British respondents) was conducted in January of 2014. Representative samples were obtained from each country involved using quota sampling.

According to the results, health is still the area of research news that interests the greatest number of Europeans and that is a hopeful sign "at a time of moroseness and cynicism" in Europe

Limited knowledge, but a questioning attitude

  • Europeans who were surveyed predominantly admitted that they were not well informed about biomedical research, whether in terms of advances in this area (59% believed they were poorly informed), its consequences for their everyday lives (59%), or popular debates stimulated by some research projects (61%).

  • Their scientific literacy is limited. On average, when Europeans were tested on approximately 20 scientific terms, they "really" understood only 4.5 terms. Only one of these was "really" understood by the majority—the term "animal experiments." The terms "nanoscience," "genome sequencing," viral vector," endocrine disrupters" or "epigenetics" were not understood by the majority of Europeans.

  • The result of this lack of scientific vocabulary is that Europeans are unable to understand the questions that may be raised by some areas of biomedical research and reflexively retreat to faith in experts to "control" things - including experts who are against modern science. The results of the survey show that a subject may become part of public debate and generate intense discussion, even though most Europeans know very little about it.

Europeans want to move to a United States model of biomedical research

  • The United States government controls relatively little biomedical research compared to other fields and that seems to preferred by Europeans regarding biomedical research: 84% of them name the United States as among the three most advanced countries in this area. Certainly, this figure primarily reflects the attractiveness of the USA to many Europeans. It also highlights the attraction of American laboratories for European students and researchers, explained by the large budgets and influence and its proven supremacy in terms of numbers of publications and returns. Germany, Great Britain and France come next (mentioned by 41%, 39% and 29% of respondents, respectively).

  • Europeans seem to believe that developments in the modes of research funding are essential: 88% judge it necessary for the private sector to become more involved in funding scientific research. 94% of Europeans surveyed nonetheless strongly advocate that a substantial proportion of biomedical research be funded by the State.

  • Finally, even though American biomedical research remains the model for many Europeans, 82% of Europeans believe that biomedical research is an area in which their own country can be proud of its results. This is especially the case in France, where 90% of respondents think so.

Health is a major interest for Europeans

  • Europeans show a particular interest in news items about health research. Nearly one out of two Europeans (45%) mentions health as the area of research news that most interests him/her, far ahead of information technology and the new technologies (21%), environment (14%), human sciences (9%), energy (6%) or space (5%).

  • Health-related research news stimulates particular interest among the French (53%) and the Germans (48%).

  • Health research also interests more women (58%, compared with 32% of men) and people aged 35 years or older (51%, compared with 33% of those under 35).

Biomedical research is above all a synonym for hope

  • For Europeans, research mainly evokes the word "hope" (34% put it in first place, 67% among the first three). The French are the most likely to consider that biomedical research represents hope for them more than anything else.
  • 82% of Europeans believe that biomedical research will enable their children to live better than they do today (22% say "much better").

A high degree of confidence in researchers

  • Physicians and researchers in biomedical sciences remain trusted intermediaries in the eyes of Europeans: where a public health problem occurs, 45% of those surveyed named physicians among the three players that could be most trusted to tell them the truth, and 36% named researchers.
  • 70% of Europeans also trust researchers to challenge opinion if they believe that their scientific research has important consequences for issues affecting society; 66% of Europeans trust researchers to refuse to let innovations arising from their work have negative consequences for public health, and 62% trust them to remain independent and to reject pressure regarding the results of their work.