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Scientifically framed gene drive communication perceived as credible but riskier

February 2021

Publication: People and Nature
Author(s): MacDonald EA, Edwards ED, Balanovic J, Medvecky F.

Humans have caused a catastrophic decline to animal species and look to emerging technologies to stop the decline. Gene drive is a potential tool that may eradicate invasive rodents known for their devastating impact on native animals. The use of gene drive will be significantly influenced by public opinion and support, thus early dialogue with society is needed. Framing is a communication technique in which certain beliefs or values are emphasized that resonate with the target audience. Framing may increase how much people objectively think about new information and update their opinions; framing may mitigate emotive and polarising public opinion of contentious topics. Four framed articles were developed that aligned to values of four pre-identified segments (scientific, humanitarian, pragmatic and individualistic). A representative sample of New Zealanders (n = 1,600) read two frames (one aligning to their segment and one to another segment) and were surveyed. Four constructs were measured: (a) public support for gene drive for conservation gains; (b) motivated reasoning (how fixed the opinion is and thus susceptible to bias processing); (c) affective response (how emotive the topic is) and (d) risk perception (the extent the tool is perceived as detrimental to humans and nature). Our study found no evidence of motivated reasoning or heightened emotional response to the counter-aligned frames, suggesting gene drive remains a new topic to the public and entrenched opinion has not been established. While the scientifically framed article was regarded as the most objective and credible, it elicited the greatest perception of risk from the humanitarian group. While current support for gene drive is currently high amongst this group, long-term exposure to scientifically framed messages may result in reduced support and polarisation. Communicating with this group using language that recognises the sanctity of all life and humaneness of gene drive may be more effective in facilitating an open dialogue over time. Early and effective public engagement about gene drive should occur prior to entrenched public attitudes, which is the current context in New Zealand, and not wait for further technology development.

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