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Stem cells: Science, economy edge religion at the polls

February 3, 2010 By Terry Devitt

When it comes to stem cell research as a political issue, Wisconsin voters are more likely to be motivated by ideas of economic benefit and scientific progress than by religious objections, according to a new report.

The study, conducted by researchers in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Life Sciences Communication and published this week (Feb. 1) in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, explored the influence of stem cell research in the context of the 2006 race for Wisconsin governor when support for stem cell science was a key campaign issue.

Sorting through data from the summer 2006 Badger Poll, a statewide telephone survey of 508 Wisconsin adults conducted by the UW Survey Center, the researchers found that the stem cell debate, as framed by the mass media’s coverage of the issue, was more likely to engage liberal voters than conservative ones in traditional political activities such as signing a petition, attending a demonstration or writing a letter to the editor.

“In Wisconsin, people participated on the stem cell issue because they were motivated by the idea of the economic benefits of continued research and interest in progressive science policy outcomes,” says Amy Becker, a UW–Madison graduate student who co-authored the new report with fellow graduate student Kajsa Dalrymple and faculty members Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele and Al Gunther. “At the same time, we did not see a significant relationship between religiosity and issue participation.”

Research involving human embryonic stem cells has been a political lightning rod for more than a decade, since they were first successfully isolated and cultured at UW–Madison. The research is controversial because the cells must be obtained from a human embryo, which is destroyed in the process. The all-purpose cells, however, also have important implications for biomedical research and may underpin new companies and industries that capitalize on their potential.

The new study is among the first to examine the stem cell issue in a specific political context and suggests that religious influence on the issue may not be as deep or pervasive as many believed. “What is really interesting is that religion and religious perspectives didn’t motivate people to participate directly on the stem cell issue,” notes Dalrymple. “People were more interested in the social and economic aspects of the stem cell issue.”

However, what was most important in terms of motivating voters on the issue, says Becker, was attention to mass media coverage of the stem cell debate. A key finding of the new study suggests that attention to news media, in particular the written word in newspapers and on the Internet, was an important influence in spurring citizen participation.

The study confirms the importance of the media as “it was guiding voters and motivating them to get involved at the issue level,” Becker explains, noting that portrayals of patients who might be aided by advances in stem cell research may have been particularly effective.

The message for candidates of all stripes, according to both Dalrymple and Becker, is that the news media continue to be a primary source of information and exert a strong influence on the electorate and that, at least in the case of embryonic stem cells, religious opposition can be effectively countered by using positive social and economic outcomes as a counterbalance.

The message for scientists, say the authors, is that their voices can be heard as more scientific issues enter the political realm. Says Dalrymple: “When science topics enter campaign discussions, there are opportunities for scientists to have their voices heard.”