1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Egenis · Research

The Role of Public Opinion in the Production of Regulatory Output:
The Regulation of Genomics in the UK.

Kate Getliffe

Start date


Affiliated staff

Jane Calvert (Innogen) and Oliver James (Politics)


Tel: 01392 269140 Fax: 01392 264676 Homepages:, and Oliver James Email: ksg203@exeter.ac.uk

Funded by

ESRC (Egenis)


The project examines how such a fluid concept as ‘public opinion is ring-fenced in the regulatory process. In the thesis, the utilisation of the classic understanding of public opinion, that it is an aggregate of individual opinions, survey data, is analysed in tandem with the regulators’ understandings of public opinion. This helps us to tease out examples of interactions between public opinion and regulation. In the thesis, it is argued that the conceptualisation or construction of ‘public opinion’ by regulators is a very different ontological object from that derived from survey data. I suggest that the gauge which regulators refer to as ‘public opinion’ should be renamed in line with its role as one input into the regulatory process. It is the measurement of its value and influence as an input which is at the crux of this thesis. The decision to apply this research to the regulation of genomics is derived from the deliberative practices inherent in the regulation of this domain. As a consequence of the complex ethical and legal issues which genomics introduces, there is a requirement to provide evidence of a greater nod to public opinion relative to other regulatory domains. Within policy and regulatory documents such rhetoric is often tied in to the idea of the production of effective regulation. The enhanced role given to the public in regulatory policy in genomics suggests both that regulation should be responsive to public opinion and that regulation has an impact upon public opinion. These two issues are questioned in the study.

It is argued that there exists a gap between the regulators’ understanding of public opinion (whether this results from an engagement exercise or not), and the survey data findings. Does the symbolic power of regulation appease the public whether the regulation is highly responsive to public opinion or not? I will examine the levels of duty imbued upon Independent Regulatory Agencies in deliberation and assess whether the regulation plays a greater role in alleviating concerns in instances where enhanced deliberative practice is undertaken. The case-studies from genomics are prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis and GM foods. Different gauges of public opinion will be analysed in order to illustrate the power that they have in the shaping of the regulation of genomics. The role played by non-state regulators is also discussed and as such consumers and retailers in the case of GM foods and parents and patient groups in the cases of PND and PGD are included.


A socio-legal study which draws on regulation and public opinion literature from the fields of law and political science. The key research questions are:
  1. What role does public opinion play in the production of regulation?
  2. Is there such a thing as a public opinion of genomics and what role does this have in the production of regulation of genomics?
  3. How responsive to public opinion is regulation in the field of genomics?
  4. What influence does the regulatory framework have on the inter-relationship between regulation and public opinion?


In this project Kate has adopted a mixed methods approach involving the analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data. The sources of empirical data are:
  1. A secondary analysis of British Social Attitudes (BSA) and Eurobarometer survey data. Additional survey data will be discussed and referred to but this will be primarily from published findings. Included in the latter is a survey conducted by the Food Standards Agency which contains some data on attitudes to GM food (The Consumer Attitude Survey).
  2. Interviews with regulators – What is the regulator’s gauge of public opinion and their view on the weight that should be given to it?
  3. Mapping of Regulatory Institutions in the field of Genomics.
  4. The Regulation pertaining to the two case-studies.
  5. The reports of consultations conducted by the relevant regulatory agencies which relate to the case-studies of GM foods, prenatal testing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis.
  6. The Cabinet Office Regulations on Consultation which outline the duties placed upon Independent Regulatory Agencies (IRAs) to incorporate public opinion into regulation.


The key data findings relate to the discrepancies and correlations between and across the different understandings of ‘public opinion’ and highlight the extent to which public opinion data (in different forms: survey data, public consultations) plays a role in the regulation of genomics.

Policy implications

The results of this project are highly policy relevant. The dissemination of the key findings will be through conference and published papers in key socio-legal and political science journals.


Selected Presentations

‘What Role does Public Concern Play in Setting the Agenda in the Regulation of Genomics?’ Genomics and Society International Conference, Amsterdam 17-18 April 2008.

‘Public Opinion & the Regulation of Risk in the case of Genomics’ CARR Postgraduate Conference, London School of Economics, 20-21 September 2007.

‘Attention Cycles and Genomics: The Interactions between Public Opinion, Technology and Regulation.’ European Consortium Political Researchers (ECPR), Pisa, 6-8 September 2007.

Further information

The project's duration includes a year’s maternity break, October 2009-October 2010. More information can be found on page.