SIXTH-FORM biology lessons have a dramatic impact on British teenagers' attitudes to genetic engineering, the Association for Science Education conference was told this week.
A-level biologists were found to be much more supportive of genetic engineering than non-biologists, John Raffan of Cambridge University's School of Education found.
However, British students were generally more sceptical about biotechnology than their Taiwanese counterparts, his international study revealed.
Fewer than one in 10 British respondents said they regarded genetic engineering as beneficial, compared to nearly a quarter of Taiwanese students.
Mr Raffan's study, due to be published in the Journal of Biological Education, used questionnaires and focus groups to compare the attitudes of 153 British sixth-formers with those of 183 Taiwanese 17- and 18-year-olds.
He reported: "An interesting outcome of this study is that education in biology appears to affect attitudes towards various aspects of biotechnology more often with UK students than with Taiwanese students. A possible reason is that UK students have more opportunities to discuss issues that may arise in genetic engineering - for example in general studies classes.
"In the UK, students' attitudes appear to become more favourable through biology education. Those who were studying biology were much more likely o accept the genetic engineering of plants and give more support to research on the genetic engineering of animals."
The Taiwanese biology curriculum was judged to be narrowly focused on examinations and as 16 to 19-year-olds study around 10 subjects there was limited time for discussion of social and ethical issues.
The study also found British girls were much more concerned about animal rights than their male classmates. More than two- thirds of male British students supported transferring cancer genes to mice in order to study the disease - compared to just 30 per cent of female students. In Taiwan, no significant gender difference was found with more than six out of 10 students thinking such experiments acceptable.
All students considered genetically-engineered animals to be less acceptable than genetically engineered plants.
Mr Raffan added that it was not the purpose of biotechnology education to persuade students to have more positive attitudes.
But he said: "Good biotechnology education not only increases students' knowledge, but also helps them to understand the risks, benefits and disadvantages of biotechnology.
"Discussion of ethical issues... (in science lessons) should help communication between scientists and the public."
"Biotechnology: students' knowledge and attitudes in the UK and Taiwan", by Shao-Yen Chen and John Raffan is available from Helen Benson, Institute of Biology, 20 Queensbury Place, London SW7 2DZ. Tel. 0171 581 8333. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org