Introduced rats prey heavily on native bird species in New Zealand. Photograph by David Mudge.

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Having caused a catastrophic decline of animal species, people now look to new technologies to reverse the damage. Gene drive is a potential tool that could increase the proportion of male offspring in rat populations and eventually reduce their overall numbers. Some suggest this tool could eliminate rats from islands, like New Zealand, where rats have a devastating impact on native species. While holding much potential, the New Zealand public has shown hesitation towards genetic tools. In our study, we investigated how four articles, each emphasizing a different aspect of gene drive (i.e., humaneness, pragmatism, decision making, and scientific innovation), impacted opinion towards gene drive alongside people’s emotional responses, biases, and perceived risks towards the tool.

The results of our study told a two-sided story. On one hand, it seems that entrenched opinions about gene drive have not been established in New Zealand and people viewed the scientific articles as credible and objective. On the other hand, for some, the scientific articles increased perceived risk of gene drive (despite supporting the tool overall).

Moving forward, public engagement over gene drive for conservation gains is likely to be more constructive and meaningful if it begins before public opinions are well-established (i.e., it should begin now). This engagement however cannot rely solely on providing scientific information, as this may enhance fear for some and, over time, may polarize opinions. Using communication that emphasizes the sanctity of all life and humaneness of gene drive may therefore be key to facilitating an open dialogue.