Survey Finds Broad Public Support for Federal Basic Research Funding

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Publication date: 
25 February 2015

The Pew Research Center, acting in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has released two important surveys on the American public’s and scientists’ views on a wide variety of science-related activities.

The first survey was released on January 29, the second on February 15.  Both are important reading.  The second survey, “How Scientists Engage the Public” looked at the use of social media and other forms of communication by scientists.  For this second study, Pew surveyed 3,748 scientists belonging to AAAS.  A key finding was that 87 percent agreed that “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.”

With the return of Congress this week, authorization and appropriations hearings continue on the Obama Administration’s FY 2016 budget request for federal science and technology agencies.   In this week alone, hearings are scheduled for the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NASA.  These hearings are an integral part of the annual appropriations process that will set the budgets for the next fiscal year.  Among the topics that will be covered during these hearings is the support of basic research.

Members of Congress have demonstrated awareness of and appreciation for basic research over the years.  The Pew Research Center found broad public support for federal basic research.

The January 29 survey, “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” asked two questions to the public relating to basic research.  Pew surveyed 2,002 individuals by telephone; the margin of error for the entire survey is +/- 3.1 percent.  The results from the latest survey in summer 2014 were compared to those taken in spring 2009.

Surveyed individuals in the public were asked, “In your opinion, do government investments in basic scientific research usually pay off in the long run, or are they not worth it?”

In the 2014 survey:
- 71 percent replied “Yes, pay off in the long run.”
- 24 percent replied “No, aren’t worth it.”

In the 2009 survey:
- 73 percent replied “Yes, pay off in the long run.”
- 18 percent replied “No, aren’t worth it.”

Similar responses were given in both surveys when “Engineering and Technology” replaced “Basic scientific research” in the question.


Surveyed individuals were then asked, “Which of these comes closer to your view?”
- In 2014, 61 percent selected: “Government investment in research is ESSENTIAL for scientific progress.”
- In 2009, the figure was 60 percent.

- In 2014, 34 percent selected “Private investment will ensure that enough scientific progress is made, even without government investment.”
- In 2009, the figure was 29 percent.

These results can be found on pages 83-84 of the survey.

An analysis on page 34 of the survey notes:

“Support for government funding of research tends to be widespread across the demographic spectrum. Fully 74% of women and 68% of men say that government funding of basic science pays off in the long run; men and women are about equally likely to say that government funding of engineering pays off in the long run (72% each). College graduates tend to express more support for research funding than do those with less formal education. Similarly, younger generations are a bit more likely than older ones to say research funding pays off in the long run, but a majority of all age groups say that government funding of both basic science and engineering research pays off in the long run.”

The survey asked questions about a wide range of other topics.  A Summary of Findings starts on page 5.