Science and Engineering Indicators 2010: Public Attitudes Regarding S&T

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Publication date: 
26 January 2010

The recently-released “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010" has an insightful chapter on the public’s understanding of science, and attitudes about scientists and S&T.  The chapter commented on the importance of the public’s attitudes as follows:

“Generalized public support for S&T can make a difference in many ways. Public openness to technological change gives U.S. businesses opportunities to build a domestic customer base, create a foundation for worldwide technical competitiveness, and foster the national advantages that flow from pioneering innovations. Broad public and political support for long-term commitments to S&T research, especially in the face of pressing immediate needs, enables     ambitious proposals for sustained federal S&T investments to reach fruition. Public confidence that S&E community leaders are trustworthy, S&E research findings are reliable, and S&E experts bring valuable judgment and knowledge to bear on public issues permits scientific knowledge to have influence over practical affairs. In addition, positive public perceptions of S&E occupations encourage young people to pursue S&E careers.”

Selections from this chapter follow.  Many refer to the GSS, the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Support for Science:

“NSF surveys dating back to 1979 show that Americans endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T.  In practically any major American social grouping, few individuals express serious doubt about the promise of science.  In 2008, 43% of GSS respondents said that the benefits of scientific research strongly outweighed the harmful results and substantial percentages said that benefits either slightly outweighed harms (25%) or volunteered that the two were about equal (16%). Only 10% of respondents said that the harms either slightly or strongly outweighed benefits and the remainder said that they did not know. These numbers were generally consistent with those from earlier surveys. . . . Americans overwhelmingly agree that S&T will foster ‘more opportunities for the next generation,’ with about 89% expressing agreement in the 2008 GSS. . . . Agreement with this statement has been increasing moderately for over a decade.”

“Between 2002 and 2008 the [Virginia Commonwealth University] surveys asked respondents whether they believed that ‘scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives’ and found that agreement ranged between 87% and 92%. During the same period, between 88% and 92% agreed that ‘new technology used in medicine allows people to live longer and better.’”

Attitudes on Federal Spending:

“U.S. public opinion consistently and strongly supports federal spending on basic research. NSF surveys have repeatedly asked Americans whether ‘even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the Federal Government.’ Agreement with this statement has increased slightly since the early 1990s, with 84% favoring federal support in 2008 and only 12% opposing it. . . .”

“Responses to a GSS question about federal spending on scientific research provide further evidence of increasing public support for federal spending on scientific research.  Since 1981, the proportion of Americans who thought the government was spending too little on scientific research has increased, fluctuating between 29% and 34% in the 1980s, between 30% and 37% in the 1990s, and between 34% and 41% since 2001. In 2006 and 2008, only about 11% said that the government was spending too much in this area, the lowest levels registered since 1981. . . .

“Although support for federal research investment is at historically high levels, other kinds of federal spending generate even stronger public support. Support for increased spending is greater in numerous program areas, including health care (75%), education (74%), assistance to the poor (69%), environmental protection (66%), social security (59%), and mass transportation (46%). Still, based on the proportion of the U.S. population favoring increased spending, scientific research (38%) ranks well ahead of spending in national defense (24%), space exploration (14%), and assistance to foreign countries (11%).”

Public Confidence:

“Public confidence in the leaders of the scientific community is one indicator of public willingness to rely on science.  Since 1973, the GSS has tracked public confidence in the leadership of various institutions, including the scientific community. The GSS asks respondents whether they have ‘a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all’ in the leaders of different institutions. In 2008, the percentage of Americans expressing ‘a great deal of confidence’ in leaders of the scientific community (39%) was the same as those expressing ‘a great deal of confidence’ in leaders of the medical community (39%) and higher than for all other institutions except the military (51%).”

“Conversely, the percentage expressing ‘hardly any confidence at all’ was lower for scientific leaders than for leaders of any other institution about which this question was asked. . . .”

“Science usually ranks second or third in the public confidence surveys, with medicine or the military ranking first. The consistently high confidence in the leadership of the scientific community contrasts with a general decline in confidence in other institutional leaders over the years.”

Influence on Decision Making:

“The GSS data indicate that Americans believe that scientists should have a relatively large amount of influence on public decisions concerning these issues. . . . For the four issues [global climate change, stem cell research, federal income taxes, genetically modified food], the percentage who said that scientists should have either ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of influence ranged from 85% (‘global warming’) to 72% (‘income taxes’).  For each issue, the percentage was greater for scientists than for either of the other leadership groups.”

“Patterns for the question about which groups would ‘support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests’ were similar. For each issue, Americans placed the scientific group in one of the top two categories [on a five-pint scale]  much more often than they placed either of the other leadership groups in those categories.”

Scientific Disagreement:

“One factor that may limit the influence of scientific knowledge and the scientific community over public issues is the perception that significant scientific disagreement exists, making scientific knowledge uncertain. . . .  GSS respondents were asked to rate the degree of scientific consensus on a largely factual aspect of each of  the four issues using a five-point scale ranging from ‘near complete agreement’ to ‘no agreement at all.’ The degree of perceived consensus of medical researchers on ‘the importance of stem cells for research’ was the only item for which more than half of respondents (52%) chose one of the two points near the ‘complete agreement” end of the scale. . . .  In the case of the perceived consensus of environmental scientists on “the existence and causes of global warming,’ 42% chose one of these two points denoting a high degree of consensus. Lower proportions of respondents chose one of these two points when asked about the extent to which medical researchers agree on ‘the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods’ (28%) or economists on ‘the effects of reducing federal income taxes’ (20%).”

Ranking of Scientists:

“Scientists ranked higher in prestige than almost all occupations in the Harris surveys. In recent years, their ranking was comparable with that of nurses, doctors, firefighters, and teachers and ahead of military and police officers. Engineers’ standing is high and comparable to occupations clustered just below the top group (including clergy, military officers, and police officers).”

Science Education:

“In much public discourse about how Americans will fare in an increasingly S&T-driven world, quality education in science and mathematics is seen as crucial for both individuals and the nation as a whole.

“In the 2008 GSS, majorities of Americans in all demographic groups agreed that the quality of science and mathematics education in American schools is inadequate. Their level of agreement increases with education, science knowledge, income, and age. . . .  Dissatisfaction with the quality of math and science education increased from 63% in 1985 to 70% in 2008, but is still below its peak in 1992 (75%). . . .

“In addition, the proportion of Americans who indicated they believe the government is spending too little money in improving education in the biannual GSS surveys has been consistently over 70% since the early 1980s. Along with improving health care, this is one of the two top areas where the public feels government spending is too low. . . . “


Chapter 7 of this report, which is 49-pages long, reviews the public’s attitudes on science and technology, including sections on climate change, nanotechnology, animal research, stem and human cloning research, nuclear power, pseudoscience, and scientific literary.