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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

Television and the Internet are the primary sources Americans use for science and technology (S&T) information. The Internet is the main source of information for learning about specific scientific issues such as global climate change or biotechnology.

  • More Americans select television as their primary source of S&T information than any other medium.
  • The Internet ranks second among sources of S&T information, and its margin over other sources is large and has been growing.
  • Internet users do not always assume that online S&T information is accurate. About four out of five have checked on the reliability of information at least once.

Continuing a long-standing pattern, Americans consistently express high levels of interest in S&T in surveys. However, other indicators, such as the types of news they follow closely, suggest a lower level of interest.

  • High levels of interest in S&T are part of a long-standing trend, with more than 80% of Americans reporting they were "very" or "moderately" interested in new scientific discoveries. But relative to other news topics, interest in S&T is not particularly high.
  • As with many news topics, the percentage of Americans who say they follow "science and technology" news "closely" has declined over the last 10 years.
  • Recent surveys in other countries, including South Korea, China, and much of Europe, indicate that the overall level of public interest in "new scientific discoveries" and "use of new inventions and technologies" tends to be higher in the United States.
  • Interest in "environmental pollution" or "the environment" is similarly high in the U.S., Europe, South Korea, and Brazil. About 9 in 10 respondents in each country expressed interest in this topic.

In 2008, a majority of Americans said they had visited an informal science institution such as a zoo or a natural history museum within the past year. This proportion is generally consistent with results from surveys conducted since 1979, but slightly lower than the proportion recorded in 2001.

  • Americans with more formal education are much more likely to engage in informal science activities.
  • Compared with the United States, visits to informal science institutions tend to be less common in Europe, Japan, China, Russia, and Brazil.

Public Knowledge About S&T

Many Americans do not give correct answers to questions about basic factual knowledge of science or the scientific inquiry process.

  • Americans' factual knowledge about science is positively related to their formal education level, income level, the number of science and math courses they have taken, and their verbal ability.
  • People who score well on long-standing knowledge measures that test for information typically learned in school also appear to know more about new science related topics such as nanotechnology.

Levels of factual knowledge of science in the United States are comparable to those in Europe and appear to be higher than in Japan, China, or Russia.

  • In the United States, levels of factual knowledge of science have been stable; Europe shows evidence of recent improvement in factual knowledge of science.
  • In European countries, China, and Korea demographic variations in factual knowledge are similar to those in the United States.

Compared to the mid-1990s, Americans show a modest improvement in understanding the process of scientific inquiry in recent years.

  • Americans' understanding of scientific inquiry is strongly associated with their factual knowledge of science and level of education.
  • Americans' scores on questions measuring their understanding of the logic of experimentation and controlling variables do not differ by sex. In contrast, men tend to score higher than women on factual knowledge questions in the physical sciences.

Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Americans in all demographic groups consistently endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T.

  • In 2008, 68% of Americans said that the benefits of scientific research have strongly outweighed the harmful results, and only 10% said harmful results slightly or strongly outweighed the benefits.
  • Nearly 9 in 10 Americans agree with the statement "because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation."
  • Americans also express some reservations about science. Nearly half of Americans agree that "science makes our way of life change too fast."
  • Americans tend to have more favorable attitudes about the promise of S&T than Europeans, Russians, and the Japanese. Attitudes about the promise of S&T in China and South Korea are as positive as those in the United States and in some instances even more favorable. However, residents of China and Korea are more likely than Americans to think that "science makes our way of life change too fast."

Support for government funding of scientific research is strong.

  • In 2008, 84% of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research.
  • More than one-third of Americans (38%) said in 2008 that the government spends too little on scientific research and 11% said the government spends too much. Other kinds of federal spending such as health care and education generate stronger public support.

The public expresses confidence in science leaders.

  • In 2008, more Americans expressed a "great deal" of confidence in scientific leaders than in the leaders of any other institution except the military.
  • Despite a general decline in confidence in institutional leaders that has spanned more than three decades, confidence in science leaders has remained relatively stable. The proportion of Americans indicating "a great deal of confidence" in the scientific community oscillated between 35% and 45% in surveys conducted since 1973. In every survey, the scientific community has ranked either second or third among institutional leaders.
  • On science-related public policy issues (including global climate change, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods), Americans believe that science leaders, compared with leaders in other sectors, are relatively knowledgeable and impartial and should be relatively influential. However, they also perceive a considerable lack of consensus among scientists on these issues.

Over half of Americans (56%) accord scientists "very great prestige." Ratings for engineers are lower (40% indicate "very great prestige"), but nonetheless better than those of most other occupations.

  • In 2008, scientists ranked higher in prestige than 23 other occupations surveyed, a ranking similar to that of firefighters.
  • Between 2007 and 2008, engineers' rating of "very high prestige" increased from 30% of survey respondents to 40%.

Public Attitudes About Specific S&T Issues

Americans have recently become more concerned about environmental quality. However, concern about the environment is outranked by concern about the economy, unemployment, and the war in Iraq.

  • Between 2004 and 2008, the proportion of Americans expressing "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of worry about the quality of the environment increased from 62% to 74%. Nonetheless, when asked to name the country's top problem in early 2009, only about 2% mentioned environmental issues.
  • In 2008, 67% of Americans believed that the government was spending too little to reduce pollution and 7% thought it was spending too much.
  • The trend in support for environmental protection is less evident when Americans are asked about trade-offs between environmental protection and economic growth. In March 2009, 51% of all Americans indicated that economic growth should take precedence over the environment.

Americans support the development of alternative sources of energy.

  • A majority of Americans favor government spending to develop alternate sources of fuel for cars (86%), to develop solar and wind power (79%), and to enforce environmentally friendly regulations such as setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry (84%).
  • Since the mid-1990s, American public opinion on nuclear energy has been evenly divided, but the proportion of Americans favoring the use of nuclear power as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S. increased from 53% in 2007 to 59% in 2009.
  • Europeans are divided on nuclear energy, but support is on the rise. The proportion of Europeans who said they favored energy production by nuclear power stations increased from 37% in 2005 to 44% in 2008, while the proportion opposing it decreased from 54% in 2005 to 45% in 2008. Support for nuclear energy varies a great deal among countries in this region. Citizens in countries that have operational nuclear power plants are more likely to support nuclear energy than those in other countries.

Despite the increased funding of nanotechnology and growing numbers of nanotechnology products in the market, Americans remain largely unfamiliar with this technology.

  • Even among respondents who had heard of nanotechnology, knowledge levels were not high.
  • When nanotechnology is defined in surveys, Americans express favorable attitudes overall.

A majority of Americans favor medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos. However, Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to reproductive cloning and wary of innovations using "cloning technology."

  • Support for embryonic stem cell research is similar to previous years. In 2008, 57% of Americans favored embryonic stem cell research while 36% opposed it. A higher proportion (70%) favors stem cell research when it does not involve human embryos.
  • More than three-quarters of Americans oppose human cloning.

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010