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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Introduction

Chapter Overview

Science and technology (S&T) affect all aspects of American life, including work, leisure, family, and civic activities. In the workforce, Americans use technology to improve productivity in ways that could not have been imagined a generation ago, applying recently invented tools and applications. In their leisure time, they entertain themselves with high technology electronic products and make friends, communicate, and stay informed about the world through the Internet and social media. As citizens, they may engage in discussions on climate change, stem cell research, and nuclear power—issues about which atmospheric scientists, microbiologists, and nuclear engineers have formal training and expertise—or benefit from advances in new technologies.

It is increasingly difficult for Americans to be competent workers, consumers, and citizens without some degree of competency in S&T. How the American public collectively deal with S&T-related issues may, in turn, affect what kinds of S&T development the United States will support. Therefore, this chapter presents not only indicators about media sources, information, and knowledge of S&T, but indicators of people's attitudes about S&T-related issues as well. To put U.S. data in context, this chapter examines trend indicators for past years and comparative indicators for other countries.

Chapter Organization

This chapter is divided into four main sections. The first section includes indicators of the public's sources of information about, level of interest in, and active involvement with S&T. The second section reports indicators of public knowledge, including measures of factual knowledge of science and engineering and people's understanding of the scientific process. When possible, American adults' understanding of science is compared to that of American students. The third and fourth sections of the chapter describe public attitudes toward S&T. The third section presents data on attitudes about S&T in general, including support for government funding of basic research, confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, perceptions of the prestige of S&E occupations, and opinions about how much influence science and scientists should have on public affairs. The fourth section addresses public attitudes on issues in which S&T plays an important role, such as the environment, climate change, nuclear power, the quality of science and math education, and the use of animals in scientific research. It also includes indicators of public opinion about several emerging lines of research and new technologies, including stem cell research, cloning, genetically modified (GM) food, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology.

A Note About Data and Terminology

This chapter emphasizes trends over time, patterns of variation within the U.S. population, and international patterns. It reviews survey data from national samples with sound representative sampling designs. The emphasis in the text is on the trends and patterns presented in the data. All survey data are subject to numerous sources of error; interpretation of the data should be mindful of the limits of survey data. Caution is especially warranted for data from surveys that omit significant portions of the target population, have low response rates, or have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording. (See sidebars, "U.S. Survey Data Sources" and "International Survey Data Sources.") Most of the international comparisons involve identical questions asked in different countries. However, language and cultural differences can affect how respondents interpret questions and can introduce numerous complexities, so international comparisons require careful consideration.

Throughout this chapter, the terminology used in the text reflects the wording in the corresponding survey question. In general, survey questions asking respondents about their primary sources of information, interest in issues in the news, and general attitudes use the phrase "science and technology." Thus, "S&T" is used when discussing these data. Survey questions asking respondents about their confidence in institutional leaders, the prestige of occupations, and their views on different disciplines use terms such as "scientific community," "scientists," "researchers," and "engineers," so "S&E" is used when examining issues related to occupations, careers, and fields of research. Although science and engineering are distinct fields, national survey data that make this distinction are scarce.