Interest, Information Sources, and Involvement

Trends in Americans’ understanding of and attitudes about topics such as S&T depend, in part, on how much exposure they get to such content throughout their lives, as well as how much attention they pay to such content (Slater, Hayes, and Ford 2007). Exposure and attention to S&T can make residents more informed, shape their attitudes, and help them make decisions that are better for themselves, their families, and their communities. Media use may also foster a desire to seek and consider new information (Rimal, Flora, and Schooler 1999). All of these issues are interconnected and are meant to provide indicators of where S&T fits in peoples’ lives.

This section reviews overall expressed interest in media reports about S&T and where the public turns to within the news media when looking for S&T information. It concludes with indicators of personal involvement in S&T-related activities through visits to museums and other cultural institutions.

Public Interest in S&T

International Comparisons

Outside of the United States, a majority of residents of other countries for which there are 2015 or 2016 data also typically report high levels of interest in various science topics—particularly, health. Direct comparison is problematic, but the available evidence suggests that the United States often has similar or higher levels of interest in science topics than other countries. In Asia, for example, a large-scale 2015 survey of Chinese respondents found that 93% said they were interested in health topics, which is similar to the 95% of Americans who expressed high or moderate interest. Similarly, 78% of Chinese respondents said they were interested in new scientific discoveries, compared to 84% of Americans who expressed interest. For new inventions and technologies, 75% of Chinese said they were interested in new inventions and technologies, compared to 88% of Americans who expressed some interest (CRISP 2016). In Europe, expressed interest appears to be lower than in the United States or China. For the United Kingdom (UK), the Wellcome Trust (2016) found that 77% of UK residents said they were interested in medical research, similar to previous years, and 63% of UK residents said they were interested in hearing directly from scientists about the scientists’ research. In Germany in 2016, 41% said they had a considerable interest in scientific topics, and an additional 43% of Germans said they had some interest (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In Switzerland, about half chose either 5 (20%) or 4 (31%) on a 5-point measure that asked them to describe their interest in science and research as somewhere between “no interest at all” and an “enormous amount of interest” (Schafer and Metag 2016). In northern Europe, about 75% of Finns said they were interested in following news about medicine, 73% said they were interested in general science news, and 68% said they were interested in environmental news (FSSI 2016). Science interest in South America appears to be somewhat lower, with 58% of respondents in Chile saying in 2016 that they were interested in science (CONICYT 2016) and 52% of Argentinians saying that they were interested in S&T. About 70% of Argentinians, however, said they were interested in medicine and health (MCTIP 2015).

Further back, a 2013 pan-European study found that 53% of Europeans were “very interested” or “fairly interested” in S&T versus 87% of Americans, who were “very interested” or “moderately interested.” The 27 European countries surveyed display a broad range of interest levels, with a high of 77% in Sweden and lows of 34% and 35% in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, respectively (European Commission 2013).

S&T Information Sources

International Comparisons

International patterns of media sources for news appear to differ from those in the United States, especially in the continuing importance of television. However, different question wording and the fact that many international surveys allow specifying more than one news source prevent direct comparison. For example, in China, 93% of respondents said that television was a main source for S&T information, while 53% said the Internet and 39% said newspapers were among their main sources (CRISP 2016). In the UK, individuals were more likely to report that they had heard about or seen medical research on television (43%) than through a website or newspaper (21% and 19%). However, 90% said they had looked for information about medical research online. In Germany, 67% said they often (33%) or sometimes (34%) get information about science and research from television, compared to 54% for newspapers and magazines and 44% for the Internet (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In Finland, 81% said television was “very important” or “fairly important” as a source of science and research information, compared to 71% who said that newspapers were personally important and 70% who indicated the Internet was important (FSSI 2016). In South America, 39% of Chileans said they always or almost always watch S&T or nature programs on television, 23% said they always or almost always use the Internet to search for science information, and 19% said the same about reading such information in newspapers (CONICYT 2016).


International Comparisons

Other countries tend to have a similar or lower likelihood of having participated in the informal science activities for which there are U.S. data. In 2015, 54% of Chinese respondents said they had visited a zoo or aquarium in the last year, 22% said they had visited a natural history museum, and 23% said they had visited an S&T museum (CRISP 2016). About 46% of Germans said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, and 40% said they had been to a science or technology museum in the last year, although the German survey did not differentiate between natural history museums and more S&T-focused museums (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In the UK, 36% said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, and 20% said they had been to a science museum or an S&T museum or center (Wellcome Trust 2016). About 31% of Chileans said they had been to a zoo or aquarium in the last year, and 15% said they had been to an S&T museum (CONICYT 2016).