Chapter 7 | Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding
This section provides information on the public's views about the environment, specific environmental issues, energy technologies, and climate. Overall, the evidence suggests that, while general views about S&T are largely stable, Americans recently have become more concerned about a wide range of environmental issues. Some of these issues—especially climate change and energy technologies—are often the subject of public policy debate and news interest.
Overall Concern about Environmental Quality
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Overall, measured U.S. concern about the environment appeared to reach a new high in 2017, just 3 years after hitting a historic low. In 2017, about 47% of respondents said that they personally worry a “great deal” about the quality of the environment (Gallup 2017b) (Figure 7-17). Another 30% said they worried a “fair amount.” The previous high had been the 43% who expressed a “great deal” of worry in 2007, while the previous low had been 31% in 2014. The percentage of Americans saying that the quality of the environment is getting worse grew to 56% in 2016 and 57% in 2017 after hovering between 49% and 51% between 2009 and 2015. The current level of belief in a worsening environment is still relatively low compared to 2008, when 68% of Americans said they thought the environment was getting worse. And, while worry about the future is high, Americans’ rating of the current overall quality of the environment was similar to historical averages in 2016. About 46% rated the environment as excellent (6%) or good (40%), similar to previous years.
For comparison, the availability and affordability of health care was the issue with which the highest proportion of Americans expressed a “great deal” of worry in 2017 (57%) (Newport 2017). The percentage expressing a “great deal” of worry about the environment (47%) was similar to a number of other issues, including crime and violence (47%), hunger and homelessness (47%), the economy (46%), and federal spending and the budget deficit (49%).
Concern about specific environmental issues: 1989–2017
Data are not available for all years. Responses to the following: How much do you personally worry about [specific environmental issues]: a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all? Figure shows only responses for "a great deal." Poll is conducted annually in March.
Gallup, Climate Change: Environment, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1615/environment.aspx#, accessed 12 April 2017.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Within Europe, a 2014 Eurobarometer survey on the environment included a broad range of questions about attitudes and behavior (European Commission 2014b). As is often the case with international data, these questions are not always directly comparable to those for the United States in terms of wording and how respondents are selected for inclusion in a survey. Overall, 95% of Europeans said that protecting the environment was “very important” (53%) or “fairly important” (42%), similar to 2011 (94%). About three-quarters of respondents (77%) also indicated that they “totally agreed” (35%) or “tend[ed]” to agree that environmental issues have a direct impact on their daily life. This was also stable from 2011 when 76% agreed (see [NSB 2016] for a discussion of specific countries).
Assessment of Specific Environmental Problems
U.S. Patterns and Trends
The 2016 GSS included several questions about specific environmental issues. These questions had previously appeared as part of the GSS in 1993, 1994, 2000, and 2010, and this makes it possible to provide a limited discussion of possible changes over time (Figure 7-18; Appendix Table 7-32 and Appendix Table 7-33). Gallup collects annual data on public opinion about a wide range of environmental issues against which the GSS can sometimes be compared. In addition to the specific findings, it is noteworthy that worry about specific environmental issues move together over time along with worry about the overall quality of the environment.
Perceived danger of specific health and environmental issues: Selected years, 1993–2016
Data are not available for all years. Data show the percentage of respondents giving a response of "extremely dangerous" or "very dangerous" to the following questions: In general, do you think that pollution of America's rivers, lakes, and streams is…; In general, do you think that air pollution caused by industry is…; In general, do you think that a rise in the world's temperature caused by the 'greenhouse effect' is…; In general, do you think that nuclear power stations are…; and Do you think that modifying the genes of certain crops is....
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1993, 2000); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2010, 2016).
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Water pollution is the environmental issue that most concerns Americans. According to the GSS, about 79% of Americans in 2016 said they thought water pollution was “extremely” or “very” dangerous to the environment; this proportion has grown since 1994, when the percentage was 61% (66% in 1993) (Appendix Table 7-32). Gallup (2017b) also found that water issues were the environmental topics that most concerned Americans. About 61% of Americans expressed a “great deal” of worry about drinking-water pollution in 2016, and 63% expressed this level of worry in 2017. In 2016 and 2017, respectively, about 56% and 57% of Americans reported similar levels of worry about pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.
After water pollution, air pollution was the next issue about which the highest proportion of Americans worried. Within the GSS data, 73% of Americans said they felt that industrial pollution presented a high level of danger in 2016, and this percentage grew from a low of 53% in 1994 (61% in 1993) (Appendix Table 7-33). Gallup (2017b) found that 43% of Americans expressed a “great deal” of worry about air pollution in 2016, and this grew to 47% in 2017.
Concern about water and air pollution is fairly evenly distributed across demographic groups within the GSS, although those with relatively lower levels of education have somewhat lower average concern. Higher levels of science knowledge were also associated with more concern about water (Appendix Table 7-32 and Appendix Table 7-33). For example, about 67% of those in the lowest quartile of knowledge said they thought water pollution was “extremely or very dangerous,” whereas 84% of those in the top quartile of science knowledge had such views (Appendix Table 7-32). For industrial air pollution, only those in the lowest quartile of science knowledge were substantially different, with 67% indicating they saw such pollution as “extremely dangerous or very dangerous” compared to 73% of those in the second quartile of knowledge, 75% of those in the third quartile, and 76% of those in the top quartile (Appendix Table 7-33).
Gallup also collects data on public concern about extinction and the loss of tropical rain forests. In 2017, 44% of Americans said they worried “a great deal” about the extinction of plant and animal species, and the same percentage said they worried “a great deal” about the loss of tropical rain forests. These responses are somewhat lower than worry about water or air pollution but higher than worry about climate change.
One noteworthy difference between the Gallup data (Figure 7-17) and the NSF data within the GSS (Figure 7-18) is that the Gallup data show a drop in concern about various environmental issues between about 2000 and 2010. In contrast, the NSF data show no such pattern. However, both Gallup and NSF data show increasing concerns after 2010.
The 2014 Eurobarometer on the environment asked respondents to indicate the 5 main environmental issues that they were worried about from a list of 14. Although water pollution was the issue most worried about in the United States, air pollution (56%) was the most commonly named issue in Europe. This was followed by water pollution (50%), the growing amount of waste (43%), the health effect of chemicals used in everyday products (43%), and the depletion of natural resources (36%). Climate change was not included on the list because it was the focus of a separate report earlier in 2014 (European Commission 2014).
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Climate change (often referred to as global warming, especially in past decades) remains a central, and often divisive, environmental issue for many Americans, even though scientists point out that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that climate change is already occurring, that it will have a wide range of negative effects on Americans and residents of other countries, and that it is largely the result of human activities (NAS and Royal Society 2014). The importance of this issue to national and international debates about policy and economic implications means that it has also been the subject of widespread polling over more than two decades. Overall, the available data suggest that the percentage of Americans in 2017 who accept that climate change is partly caused by humans and who are concerned about this phenomenon are approaching past highs. This is consistent with overall increasing concern about the environment in recent years. Different question wording, however, can result in somewhat different results, and it is therefore helpful to look for patterns of response over time and across surveys. It is also worth separately considering overall concern about climate change, belief that climate change is occurring, and views about whether scientists agree among themselves.
With regard to concern, a single question in the GSS about climate change suggests that 55% of Americans think that a rise in the world’s temperature caused by the greenhouse effect—an earlier term used in discussions of climate change that is used here to preserve comparability over time—is either “extremely dangerous or very dangerous” (Appendix Table 7-34). This is up from the low of 35% in 1994 (and from 41% in 1993 and 40% in 2000). The 2016 percentage is also higher than the results of a 2010 GSS question—using the term climate change—that found that 48% of Americans saw high levels of danger from the phenomenon.
The relatively high levels of concern about climate change seen in the GSS data are consistent with data from Gallup (Saad 2017). Gallup has polled on “global warming” since 1989, when it found that 63% of Americans worried a “great deal” (35%) or a “fair amount” (28%) about the issue. In March 2017, the comparable statistic was similar with 66% saying they either worry a “great deal” (45%) or a “fair amount” (21%) (Figure 7-19). This indicator, however, has fluctuated between a low of 51% (2004) and a high of 72% (2000). A data series from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College (2017) that began in 2009 also suggests a similar pattern within recent years. According to these surveys, the percentage of Americans who were “very” or “somewhat concerned” fell from 58% in 2009 to 50% in 2011 but then increased to 60% in 2012.
Belief in global warming and confidence in that belief: 1989–2017
GMU = George Mason University.
Questions were not asked in all years. How concerned are you about the issue of global warming? (Muhlenberg and Michigan) was asked in 2017, 2016, 2012, 2011, and 2009 only of respondents who answered yes to the question From what you've read and heard. Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades? In 2013, a split sample of the entire sample (n = 947) was used, with 477 respondents asked about "global warming" and 470 respondents asked about "climate change." However, responders to How concerned are you about the issue of global warming? are shown as percentages of the total population.
Pew Research Center, The Politics of Climate, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/, accessed 16 February 2017, Public and Scientists' Views on Science and Society (2015), http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/01/PI_ScienceandSociety_Report_012915.pdf, accessed 16 February 2017, and Catholics Divided Over Global Warming (2015), http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/06/Catholics-climate-change-06-16-full.pdf, accessed 16 February 2017; Gallup, Climate Change: Environment, https://www.gallup.com/poll/1615/environment.aspx#, accessed 16 February 2017, and Gallup Social Series: Environment, Final Topline 1–5 March 2017; Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser‐Renouf C, Rosenthal S, Cutler M, Climate Change in the American Mind: November 2016, Yale University and George Mason University, New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (2017), http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Climate-Change-American-Mind-November-2016.pdf, accessed 16 February 2017; Leiserowitz A, Maibach E, Roser-Renouf C, Feinberg G, Rosenthal S, Climate Change in the American Mind: March 2015, Yale University and George Mason University, New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (2015), https://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/files/Global-Warming-CCAM-March-2015.pdf, accessed 16 February 2017; Muhlenberg College and the University of Michigan, National Surveys on Energy and Environment, http://closup.umich.edu/national-surveys-on-energy-and-environment/nsee-survey-pages.php, accessed 22 June 2017.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
It is also noteworthy that, within these data, the percentage saying they worry a “great deal” about climate change reached a new high of 45% in 2017. Much of the shift seems to come from the percentage saying that they worry a “fair amount,” which shrank from 27% in 2016 to 21% in 2017. A similar percentage of people are not particularly concerned about climate change. The percentage saying they worry about climate change “only a little” stayed about the same (18% in 2017, similar to previous years). The percentage reporting “no worry at all” about climate change went from 19% in 2016 to 16% in 2017, having dropped from a high of 29% in 2010.
Also, while about two-thirds of Americans say they worry about global warming, 42% told Gallup in 2017 that they believed “global warming would pose a serious threat” to their way of life in their lifetime. This suggests that some of those who worry about global warming perceive the negative impacts of climate change to be more long term rather than immediate. As with the question about worry about global warming, responses to the “serious threat” question have fluctuated over time, although the level has stayed between 31% (2001) and 40% (2008) since 2001. In the short term, this number has risen from 34% in 2013 (Saad 2017).
Data from researchers at Yale University and George Mason University (GMU) (Leiserowitz et al. 2017) and the Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016a) show similar patterns. The Yale-GMU scholars also found that Americans think that a range of negative events are becoming more likely because of climate change, including more severe weather (Leiserowitz et al. 2017). The Pew Research Center further found that about 78% said they thought storms were “very” (42%) or “fairly” (36%) likely to become more severe. Similar proportions of Americans said they thought it was at least “fairly” likely that climate change would cause rising sea levels that erode beaches and shorelines (76%), more drought or water shortages (76%), damage to forests and plant life (77%), and harm to animal wildlife and their habitats (77%) (Funk and Kennedy 2016a).
Scientific research points to humans as a primary force behind climate change. However, while most Americans agree climate change may be occurring, many believe that these changes are part of natural cycles. Data from the Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016a) show that 48% of respondents tended to believe that the Earth is getting warmer, mostly because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. Another 26% said they thought the Earth is getting warmer “mostly because of natural patterns.” The percentage pointing to “human activity” as the cause of temperature changes represents an increase from the Pew Research Center’s (2015a) data for recent years, where belief in a human cause dipped as low as 36% in 2011, but is largely consistent with public attitudes from the mid-2000s, when belief in a human cause of climate change peaked at 50% (2006). Gallup reported in 2017 that 68% of Americans believe that human activities are the most important cause of climate change, while 29% attributed warming to natural causes (Saad 2017). In 2016, 63% of Gallup respondents attributed global warming to humans. The previous high had been 61% (a high reached in 2001, 2003, and 2007). The differences between the Pew Research Center and Gallup data likely reflect question wording. The Gallup question asks respondents to choose between human or natural causes, whereas the Pew Research Center provides a range of options.
Many Americans also do not appear to know that the vast majority of scientists believe there is solid evidence of climate change and that humans are the dominant cause. The extent to which Americans are unaware of this, however, varies based on the survey; again, question wording likely accounts for much of the difference in the responses. The Yale-GMU research (Leiserowitz et al. 2017) found that only 15% of their respondents said that they thought more than 90% of climate scientists “have concluded human-caused global warming is happening.” The Pew Research Center reported that about 27% of its respondents believed that “almost all” climate scientists say that “human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change” (Funk and Kennedy 2016a). Gallup found that 71% of Americans said they thought “most scientists” believe “global warming is occurring” (Saad 2017). This surpasses the previous high of 65% in 2015.
The most recent internationally comparable, representative data on public views about climate change continue to suggest that, on average, about 7 in 10 of those surveyed in a range of countries see climate change as serious. In this regard, Americans appear relatively less concerned about the issue than residents of most other countries. A 2015 multicountry study by the Pew Research Center found that the United States, countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as China, and countries in the Middle East had relatively low levels of concern about global change compared to residents of Europe, Africa, and Latin America (Stokes, Wike, and Carle 2015). For example, 74% of American, 75% of Chinese, and 79% of Jordanian respondents said “global climate change” was at least “somewhat” serious, while 93% of French, 87% of German, and 91% of Italian respondents gave such a response. Further, in South America, 98% of Brazilians, 98% of Chileans, and 93% of Mexicans said they saw climate change as serious. In Africa, 92% of Ugandans, 89% of Kenyans, and 84% of Nigerians said they saw climate change as serious. Related questions showed similar patterns of response, although there were typically some countries in each region (except South America) where attitudes about the seriousness of climate change were more like those held in the United States. These countries were among the least concerned within their regions and included, for example, the UK (77%), Turkey (74%), Indonesia (74%), and South Africa (73%). The countries where the smallest percentage of people said they saw climate change as serious were Pakistan (65%) and Israel (67%), although Pakistan had an unusually high number of respondents (19%) who chose not to answer the question or said they did not know if climate change was a serious problem.
Within Europe, the European Commission (2015) conducted a special Eurobarometer in 2015 on climate change that found that 91% of Europeans see climate change as a problem. Specifically, respondents were asked to use a 10-point scale, where 1 indicated “not at all a serious problem” and 10 indicated “an extremely serious problem,” and found that 69% chose a number between 7 and 10 and another 22% chose 5 or 6. The overall numbers were nearly identical to the results of surveys in 2011 and 2013, but there were still changes within countries. There was also substantial variation between countries. For example, 87% of Greeks, 81% of Italians, and 80% of Bulgarians gave an answer of 7 or higher, but only 37% of Latvians, 53% of those in the UK, and 58% of the Dutch gave such a response. Many of the largest European countries were near the European average. For example, about 69% of French, 72% of Germans, and 79% of Spaniards chose between 7 and 10. The biggest changes were in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, the responses between 7 and 10 increased 13 percentage points to 80%; in Romania, the responses rose 11 percentage points to 74%. The biggest declines were in Austria and Slovakia. Austria declined 8 percentage points to 69%, and Slovakia declined 12 percentage points to 68%.
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Public opinion about energy has also fluctuated in recent years in response to accidents such as the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, changing energy prices, and the emergence of issues such as hydraulic fracturing (sometimes termed fracking) as a technique to extract natural gas from the Earth. The range of energy events and issues, however, means that although specific events may have short-term effects, consistent long-term trends in public opinion about energy are rare. Overall, 23% of Americans said that “the energy situation in the United States” was “very serious” in 2017 (Newport 2017), down from recent highs of 45% in 2011 and 46% in 2008—when, for example, gasoline prices were relatively high. The 2017 figure is thus close to a historic low in concern. Similarly, the percentage of Americans saying that they worried “a great deal” about “the availability and affordability of energy” matched historic lows of 27% in both 2016 and 2017, a period of relatively low gas prices compared to recent years. The last time worry was as low was 2003, a year in which gas prices were also relatively low (EIA 2017).
Gallup (2017a) also reported that, in both 2016 and 2017, a majority of Americans (59%) said “protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies—such as oil, gas, and coal—which the U.S. produces.” In contrast, 34% said that the “development of U.S. energy supplies…should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” The percentage choosing the environment over development of energy supplies was the highest it has ever been but is similar to the 58% who gave this response in 2007.
Americans also appear to support energy alternatives to fossil fuels. Gallup respondents are asked annually how they think the country should deal with “the nation’s energy problems” and then asked to choose between emphasizing production of “oil, gas and coal supplies” or “conservation by consumers.” The percentage choosing to “emphasize conservation” has risen from a low of 48% in 2011 to 61% in 2017 (Gallup 2017a). This is approaching the previous high of 64% that Gallup found in 2007. An alternative question asks respondents to choose between fossil fuel production and “the development of alternative energy such as wind and solar power.” With this question, Gallup found that 71% of Americans chose alternative energy in 2017, up from 59% in both 2012 and 2013 and similar to the high of 73% in 2016. A similar question by the Pew Research Center (2014) found that prioritizing alternative energy sources such as “wind, solar, and hydrogen” started at 63% in 2011 and then dipped to 47% in 2012 before climbing back to about 60% in late 2014 after a high of 65% in early 2014.
Alternative energy and conservation also do well when comparing questions that ask about specific energy options. In 2016, 89% of Americans told the Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016a) that they favored “more solar panel ‘farms,’” and 83% said they would favor more “wind turbine ‘farms.’” In contrast, 43% said they would support more “offshore oil and gas drilling,” 42% said they would favor “more hydraulic fracturing…for oil and natural gas,” and 41% said they would favor “more coal mining.” The Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016a) found, however, that there were substantial differences on views about the questions related to oil, gas, and coal by political party preference. Gallup similarly found that 35% “favor[ed]…‘fracking’” in 2017, whereas 53% opposed the technique, similar percentages to those from 2016.
Attitudes about nuclear energy have become more negative in recent years. Support for nuclear energy likely peaked around early 2010. At that time, 62% of Americans told Gallup that they “strongly” or “somewhat” favored nuclear energy as “one of the ways to provide electricity for the United States.” In 2011, just prior to the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, support had fallen to 57%. Gallup again assessed support at 57% in 2012, and support further fell to 44% by 2016 (Figure 7-20) (Gallup 2017b). The fact that attitudes about nuclear energy started becoming more negative prior to Fukushima and that support did not drop substantively in the Gallup data between 2011 and 2012 led the organization to argue that “energy prices and perceived abundance of energy sources” may be behind declines in nuclear support (Riffkin 2016). It may also be relevant that worry about other environmental issues began to increase around 2010 (see the discussion above about attitudes regarding the environment).
Surveys by the Pew Research Center (2014) similarly found the start of a decline in nuclear energy support prior to the Fukushima accident (Figure 7-20). Pew pegged support for “government” policies aimed at “promoting the increased use of nuclear power” at 52% in early 2010. By mid-2010, support appeared to have fallen to the mid-40% range (e.g., 45% in October 2010). Support immediately after the 2011 Fukushima accident dipped to 39% and remained around this level through several surveys until 2014, when support was at 41%, the last time the same question was used. A second question wording used by the Pew Research Center (Funk, Rainie, and Page 2015) found that 51% of Americans said they “favor building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity” in 2009, and this percentage fell to 45% by 2014.
Views on nuclear energy: 1994–2017
Data are not available for all years. Responses to:
I am going to read some specific environmental proposals. For each one, please say whether you generally favor or oppose it. How about [e]xpanding the use of nuclear energy?
Overall, do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S.? (Figure shows combined responses for "strongly favor" and "somewhat favor.")
As I read some possible government policies to address America’s energy supply, tell me whether you would favor or oppose each. [W]ould you favor or oppose the government promoting the increased use of nuclear power? (The 2010 data point is the average of responses to four surveys conducted that year. The 2011 data point is the average of responses to two surveys conducted that year.)
Do you favor or oppose building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity?
Gallup, Social Series: Environment, https://www.gallup.com/file/poll/168221/Energy_I_140402.pdf, accessed 17 February 2017, Social Series: Environment, https://www.gallup.com/poll/2167/energy.aspx, accessed 17 February 2017, and Gallup Social Series: Environment, Final Topline 1–5 March 2017; Pew Research Center, December 2014 Political Survey, http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/12/12-18-14-Energy-topline-for-release.pdf, accessed 17 February 2017, General Public Science Survey, August 15-25, 2014, http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/07/2015-07-01_science-and-politics_TOPLINE.pdf, accessed 17 February 2017, and Americans strongly favor expanding solar power to help address costs and environmental concerns, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/05/americans-strongly-favor-expanding-solar-power-to-help-address-costs-and-environmental-concerns, accessed 17 February 2017.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Responses to a nuclear energy question included in the GSS are also relatively consistent with the pattern found by Gallup and the Pew Research Center. In 1993, about 40% of respondents said that they thought nuclear energy was either “extremely” or “very dangerous.” By 2016, the percentage seeing substantial danger had grown to 55%. Another 30% said nuclear energy was “somewhat dangerous,” and 13% said “not very dangerous” or “not dangerous” (Appendix Table 7-35). About 2% said they did not know how dangerous nuclear energy is. Women, younger respondents, and those with relatively high levels of science knowledge and science and mathematics education were more likely to see higher levels of danger, but the pattern is not as clear as it is with other specific attitude questions. For example, 58% of those in the lowest quartile of knowledge saw nuclear energy as “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” whereas 42% of those in the top quartile held this view. Those in the second and third quartile, however, were more similar to those with less knowledge than those with the most knowledge. Similarly, for science and mathematics education, 58% of those with relatively low science and mathematics education and 59% of those with mid-level science education said they saw nuclear energy as “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” whereas 44% of those with relatively high levels of science education felt this way. As noted, the percentage saying that nuclear energy is dangerous is also relatively high compared to previous years. For example, 40% said they saw nuclear energy as “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous” in 1993, and 45% gave these responses in 2010.
Europe’s 2015 Eurobarometer climate change survey (European Commission 2015) also included several questions about energy. Across European countries, between 97% (Cyprus) and 78% (Bulgaria) of residents said that it was “very important” or “fairly important” for national governments to “set targets to increase the amount of renewable energy used, such as wind or solar power, by 2030” (European Commission 2014a:55). The average across the 28 European countries surveyed was 91%. The five largest European economies were relatively similar, with Spain at 93%; Germany, the UK, and Italy at 91%; and France at 90%. The Eurobarometer report suggested that support for renewables was up slightly from 2013 but that there were few differences across demographic groups. However, those who saw climate change as a more serious problem were more likely to see renewable energy targets as important. Almost all EU respondents (92%) similarly indicated that they thought it was “very” or “fairly important” for government to provide support “for improving energy efficiency.” In China, 79% of respondents indicated that they supported funding research on “low carbon” technology (CRISP 2016). The 2014 edition of Indicators also reported the results of a 2010 international survey of a wide range of countries that suggested that the United States was relatively favorable toward nuclear energy when compared to the other countries surveyed (NSB 2014).
Genetically Engineered Food
U.S. Patterns and Trends
The most recent data suggest that negative views about genetically engineered (GE) food have increased in recent years in the United States. This pattern is consistent with increasing concern about various environmental issues and nuclear energy. GE food—also sometimes called genetically modified (GM) food or genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—remains an active issue for public debate around the world as new products continue to enter the market. Some scholars also point to the emergence of genetic engineering concerns as something that proponents might have limited through better communication with the public during the early research and commercialization phases (Einsiedel and Goldenberg 2006). Surveys from across many years and studies, however, suggest that many Americans question the safety of genetic engineering of food despite consensus statements from leading scientific groups. For example, the National Academies argue that there is no evidence that GM crops have caused substantial health or environmental problems since the technology emerged commercially in the 1990s (NASEM 2016b). Almost all members (88%) of the world’s largest scientific society surveyed by Pew in 2015 also said they saw GM foods as “generally safe” (compared to 37% of Americans, overall) (Funk, Rainie, and Page 2015). A summary of surveys from the 1980s through 2000 (Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001) found that between one-third and one-half of Americans saw risks from genetic engineering, whereas a similar number saw benefits. This summary also found that few people felt that they knew a lot about the subject but that there was, nevertheless, broad support for labeling GE food.
GSS data suggest that concern about GE food is increasing. The percentage of Americans who said genetically modifying crops are either “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous” has climbed from 21% in 2000 and 25% in 2010 to 43% in 2016. Another 36% said such crops were “somewhat dangerous.” About 18% said they were “not very dangerous” or “not dangerous at all” (Appendix Table 7-36). Conversely, the percentage that says they see genetic modification as “not very dangerous” or “not dangerous at all” has declined from 25% in 2000 and 26% in 2010 to 18% in 2016.
There are, nevertheless, several important demographic differences in how people perceive genetic modification. For example, 53% of women said that modifying genes is “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” compared to 30% of men. Only those in the highest science knowledge group had meaningfully different views than those with lower knowledge. Specifically, 45% of those in the lowest quartile of science knowledge, 44% of those in the second quartile, and 47% of those in the third quartile of science knowledge indicated that they thought genetic modification was “extremely” or “very dangerous.” Only 31% of those in the top quartile of science knowledge held such views. The pattern for education is similar but less pronounced. There was no meaningful variation by age.
Whereas the GSS question focuses only on danger to the environment from “crops,” a 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016b) included a battery of questions about GM foods that also showed that many Americans have concerns about the technology, even though knowledge levels likely remain low. First, about 29% of Americans said they had heard “a lot” about GM foods, 52% said they heard a little, and 19% said they had heard “nothing at all.” Another question found that 6% of Americans said they cared about the issue of GM foods “a great deal,” while 37% said they cared “some.”
With regard to food safety, 48% of Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016b) respondents said they thought GM foods and non-GM foods were equally healthy, and 39% said they thought GM foods were less healthy. Another 10% of respondents said they thought that food with GM ingredients is healthier than non-GM foods. About 20% of all respondents (i.e., 51%–39% who saw risks) said they thought the health risks of genetic modification were “high” or “very high.” Another question found that 49% of respondents said they thought that GM foods were “very” or “fairly” likely to “lead to health problems for the population as a whole.” About 49% also said that genetically modified foods will likely “create problems for the environment.” On the positive side, 69% of respondents said they thought GM foods would be likely to increase the “global food supply,” and 56% said they thought the technology would lead to “more affordably-priced food.” As noted above in the discussion of confidence in the scientific community, 78% of Americans told the Pew Research Center (Funk and Kennedy 2016b) that they trusted scientists to “give full and accurate information about the health risks and benefits of eating genetically modified food,” the highest percentage of any other group alongside small farm owners. Previously, the Pew Research Center (Funk, Rainie, and Page 2015) had found that only 37% of Americans think that GE foods are “generally safe” to eat (compared to 57% who said it was “generally unsafe”), and only 28% think that “scientists have a clear understanding” of the “health effects of genetically modified crops.”
It is also important to consider the limitations of the available data in this area. Given low knowledge about the particular topic of GE food, other factors—such as general worldview or positive views about science and scientists (Frewer et al. 2013; McComas, Besley, and Steinhardt 2014)—may play a central role in shaping views about genetic engineering. In other words, when many respondents answer questions about genetic engineering, they are likely reporting their general views about science or nature rather than fully answering questions based on consideration of genetic engineering. The reasons for using genetic engineering may also affect whether people report favorable views. When the Pew Research Center (Funk, Rainie, and Page 2015) asked about genetic modification to “create a liquid fuel replacement for gasoline,” 68% of Americans and 78% of scientists said they would “favor” such a move.
A previous analysis of worldwide views on genetic engineering concluded that respondents were more opposed to animal modification than plant modification, that Europeans saw more risks and fewer benefits than Americans or Asians, and that moral concerns are highest in the United States and Asia (Frewer et al. 2013). The 2014 version of Indicators also reported the results of a 2010 international survey of a wide range of countries that suggested that the United States was relatively favorable toward genetic modification compared with other countries, with only 25% of Americans saying they thought such crops should be seen as “extremely dangerous to the environment.” Several other countries, including some European countries (e.g., Belgium, Norway, Denmark), were also relatively favorable toward the technology (NSB 2014). Some of the countries in which residents were least favorable to genetic engineering included Turkey, Chile, and Russia. More recently, 59% of Chinese respondents said they thought that GM foods created an “unpredictable safety risk” (CRISP 2016).
Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at very small scales to create new or improved products that can be used in a variety of ways. Government and the private sector have made relatively large investments in this area in recent years, and innovations based on this work are now common (PEN 2015).
Recent data on public opinion about nanotechnology are limited, but the most recent GSS included a set of questions aimed at updating information previously collected by the NSF in 2006, 2008, and 2010, when there was concern that some Americans might come to see nanotechnology in the way that many people see GE food (e.g., [Einsiedel and Goldenberg 2006]). This does not appear to have happened yet. In 2016, 51% of respondents said they think that the benefits of nanotechnology will be greater than the harms (Figure 7-21; Appendix Table 7-37). This includes 30% who say they expect strong benefits and 21% who expect slight benefits. Another 18% said that they thought the “harmful results” would be greater, including 7% who expect strong harms and 11% who expect slight harms. About 10% volunteered that the benefits and harms would be about equal, and 21% volunteered that they did not know whether benefits or harms were more likely. In other words, these individuals asked to have their views recorded as seeing the benefits and harms as about equal or insisted they could not choose between benefits and harms, even though the survey questionnaire did not provide this option.
Views on nanotechnology: 2008, 2010, 2016
Responses to the two-tiered question Nanotechnology works at the molecular level atom by atom to build new structures, materials, and machines. People have frequently noted that new technologies have produced both benefits and harmful results. Do you think the benefits of nanotechnology will outweigh the harmful results or the harmful results will outweigh the benefits? and Would you say that the balance will be strongly in favor of the benefits/harmful results, or only slightly? Percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding.
NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2008–16).
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
The percentage saying they do not know whether nanotechnology is likely to produce harms or benefits rose from 2006 to 2010 but dropped in 2016 (Appendix Table 7-37). In 2006, 32% of respondents gave a “don’t know” response, 40% gave this response in 2008, and 43% gave this response in 2010 but then only 21% said they did not know in 2016 (Appendix Table 7-37). Of those who expressed an opinion, the percentage of people saying they expect benefits from nanotechnology has been fairly stable, with 64% in 2016, 65% in 2010, 64% in 2008, and 59% in 2006. The percentage who expect harms among those who expressed an opinion, however, has also climbed from 13% in 2006 to 23% in 2016. This is possible because the proportion volunteering that they expect about equal benefits and harms has fallen from 28% of those who expressed an opinion in 2006 to 13% in 2016. This increase in uncertainty and concern seems broadly consistent with increased concern about the environment, nuclear energy, and GM foods.
Men, younger respondents, those with more education, and those with higher levels of income were more likely to report that they expected nanotechnology benefits. For example, in 2016, 61% of men said they expected benefits, while only 41% of women gave this response (Appendix Table 7-37). About the same number of men (10%) and women (11%) said they thought the benefits and harms would be equal, and similar proportions (16% of men and 19% of women) said they expected harms. However, about 12% of men said they did not know whether harm was more likely than benefits, but 29% of women said they did not know.
As with the data on GE food, it is important to recognize that people’s low levels of knowledge about nanotechnology may mean that they are largely responding to questions about the issue based on such factors as their overall trust in science or their worldview. Additional factors such as the content or wording of the questions or the context of the survey may contribute to such processes.
Stem Cell Research and Cloning
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Stem cell and cloning research focus on understanding how to use biological material to produce living cells, tissues, and organisms. Such research creates opportunities for enhanced understanding of life and opportunities to develop new health care treatments. The intersection of health, human life, and the destruction of human embryos, however, raises ethical issues that have spurred public debate.
Most Americans appear to support the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Annual Gallup data showed that, in 2016, 60% of Americans saw using stem cells from human embryos in medical research as “morally acceptable” (Jones and Saad 2016; Swift 2016). The percentage of those who saw such research as morally acceptable is down 4 percentage points from 2015, but over the last 10 years the percentage of respondents saying such research was morally acceptable has fluctuated between a high of 65% in 2014 and a low of 57% in 2009. The lowest level of perceived moral acceptability was 52% in 2002, the first year for which Gallup has data.
Gallup also asks about the morality of human and animal cloning. In 2016, 13% of Americans said that it was morally acceptable to clone humans, and 34% said it was morally acceptable to clone animals (Jones and Saad 2016; Swift 2016). The percentage saying that cloning animals is acceptable has stayed relatively stable—between 29% and 36%—since 2001, when Gallup first asked about the subject. The percentage saying that it is morally acceptable to clone humans hit a high of 15% in 2015 and increased from a low of 7% since Gallup first asked about the subject in 2001.
The last time a large sample of Europeans was asked about cloning was in 2010, when a Eurobarometer survey found that 63% of respondents across 27 European countries supported the use of stem cells from human embryos, either with no special laws (12%) or “as long as this is regulated by strict laws” (51%). The use of adult stem cells, in contrast, was supported by 69% of Europeans, including 15% who saw no need for special laws and 54% who would approve if use was regulated by strict laws (European Commission 2010b).
U.S. Patterns and Trends
The medical research community conducts experiments on animals for many purposes, including testing the effectiveness of drugs and procedures that may eventually be used to improve human health and advance scientific understanding of biological processes.
Most Americans support at least some kinds of animal research, but this support has fallen in recent years. According to Gallup, about 53% of Americans in 2016 said they saw “medical testing on animals” as “morally acceptable” (Jones and Saad 2016; Swift 2016). This is the lowest it has been and is down from 65% in 2001, when Gallup first asked the question. A different question by the Pew Research Center (Funk, Rainie, and Page 2015) found that, in 2014, 47% of Americans said they “favor” “the use of animals in scientific research,” down from 52% in 2009.
The most recent similar data from Europe are from a 2010 survey showing that, on average, Europeans oppose animal testing, but these views vary widely. Respondents were asked whether “scientists should be allowed to experiment on animals like dogs and monkeys if this can help sort out human health problems.” About 44% of Europeans said they “totally agree” or “tend to agree” that such experiments should be allowed, whereas 37% said they “totally disagree” or “tend to disagree” (European Commission 2010a).