Americans are quick to say they are interested in news about science and technology. In NSF surveys conducted during the past two decades, about 9 of every 10 adults report being very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. However, the number who feel wellor moderately wellinformed about these subjects is considerably smaller, and evidence shows their lack of confidence in their knowledge is justified. That is, most Americans know a little, but not a lot, about science and technology.
In this section, four topics will be covered:
U.S. residents say they are quite interested in science and technology. More than 40 percent of those who participated in NSF's 1999 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology said they were very interested in new scientific discoveries and in the use of new inventions and technologies; another 40 to 50 percent said they were moderately interested in these subjects; and about 10 percent reported no interest. (See appendix table 8-1.) Among the 11 topics included in the survey, only the level of interest in new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, and local school issues appears higher. (See figure 8-1.)
Approximately two-thirds of the respondents said they were very interested in new medical discoveries. None of the other policy issues received anywhere near such a high percentage of "very interested" responses. Local school issues was a distant second, with 54 percent of the respondents saying they were very interested in this topic, followed by environmental pollution at 51 percent. (See appendix table 8-1.)
Issues receiving between 40 and 50 percent "very interested" responses were new scientific discoveries (45 percent), military and defense policy (42 percent), economic issues and business conditions (42 percent), and the use of new inventions and technologies (41 percent). Percentages for the other four issues ranged from 30 percent for international and foreign policy to 22 percent for agricultural and farm issues. Interest in space exploration is relatively low; it ranked next to last among the 11 issues. (See appendix table 8-1.)
Interest in science and technology may be at its highest level ever. Using a 0--100 index, the average level of public interest in new scientific discoveries ranged between 67 and 70 in the late 1990s; only in one other year (1983) did it reach that level, although it has always been at 60 or higher. Interest in new inventions and technologies tracks quite closely with that of new scientific discoveries; in 1999, the index levels for the two issues were 65 and 67, respectively. (See figure 8-2 and appendix table 8-2.)
New medical discoveries is the only issue that has consistently had index scores in the 80s; those for environmental pollution and local school issues have generally been in the 70s. Interest in environmental pollution seems to have subsided slightly in the 1990s. (See appendix table 8-2.)
Among the other survey findings:
Men express more interest than women in new scientific discoveries and in the use of new inventions and technologies. (See figure 8-2.) The gap is particularly large for the latter. Only space exploration has a larger disparity. Men also express more interest than women in economic and business conditions, military and defense policy, international and foreign policy, and nuclear energy. Women are more interested in new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, and local school issues. (See appendix table 8-3.)
Level of formal education and number of mathematics and science courses taken are strongly associated with interest in new scientific discoveries. (See figure 8-2 and appendix table 8-3.) The relationship between education and level of interest is also strong for space exploration, economic issues and business conditions, and for international and foreign policyand somewhat less strong for the use of new inventions and technologies and new medical discoveries. Local school issues, the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity, and environmental pollution do not seem to show a relationship between level of interest and level of education. Finally, those with relatively low levels of formal education are more likely than others to express high interest in agricultural and farm issues. (See appendix table 8-3.)
In general, a substantial amount of similarity exists between U.S. residents and those in three other "sociopolitical systems," in terms of interest in particular public policy issues. For example, for all fourthe United States, the European Union, Japan, and Canadathe Index of Issue Interest in environmental issues is in the low to middle 70s. However, survey respondents in the United States and Canada seem to have higher levels of interest in health and medical issues than their counterparts in Europe and Japan. (See text table 8-1.)
Americans are somewhat more interested than Europeans in new scientific discoveries and in new inventions and technologies, whereas Europeans are slightly more interested than Americans in environmental issues.
The Japanese appear to be less interested than Europeans or North Americans in science and technology. In general, Japanese adults express relatively more interest in economic matters and local issuesfor example, land usethan in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. A significantly higher percentage of college-educated respondents in Japan (compared with the percentage of those with less formal education) reported substantial interest in scientific and technological issues, which is also the case in Europe and in North America (Miller, Pardo, and Niwa 1997).
In general, Americans do not believe they are well informed about issues pertaining to science and technology. In fact, for all issues included in the NSF survey, the level of self-assessed knowledge appears considerably lower than the level of expressed interest. This is especially true for complex subjects, like science and technology, where a lack of confidence in understanding what goes on in laboratories or within the policymaking process is understandable. For example, in 1999, at least 40 percent of respondents in NSF's public attitudes survey said they were very interested in science and technology. Yet only 17 percent described themselves as well informed about new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies; approximately 30 percent thought they were poorly informed. (See appendix table 8-4.)
Thus, index scores for the responses to the questions having to do with how well informed people think they are about various issues were lower than those for the level of interest in those same issues. (See figure 8-1.) In 1999, three had index scores in the 50s (local school issues, new medical discoveries, and economic issues and business conditions); five, in the 40s (environmental pollution, new scientific discoveries, military and defense policy, the use of new inventions and technologies, and international and foreign policy); and three, in the 20s or 30s (space exploration, agricultural and farm issues, and the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity). (See appendix table 8-5.)
In the 1990s, for most issues, there were no discernible trends in the level of self-assessed knowledge. However, there seems to have been a decline in perceived knowledge about environmental pollution and the use of nuclear energy to generate electricity. (See appendix table 8-5.)
For 8 of the 11 issues in the 1999 survey, male respondents reported higher self-assessment of their knowledge than female respondents. For five of these issueseconomic issues and business conditions, military and defense policy, the use of new inventions and technologies, international and foreign policy, and space explorationthe gender gap is more than 10 index points.(See appendix table 8-6.)
In contrast, women have higher index scores than men on two issueslocal school issues and new medical discoveriesbut the disparity in scores between the two sexes is relatively small. For environmental pollution, the index scores were identical in 1999.
As expected, generally, the more education one hasand the more mathematics and science courses one has takenthe better informed one thinks he or she is. The relationship between education and self-assessed knowledge is particularly strong for new scientific discoveries, the use of new inventions and technologies, and space exploration. It is also strong for economic issues and business conditions and for international and foreign policy issues, but weak or nonexistent for the other issues in the survey. (See appendix table 8-6.)
No one has the time or the inclination to keep up with every issue on the public policy agenda. Moreover, not many people are interested in many issues. A recent study contained the following conclusion:
An analysis of public attentiveness to more than 500 news stories over the last 10 years confirm[ed] that the American public pays relatively little attention to many of the serious news stories of the day. The major exceptions to this rule are stories dealing with natural and man-made disasters and U.S. military actions (Parker and Deane 1997)[Skip Text Box]
For nearly 15 years, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (1999b) has been tracking the most closely followed news stories in the United States. Out of 689 stories identified by the Center during the period, 39 have at least some relevance to science and medicine. Those stories, and the month and year the public was surveyed (which is a good indication of when the event occurred), are listed below. Next to each entry is the percentage of those surveyed who said they were following the story "very closely" (the other choices given to respondents were "fairly closely," "not too closely," or "not at all closely").
Weather is the subject of 12 of the stories on the list; they are clustered toward the top. Ten stories involve coverage of space exploration, including the lead story of the period studied, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Four news stories are about earthquakes and the damage they cause. Two are about problems at nuclear reactor plants. Health is the subject of six stories, and three are about efforts to clone animals and people.
Also, different people will be interested in, and will be well informed about, different issues. Some are interested in particular issues that affect their daily lives. For example, parents of school-age children are more likely than others to show interest in issues having to do with the quality of schools in their communities. Chances are these parents are not only interested in, but well-informed about, local school issues. Others are just interested in particular issues, and because of their interest, they have taken the time to become knowledgeable about them; they probably also follow public policy developments in their areas of interest.
It may not be easy to pinpoint exactly who is the audience for issues pertaining to science and technology policy. It is probably safe to say that members of the science and engineering workforce, especially those in the academic community, are probably interested in, and well informed about, various science and technology policy issues, but the number of members in this community is relatively small. (See chapter 3, "Science & Engineering Workforce," and chapter 6, "Academic Research and Development: Financial and Personnel Resources, Support for Graduate Education, and Outputs.") In addition, other members of the public follow news reports about new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies. It is interesting to single out the audience for science and technology policy so that their attitudes and knowledge can be compared with those of everyone else.
Therefore, it is useful to classify the public into three groups:
There is an attentive public for every policy issue; these groups differ in size and composition.
Data for 1999 show that, for most issues covered by the NSF survey, less than 10 percent of the public can be considered attentive. New medical discoveries has the largest audience: 16 percent of all survey respondents in 1999 were classified as attentive to that subject. (See appendix table 8-7.)
Those likely to be attentive to science and technology policy issues are identified by combining the attentive public for new scientific discoveries with the attentive public for new inventions and technologies. In 1999, 12 percent of the population qualified for that distinction, down from 14 percent in 1997. Forty-four percent of the population can be classified as the "interested public" for science and technology issues with the "residual" population also at 44 percent of the total. (See appendix table 8-7.)
A direct correlation exists between attentiveness to science and technology policy issues, years of formal education, and the number of science and mathematics courses taken during high school and college. In 1999, only 9 percent of people without high school diplomas were classified as attentive to science and technology policy issues, compared with 23 percent of those with graduate and/or professional degrees. Similarly, 9 percent of those with limited coursework in science and mathematics were attentive to science and technology policy issues, compared with 19 percent of those who had taken nine or more high school and college science or math courses. Men were more likely than women to be attentive to science and technology policy issues. (See figure 8-3 and appendix table 8-8.)
In the United States, Europe, and Canada, approximately 1 in 10 adults can be classified as attentive to science and technology policy; the proportion is smallerabout 7 percentin Japan. The percentage classified as the "interested" public (for science and technology policy) is higher in the United States than it is in the other three sociopolitical systems. In 1995, it was 47 percent, compared with 33 percent in Europe (for 1992), 40 percent in Canada (1989), and 12 percent in Japan (1991). For all countries, there is a positive relationship between level of education and level of attentiveness (Miller, Pardo, and Niwa 1997). (See text table 8-2.)
Science literacy in the United States (and in other countries) is fairly low. That is, the majority of the general public knows a little, but not a lot, about science and technology. For example, most Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun and that light travels faster than sound. However, not many can successfully define a molecule, and few have a good understanding of what the Internet is despite the fact that the Information Superhighway has occupied front page headlines throughout the late 1990sand usage has skyrocketed. (See the section "Use of Computers and Computer Technology in the United States" and chapter 9, "Significance of Information Technologies.") In addition, most Americans have little comprehension of the nature of scientific inquiry.
It is important to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts, concepts, and vocabulary. Those who possess such knowledge have an easier time following news reports and participating in public discourse on various issues pertaining to science and technology. It may be even more important to have an appreciation for the scientific process. Understanding how ideas are investigated and analyzed is a sure sign of scientific literacy. This knowledge is valuable not only in keeping up with important issues and participating in the political process, but also in evaluating and assessing the validity of various other types of information.
In NSF's Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology, respondents are asked a series of questions designed to assess their knowledge and understanding of basic science concepts and terms. There are 20 such questions, 13 of which are true/false, 3 are multiple choice, and 4 are open-ended; that is, respondents are asked to define in their own words DNA, a molecule, the Internet, and radiation. In addition, respondents are asked questions designed to test their understanding of the scientific process, including their knowledge of what it means to study something scientifically, how experiments are conducted, and probability.
The percentage of correct responses to most of the questions pertaining to respondents' knowledge of basic science concepts and terms was fairly constant in the late 1990s. For example, more than 70 percent of those interviewed knew that:
In contrast, about one-half or fewer of the respondents knew that:
In addition, few respondents (11 percent) were able to define radiation, the Internet (16 percent), a molecule (13 percent), and DNA (29 percent). Although the percentage of correct responses to these questions is considerably lower than that for the short-answer questions, it is noteworthy that the percentage of correct responses to three of these questions increased in the late 1990s:
These survey questions have been used to develop an Index of Scientific Construct Understanding, making it possible to track the level of knowledge in the United States over time and to compare that level with the level in other countries. Nine of the survey items are included in this index; they are listed in figure 8-4. The mean score for American adults on the Index of Scientific Construct Understanding was 58. The comparable scores for 1995 and 1997 were 55 for both years. Understanding of basic science concepts and terms is strongly related to both the level of formal education and the number of high school and college science and mathematics courses taken. The mean scores for college graduates and those with graduate or professional degrees were 74 and 80, respectively, compared with 44 for individuals who did not complete high school. Those who completed nine or more high school and college science or math courses had a mean score of 79, compared with 48 for adults who had taken five or fewer courses. Men scored significantly higher than women, with a mean score of 65 compared with 52 for women. (See figure 8-5 and appendix table 8-10.)
Two of the true/false survey questions (not included in the Index of Scientific Construct Understanding) have relatively low percentages of correct responses:
Responses to these two questions may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science. For the last three-quarters of the century, probably the most controversial topic in science teaching has to do with how evolution is taughtor not taughtin U.S. classrooms. In late 1999, states taking opposite sides of the issue received a considerable amount of publicity in the news media. In Kansas and Kentucky, the teaching of evolution was dropped as a required part of the curriculum. (The National Science Board issued a statement in August 1999 on the Kansas action; see NSB 1999.) In contrast, New Mexico's board of education adopted an "evolution only" policy. For a more comprehensive discussion of curriculum content at the precollege level, see chapter 5, "Elementary and Secondary Education."
To find out how well the public understands the nature of scientific inquiry, NSF asked survey respondents a series of questions. First, they were asked to explain what it means to study something scientifically. In addition, respondents were asked questions pertaining to the experimental evaluation of a drug and to determine their understanding of probability.
In the 1999 survey, 21 percent of the respondents provided good explanations of what it means to study something scientifically. About one-third answered the experiment questions correctly, including being able to say why it was better to use a control group. More than half (55 percent) of the respondents answered the four probability questions correctly. (See appendix table 8-11.)
The level of understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry is estimated using a combination of each survey participant's responses to the questions. To be classified as understanding the nature of scientific inquiry, a respondent had to answer all the probability questions correctly and either provide a "theory-testing" response to the question about what it means to study something scientifically or provide a correct response to the open-ended question about the experiment, i.e., explain why it was better to test a drug using a control group. In 1999, 26 percent of the survey respondents gave responses that met these criteria. (See figure 8-6 and appendix table 8-11.) In 1995 and 1997, the comparable percentages were 21 percent and 27 percent, respectively.