Chapter 8:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Public Attitudes toward Science and Technology


In general, Americans express highly favorable attitudes toward science and technology. In the 1999 NSF public attitudes survey, overwhelming majorities agreed—and few disagreed—with the following statements:

In a 1996 survey,

Despite these indicators, a sizeable portion—although not a majority—of the public has some reservations concerning science and (especially) technology. See sidebar, "Attitudes of Scientists, Legislators, and the Public Toward Science and Technology." For example, in the 1999 NSF survey, half of those queried agreed with the statement: "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith" (45 percent disagreed). And, about 40 percent agreed that "science makes our way of life change too fast" (57 percent disagreed). (See appendix table 8-12.)


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Overall, however, there seems to have been a small, upward trend in positive attitudes toward science and technology. In general, data from the NSF survey show increasing percentages of Americans

In addition, the survey results indicate that an increasing number of people believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. (See the section "Perceptions of Scientific Research.")

The concern that does exist appears to be related to the impact of technology on society. For example, NSF survey respondents were fairly evenly split about whether "computers and factory automation will create more jobs than they will eliminate." (See appendix table 8-14.) And, a sizeable minority—46 percent—agreed with the statement that "people would do better by living a simpler life without so much technology." (See appendix table 8-15.) Also, about 3 out of every 10 people surveyed agreed that "technological discoveries will eventually destroy the Earth" and that "technological development creates an artificial and inhumane way of living." (See appendix tables 8-16 and 8-17.)

In a 1999 survey, more than half the respondents (55 percent) agreed with the statement, "Our growing reliance on technology is generally good because it makes life more convenient and easier." However, 39 percent of the respondents agreed with the other choice, "Our growing reliance on technology is generally bad because we will become too dependent on it and life will get too complicated." Those with higher incomes are more likely to have positive attitudes toward technology: 73 percent of the respondents reporting at least $75,000 in annual income chose the first statement, compared with only 46 percent of those reporting less than $20,000 (The Pew Research Center 1999a).

In another survey, more than half the respondents agreed that "science and technology [have] caused some of the problems we face as a society" (13 percent answered "most" of the problems).Responses to another question in the same survey were more positive: when asked to describe their "reaction when [they acquire] a new technical gadget, like a VCR…," nearly three out of five chose the response, "excitement at discovering what it can do"; another quarter of those surveyed picked "hope it will let you do things more easily." Only 6 percent feared they would not be able to use the new device, and 9 percent chose "indifference or lack of interest" (Roper 1996).

The Promise of Science—and Reservations  top

To track trends in public attitudes toward science and technology and to compare attitudes in the United States with those in other countries, an Index of Scientific Promise and an Index of Scientific Reservations were developed. In addition, the ratio of the Promise Index to the Reservations Index is a useful indicator of current and changing attitudes toward science and technology.[18] 

Although a strong positive relationship exists between a person’s level of education and favorable attitudes toward science and technology, both the Index of Scientific Promise and the Index of Scientific Reservations have remained fairly stable since 1992. However, it is noteworthy that the overall ratio of Promise to Reservations rose from 1.74 in 1995 to 1.89 in 1997. In 1999, the ratio was 1.87. (See appendix table 8-18.)

International Comparisons top

North Americans and Europeans appear to have more favorable attitudes toward science and technology than the Japanese. At 55, Japan’s mean score on the Index of Scientific Promise was considerably lower than that for the United States, the European Union, and Canada, all of which have scores close to 70. In all four sociopolitical systems, university-educated citizens have the most positive attitudes toward science and technology, whereas those who did not complete high school have less favorable attitudes. (See text table 8-3.)

U.S. residents seem to harbor fewer reservations about science and technology than their counterparts in the other three sociopolitical systems. The European Union, Japan, and Canada have similar Index of Scientific Reservations mean scores—all in the upper 50s—whereas the U.S. score was in the upper 30s.

In all four sociopolitical systems, individuals with the lowest levels of formal education expressed the highest levels of reservation about science and technology. The inverse relationship between education and reservations about science seems to be strongest in the United States. In addition, those who scored highest on measures of science literacy reported significantly lower levels of reservation about science and technology than those with less knowledge of science.

In all four societies, women were slightly more likely than men to hold reservations about science and technology. The disparities were small and may be attributable to differences in educational achievement.

Public Attitudes Toward the Funding of Scientific Research by the Federal Government  top

All indicators point to widespread support for government funding of basic research. In the 1999 NSF survey, 82 percent of those queried agreed with the following statement:

Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the Federal Government.

Moreover, the level of agreement has been rising—and the level of disagreement falling—since 1992.(See appendix table 8-19.) During the mid-1990s, a gender gap in support for federally funded basic research seemed to be closing. In 1999, 84 percent of the men in the survey agreed with the statement cited above, compared with 80 percent of the women. (See appendix table 8-19.)

Support for federally funded basic research is closely tied to education level. In other words, the level of support rises with the level of formal education. In 1999, 72 percent of those surveyed who had not completed high school agreed with the statement; that percentage rose to 84 percent for high school graduates, to 87 percent for those with college degrees, and to 91 percent for those with graduate or professional degrees. (See appendix table 8-19.)

In addition, those with more positive overall attitudes toward science and technology were more likely to express support for government funding of basic research. In 1999, 90 percent of those who scored 75 or higher on the Index of Scientific Promise agreed that the Federal Government should fund basic scientific research, compared with only 61 percent of those with relatively low index scores. (See figure 8-8 and appendix table 8-20.)

Other studies have revealed similar favorable attitudes toward the government’s role in supporting science and technology. In one survey, more than 80 percent of the respondents agreed that "the Federal Government has an important role to play in encouraging new developments in science and technology" and that "it is important that the United States be the world leader in technological progress" (Roper 1996). (See sidebar, "Americans Give High Marks to Government Investment in R&D.")


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Only 14 percent of those who participated in the NSF survey thought the government was spending too much on scientific research; 37 percent thought the government was not spending enough. To put the response to this item in perspective, at least 65 percent of those surveyed thought the government was not spending enough on other programs, including reducing pollution, improving health care, improving education, and helping older people. In the survey, only exploring space and improving national defense had less support for increased spending than scientific research.[19]  In fact, 46 percent of the respondents thought spending on space exploration was excessive, a higher percentage than that for any other item in the survey. (See appendix tables 8-21 and 8-22 and the section "Perceptions of Space Exploration.") It should be noted that few respondents really know what the government spends on various programs.[20] 

International Comparisons top

Government support for basic scientific research is at least as popular in Europe, Japan, and Canada as it is in the United States. In all four sociopolitical systems, the level of support has been about 80 percent or higher; the highest levels seem to be in Canada and Japan. (See text table 8-4.) In all four societies,

Public Confidence in the People Running Various Institutions  top

Public confidence in the leadership of various institutions has been tracked for nearly a quarter of a century (Davis and Smith annual series). Participants in the General Social Survey were asked whether they have a "great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in the leadership of various institutions. In 1998, 40 percent reported that they had a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community. The only category that exceeded this vote of confidence was the medical community. Science has held the number two spot exclusively since 1978, overtaking education (for the last time) in that year. The Supreme Court, the military, education, major companies, and organized religion filled out the next five spots in 1999. The public has the least confidence in the press and TV; the "great deal of confidence" vote for the leadership of these institutions was 10 percent or less in 1998. (See figure 8-9 and appendix table 8-23.)

Interestingly, although the vote of confidence for the scientific community has fluctuated somewhat during the past quarter-century, it has remained about 40 percent. In contrast, there seems to have been an erosion in confidence in the medical profession. The rating for this group was once as high as 60 percent (1974); that percentage has been gradually declining for most of the past 25 years.

Perceptions of Scientific Research  top

By an overwhelming majority, Americans consistently believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. Nearly half (47 percent) of the survey respondents said that the benefits strongly outweigh the harms, and another 27 percent said they slightly outweigh the harms. These percentages have been fairly stable for the past two decades, as has the percentage of respondents taking the opposite position. That is, between 10 and 20 percent of those queried believe the harms outweigh the benefits. (See figure 8-10 and appendix table 8-24.)

Men express greater surety than women that the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results. In fact, 50 percent of the men in the 1999 survey, compared with 45 percent of the women, said that the benefits strongly outweighed the harms. Level of education is also strongly associated with a positive response to this question. Those who did not complete high school are more likely than those with more formal education to believe the harms outweigh the benefits, although it should be noted that half of this group said the benefits outweigh the harms. The comparable percentages for high school graduates and for those with at least a bachelor’s degree were 78 percent and 90 percent, respectively, in 1999. (See appendix table 8-24.)

Perceptions of Nuclear Power  top

Americans are not as positive about all science and technology issues as they are about scientific research in general. For example, they have been evenly divided for more than a decade over the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. In 1999, 48 percent of Americans believed the benefits of nuclear power outweighed the harms, while 37 percent held the opposite view, and 15 percent thought that benefits and harms were equal. (See figure 8-11 and appendix table 8-25.)

Individuals with more years of formal schooling, men, and those classified as attentive to science and technology policy are slightly more likely than others to believe the benefits of using nuclear power to generate electricity outweigh the harms. However, the correlation between education and attitudes toward use of nuclear power is relatively weak.

Perceptions of Genetic Engineering  top

Data on public attitudes toward genetic engineering show no decline in the percentage of survey respondents who believe that the benefits outweigh the harmful results. In 1999, 44 percent of those interviewed agreed that the benefits either strongly or slightly outweigh the harms. (See figure 8-12 and appendix table 8-26.) This proportion is similar to that of the two previous surveys, despite the controversy generated by the widely reported news (in April 1997) about Dolly, the sheep cloned by a Scottish biologist and news (in January 1998) about a Chicago scientist planning to open a clinic for cloning people. (See sidebar, "The Most Closely Followed Science-Related News Stories: 1986–99.") Had the interviewers specifically mentioned cloning, the reaction from respondents may have been different, but the survey question did not include that word.[21] 


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The percentage of survey respondents who said that the harms outweighed the benefits was 38 percent in 1999. Among those classified as the attentive public for new medical discoveries (who may or may not be college graduates), the percentage agreeing that the harms are greater than the benefits rose from 30 percent in 1997 to 36 percent in 1999. (See figure 8-13.)

The relationship between a person’s level of education and his or her assessment of the benefits and harms of genetic engineering shows some interesting trends. Although positive attitudes seemed to have increased (or stayed the same) between 1995 and 1999 for those without bachelor’s degrees, the opposite seems to be true for those with degrees. The percentage of those in the latter group agreeing that the benefits outweigh the harms declined from 65 percent in 1995 to 55 percent in 1997, and then stayed the same in 1999. During the same period, among those with college degrees, the percentage saying the harms are greater than the benefits increased from 20 percent in 1995 to 24 percent in 1997 to 29 percent in 1999. (See figure 8-13.)

There is a significant gender gap in attitudes toward genetic engineering. Women are considerably more likely than men to believe the harms outweigh the benefits. In 1999, 42 percent of women agreed with this statement, compared with only 33 percent of men. The percentage-point difference has been 7 or more in four of the past five NSF surveys. (See figure 8-13 and appendix table 8-26.)

Perceptions of Space Exploration top

Before the Challenger accident, more than half the participants in NSF’s public attitudes survey agreed that the benefits of space exploration exceeded the costs. Minds changed after the accident. The percentage agreeing that the benefits are greater than the costs fell from 54 percent in 1985 (before the explosion) to 47 percent in 1988 and to 43 percent in 1990. In the 1990s, this trend, an indicator of weakening support for the space program, leveled off. More recently, the percentage of survey respondents agreeing that the benefits are greater than the costs has been rising—from 43 percent in 1992 to 49 percent in 1999, approaching the 1985 level, before the Challenger accident. (See figure 8-14 and appendix table 8-27.)

In another poll, respondents were asked what they thought of the space program. More than half chose the response, "exciting and worthwhile"; 27 percent answered "only necessary to keep up with other nations"; and only 18 percent said it was "a waste of time and money." In response to another question, nearly half said that, in the future, the space program will make life on Earth better because of technological advances; 17 percent thought it would be worse because the money should have been spent on something else; and 32 percent thought the space program would not make life any better or worse (Roper 1996).

Like other issues, there is a sizeable gender gap in public assessment of space exploration. In fact, no other issue in the NSF survey has such a large disparity in opinion between the sexes. Men are more likely than women to champion the benefits over the costs. The gap was 14 percentage points in 1999.

In every year but two (1990 and 1992), a majority of men interviewed for the survey agreed that the benefits outweigh the costs. The percentage stood at 57 percent in 1999, compared with 43 percent for women. In contrast, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, half or more of the women who participated in the survey thought that the costs exceeded the benefits. That is no longer true; the percentage dropped below 50 percent in 1997 and stayed there in 1999.

Those with more formal education are more likely than others to say that the benefits of space exploration exceed the cost. In 1999, only 40 percent of those with less than a high school education agreed that the benefits were greater than the costs, compared with 49 percent of those who graduated from high school and 60 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Those classified as attentive to science and technology—or to space exploration—are more likely than the public at large to believe that the benefits exceed the costs. At least 60 percent of each attentive group put the benefits ahead of the costs, compared with about half of the public at large.

Finally, about two-thirds of the public favor

Perceptions of the Use of Animals in Scientific Research top

Few issues in science are as divisive as the use of animals in scientific research. There seems to be a 50–50 split in public opinion on this issue. (See appendix table 8-28.)

Public attitudes toward research using animals are shaped by:

Data from the NSF (and other) surveys show that:

There are two major and long-standing fissures in public opinion on the use of animals in scientific research; that is, there are sex and age-related fault lines.

Women are far more likely than men to say they are opposed to the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research. In 1999, nearly two out of every three women surveyed voiced opposition, whereas about one-third of the men held the same view. (See appendix table 8-28.) This gender gap in opinion cannot be attributed to differences between the sexes in science and mathematics education or differences in science literacy:

Until the late 1990s, a fairly consistent relationship existed between age and attitudes toward animal research. Generally, the older the survey respondent, the more likely he or she was to express support for the use of animals in scientific research. It is widely assumed that the reason more positive attitudes are found among the elderly is that older persons experience more health problems and therefore are more attuned to the need for medical research.[23] 

In the past few years, the pattern has been less distinct. Now, all that can be said about the relationship between age and attitudes is that the 18- to 24-year-old age group is the only age group in which a majority opposes the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research. (See figure 8-15.)

It is noteworthy that, for each age group, men are significantly more likely than women to support animal research. In no age group does a majority of women support the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research.

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Footnotes


[18]  The Index of Scientific Promise and the Index of Scientific Reservations are factor scores converted to a 0–100 scale. For each of the four countries or regions, a separate confirmatory factor analysis verified the existence of a two factor structure, and factor scores were computed for each dimension for each country or region. Within each country or region, the lowest possible factor score (strong disagreement with all of the items) was set to zero, and the highest possible factor score (strong agreement with all of the items) was set to 100. All factor scores between the highest and the lowest were placed on the 0–100 metric accordingly.

A core of items was identical in all countries and regions, and there was some minor variation in wording for some items from country to country. The strength of this factor analytic approach is that it allows the calibration of complete disagreement and complete agreement as end points on a 0–100 scale and creates a metric that is comparable across countries and regions. The questions used in the United States are described in the notes for appendix table 8-18; the questions used in Canada, Europe, and Japan are described in Miller, Pardo, and Niwa (1997).

[19]  Another poll also did not find high levels of support for increased science research funding (Wirthlin 1995).

[20]  As an aside, in the First Amendment Center survey of journalists and scientists (see the section "The Relationship Between Science and the Media: Communicating with the Public"), respondents were asked what percentage of the total Federal budget is devoted to scientific research and technology development. The four choices were less than 1 percent, 1 percent to 10 percent, 11 percent to 20 percent, and more than 20 percent. Half the journalists and 65 percent of the scientists chose the correct response [1 percent to 10 percent; the actual figure is 4 percent (See chapter 2). Most of the rest of the survey participants guessed that less than 1 percent of the Federal budget is invested in science and technology.

[21]  In one poll, approximately 85 percent of the respondents said they oppose cloning human beings (Southern Focus 1998). In another poll, 69 percent of Floridians and 63 percent of Texans supported "research into the altering of human genes to treat disease" (Research! America 1999). Also, see sidebar, "Public Attitudes Toward Biotechnology."

[22]  Fewer people oppose the use of mice in scientific research; 30 percent of those surveyed opposed research on these creatures, compared with 47 percent who opposed research using dogs and chimpanzees. (See appendix tables 8-28 and 8-29.)

[23]  It should be noted that the survey data are cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal. Although it can be assumed that, as adults age and experience more health problems, they become more receptive to the use of animals in scientific research, it is also possible that the older adults who participated in the survey have always been—throughout their lives—more supportive of animal research than the younger participants in the survey. Likewise, it is also possible that the current group of younger adults who participated in the survey will retain their higher level of opposition as they age.

One of the reasons for the high level of opposition to animal research among young adults is that animal rights groups, which distribute brochures to schools and use young celebrities to promote their cause, have been successful in influencing young people, especially girls. One study found that factors beyond educational achievement and science literacy, for example, a strong emotional component, account for the strong opposition among young women. Interestingly, this study revealed that the level of science achievement among girls who opposed animal research was higher than that for girls who favored animal research (Kimmel Pifer 1994).


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