Americans are highly supportive of science and technology (S&T), but lack knowledge of them. That is the major finding of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) biennial surveys of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology. The most recent survey in this series was conducted in early 2001.
Statistics on Americans' lack of knowledge of such subjects as history, geography, mathematics, and science receive a considerable amount of media attention and are regularly cited in speeches given by various educators and policymakers. Even late night talk show hosts make fun of Americans' inability to answer simple questions. Although it is true that many Americans do not do well when quizzed on their knowledge of science and other subjects, it is not always clear how important this deficiency is. For instance, it has been noted that Americans are hardly unique; citizens in other countries perform just as poorly in tests of their basic knowledge of the world around them (Gup 2000). Also, a case can be made that most people do not need to know the answers to be able to function in their daily lives and serve as productive members of society. However, strong critical thinking and problem-solving skillsthe ability to evaluate information and make sound decisionsdo play an important role in people's lives.
The chapter begins with a discussion of the public's interest in and knowledge of S&T. The level of interest in S&T is an indicator of both the visibility of the science and engineering (S&E) community's work and the relative importance accorded S&T by society. The first section also contains data on the level of public understanding of both basic science concepts and the scientific process.
In the second section, public attitudes toward S&T are examined. Data on public attitudes toward Federal funding of scientific research and public confidence in the science community are included. In addition, this section contains information on public perceptions of the benefits and harms (or costs) of scientific research, genetic engineering, space exploration, the use of animals in scientific research, global warming, and attitudes toward math and science education.
The next sections feature discussions on the public image of the science community, including public perceptions of scientists and science occupations, and where Americans get information about S&T. Finally, interest in science fiction and the relationship between science and pseudoscience, including concerns about belief in paranormal phenomena, are examined in the last section of the chapter.
In addition, results of surveys sponsored by organizations other than NSF are discussed throughout each section.