Public Interest in S&T and Other Issues
The Publics Sense of Being Well Informed about S&T Issues
The "Attentive Public" for S&T Issues
Public Understanding of S&T
Most people say they are interested in S&T. When asked in a survey about their level of interest, few people will admit to having no interest. This is the usual pattern that shows up in NSF surveys in which approximately 9 out of every 10 adults interviewed by telephone report they are either very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. (See appendix table 7-1.)
Despite the expression of interest in S&T, few people (less than 15 percent in 2001) feel very well informed about these subjects. And, available evidence suggests that their lack of confidence in their knowledge is justified, because a substantial number of people appear to be unable to answer simple science-related questions.
In this section, four topics will be covered:
- public interest in S&T and other issues,
- the public's sense of feeling well informed about S&T and other issues,
- the "attentive" public for S&T policy, and
- public understanding of S&T.
Public Interest in S&T and Other Issues
Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations consistently show that Americans are interested in S&T issues. Among those who participated in the 2001 NSF survey, 47 percent said that they were very interested in new scientific discoveries, and 43 percent reported that they were very interested in the use of new inventions and technologies. About 45 percent said that they were moderately interested in these issues, and about 10 percent reported no interest. (See appendix table 7-1 and figure 7-1 .)
Nearly everyone is interested in new medical discoveries. Year after year, more people express interest in this subject than in any other. In 2001, about two-thirds of the NSF survey respondents reported they were very interested in new medical discoveries. None of the other survey items, except local school issues, received such a high percentage of very interested responses. Local school issues ranked second, with 59 percent of the respondents saying they were very interested in this topic. (See appendix table 7-1.)
In 2001, the level of interest in S&T came close to an all-time high. On a scale ranging from 0 to 100, the average level of public interest in new scientific discoveries was 69. Between 1985 and 1995, the index scores for this item ranged from 61 in 1992 to 67 in 1995. (See figure 7-2 and appendix table 7-2.)
The interest index for new inventions and technologies tracks quite closely with that for new scientific discoveries. It has been no lower than 64 since 1983. In 2001, the index level for this item was 66. The highest score ever recorded for this item was 69 in 1997. (See figure 7-2 and appendix table 7-2.)
New medical discoveries is the only issue that has consistently produced interest index scores in the 80s. Scores for environmental pollution and local school issues have been in the 70s for the past 10 years. Interest in environmental pollution seems to have gradually subsided, dropping from 80 in 1990 to 70 only 11 years later. During the same period, interest in local school issues increased from 67 in 1990 to 74 in 2001. Despite all the newsworthy events taking place in space during the past few years, interest in space exploration declined, dropping from 55 in 1997 to 50 in 2001. (See "Public Attitudes Toward Space Exploration.")
Are People as Interested in S&T Issues as They Assert?
When asked about their interest in S&T issues, few survey respondents admit being uninterested. However, there is reason to believe that their level of interest may not be as high as the data indicate. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center show crime, health, sports, and community affairs as the four types of news followed most closely by the American public; S&T ranks only seventh. (See text table 7-1 and sidebar "Leading News Stories of 2000.") Still, interest in news about S&T is only part of the story. The millions of people who visit science museums every year are also demonstrating interest in science without necessarily being interested in science news. (See "Where Americans Get Information About Science and Technology.") In addition, the number of science-related books on best seller lists seems to be increasing (Lewenstein forthcoming).
In addition, S&T issues are rarely selected in most national polls designed to determine the top public priorities in the United States. For example, according to one recent poll from 2000, the leading public priorities are (1) improving the educational system, (2) keeping the economy strong, (3) securing Social Security, (4) reducing crime, and (5) securing Medicare (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2000a). In the same poll, protecting the environment ranked ninth, just ahead of national defense. Science did not rank among the top 14. However, when survey participants are specifically given the opportunity to rank S&T in the context of other issues, their priorities can change. In such a poll, 50 percent of those surveyed said that "more money for science research and engineering" was very important, and 44 percent said somewhat important, ranking this issue ahead of tax cuts (50 and 35 percent, respectively) and campaign finance reform (29 and 36 percent, respectively) (Research! America 2001). As in many other polls, however, education and Social Security/Medicare were ranked ahead of every other issue in terms of importance, with 85 and 72 percent, respectively, of those surveyed saying those two public agenda items were very important.
Most polls, especially those conducted during the 2000 presidential campaign, show education to be one of the public's top priorities (Gallup Poll Editors 2001). Thus, it is not surprising to see the NSF interest index score for local school issues jumping three points between 1999 and 2001 from 71 to 74, displacing environmental pollution as the public's second highest priority (after new medical discoveries).
Sex as an Indicator of Interest in S&T Issues
Men express more interest than women in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. (See figure 7-2 .) The 9-point gap is particularly large for the latter but smaller than the 14-point gap for space exploration. Men also express more interest than women in economic and business conditions, military and defense policy, and international and foreign policy. Women are more interested than men in new medical discoveries and local school issues; the differences are 11 and 10 points, respectively. (See appendix table 7-3.)
Level of Education as an Indicator of Interest in S&T Issues
Level of formal education and number of mathematics and science courses completed are associated with interest in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. (See figure 7-2 and appendix table 7-3.) A relationship also exists between education and level of interest in international and foreign policy, space exploration, and economic issues and business conditions. There does not seem to be a relationship between education and level of interest in new medical discoveries, military and defense policy, or environmental pollution. (See appendix table 7-3.)
In addition, people who have college degrees follow S&T stories more closely than those who do not. For example, in the July 2000 Pew Research Center survey, 25 percent of those who had college degrees said they were closely following the human genome announcement. Among those who did not have college degrees, fewer than 12 percent were closely following the story. In contrast, during the same month, 23 percent of the latter group said they were closely following the story about the Philadelphia police beating a carjacking suspect. Only 16 percent of those who had college degrees claimed to be following that story very closely (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2000c).
Data for the United Kingdom
Although comparable data for the European Union, Japan, and Canada have not been collected since the late 1980s or early 1990s (these data were included in previous editions of Indicators), several items used in the U.S. survey were replicated in a 2000 survey of U.K. residents (Office of Science and Technology and The Wellcome Trust 2000). The data show that British residents express less interest than their counterparts in the United States in new medical discoveries, environmental issues, new inventions and technologies, and new scientific discoveries. (See text table 7-2 .)
In addition, U.K. survey participants were asked to rate (on a 5-point scale) their interest in, and to assess the benefits of, 11 disciplines or technologies. Rankings by level of interest and perceived benefits were similar. For example: Two health-related items, new medicines and heart and other transplants, were at the top of both lists: 35 and 28 percent, respectively, of the respondents said they were very interested in these topics. Respondents were also most likely to judge these items as beneficial; 61 and 56 percent, respectively, categorized them as very beneficial.
Ranking next in terms of both interest and perceived benefits were research into climate change as well as computing and the Internet (both with 20 percent very interested and 29 percent very beneficial responses). Respondents also saw telecommunications as being highly beneficial. In addition to the 28 percent who judged these technologies as being very beneficial, another 52 percent gave this item a "4" on the 5-point scale, placing it just behind new medicines and heart and other transplants in terms of the total percentage scoring this category beneficial. However, only 16 percent of the respondents said they were very interested in telecommunications. New and faster methods of transportation rounded out the top six categories.
Five items received the lowest scores under both criteria. In order of perceived benefits were human fertility testing, new methods of food production and manufacture, space research and astronomy, genetic testing, and cloning. Respondents expressed more interest, however, in space and food than in the other biology-related categories.
The Public's Sense of Being Well Informed about S&T Issues
In general, most Americans feel that they are not well informed about S&T issues. In fact, for all issues included in the 2001 NSF survey, the level of feeling well informed was considerably lower than the level of expressed interest. For example, in the 2001 NSF survey, nearly half of the respondents said they were very interested in new developments in science and technology. Yet fewer than 15 percent of respondents described themselves as very well informed about new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies; approximately 30 percent considered themselves poorly informed. (See appendix table 7-4.) Consequently, the corresponding index scores were lower than the interest index scores for those same issues. (See figure 7-1 .)
In 2001, three issues exhibited index scores in the 50s (local school issues, economic issues and business conditions, and new medical discoveries); two exhibited scores in the 40s (environmental pollution and issues about new scientific discoveries); and the other five exhibited scores in the 30s. (See appendix table 7-5.)
The NSF survey shows that people are feeling less informed than they used to. This downward trend is particularly noticeable for the five S&T-related issues included in the survey: between 1997 and 2001, index scores fell 5 or more points for four issues (new medical discoveries, new scientific discoveries, the use of new inventions and technologies, and space exploration) and 4 points for environmental pollution.
Sex as an Indicator of Feeling Well Informed About S&T Issues
Men were more likely than women to feel well informed about 6 of the 10 issues included in the 2001 NSF survey. By far the widest gap, 13 points, was in space exploration. Military and defense policy and economic issues and business conditions had gender gaps of 10 and 9 points, respectively. Other items (for example, issues about new scientific discoveries and international and foreign policy issues) had gender gaps of 7 or fewer points. (See appendix table 7-6.)
In contrast, women were more likely than men to feel well informed about two issues in the survey: local school issues and new medical discoveries. For these issues, the disparity in index scores between the two sexes was 10 and 7 points, respectively.
Level of Education as an Indicator of Feeling Well Informed About S&T Issues
As expected, in general, the more education an individual has, and the more mathematics and science courses the individual has completed, the better informed that person believes he or she is. The relationship between education and feeling well informed is evident for new scientific discoveries, the use of new inventions and technologies, space exploration, economic issues and business conditions, and international and foreign policy issues, but not for the other issues in the survey. (See appendix table 7-6.)
The "Attentive Public" for S&T Issues
It may not be easy to pinpoint exactly the audience for issues pertaining to S&T policy. It is probably safe to say that members of the S&E workforce, especially those in the academic community, are interested in and well informed about various S&T policy issues. However, the number of members in this community is relatively small. (See chapter 3, "Science and Engineering Workforce," and chapter 5, "Academic Research and Development.")
In addition to scientists and engineers and those who work in science policy, other members of the public are interested in S&T and probably pay attention to news reports about new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies. Also, some people are attentive because a particular S&T-related issue or event is affecting their daily lives. This type of situation was portrayed in the popular movie Erin Brockovich, in which the main character, who was not a scientist or even well educated, embarked on a mission to learn everything she could about a scientific issue that was at the center of a court case. Although the science community took umbrage at the way scientific evidence was portrayed in the film (Kolata 2000), the movie illustrates how people become informed and attentive when their health and well-being are at stake.
Classifying the Public as Attentive, Interested, or Residual
It is important to identify the audience for S&T issues so that the attitudes of this group can be compared with those of everyone else. Therefore, it is useful to classify the public into three groups:
- The attentive public consists of those who (1) express a high level of interest in a particular issue; (2) feel very well informed about the issue; and (3) read a newspaper on a daily basis, read a weekly or monthly news magazine, or read a magazine relevant to the issue.
- The interested public consists of those who claim to have a high level of interest in a particular issue but do not feel very well informed about it.
- The residual public consists of those who are neither interested in nor feel very well informed about a particular issue.
Given these criteria, there is an attentive public for every policy issue. The corresponding groups differ in size and composition. For example, data for 2001 showed that, for most issues covered by the NSF survey, fewer than 10 percent of the public could be considered attentive. Local school issues had, by far, the largest audience, followed by new medical discoveries, economic and business conditions, and environmental pollution. In 2001, 31, 14, 12, and 10 percent, respectively, of all survey respondents were classified as attentive to those subjects. (See appendix table 7-7.)
Identifying the Attentive Public for S&T Issues
People likely to be attentive to S&T issues are identified by combining the attentive public for new scientific discoveries with the attentive public for new inventions and technologies. In 2001, 10 percent of the population met the criteria, down from 14 percent in 1997. In 2001, 48 percent of the population could be classified as the interested public for S&T issues; the residual public constituted 42 percent of the total. (See appendix table 7-7.)
Sex and Level of Education as Identifiers of the Attentive Public for S&T Issues
Men were more likely than women to be attentive to S&T issues. (See figure 7-3 and appendix table 7-8.) In addition, a direct correlation exists between attentiveness to S&T issues, years of formal education, and the number of science and mathematics courses completed during high school and college. In 2001, only 3 percent of people lacking high school diplomas were classified as attentive to S&T issues, compared with 23 percent of those who had graduate and/or professional degrees. Similarly, 7 percent of those having limited coursework in science and mathematics were attentive to S&T issues compared with 18 percent of those who had completed nine or more high school and college courses in science or mathematics.
Public Understanding of S&T
Science literacy in the United States is fairly low. The majority of the general public knows a little, but not a lot, about S&T. For example, most Americans know that Earth travels around the Sun and that light travels faster than sound. However, few can successfully define molecule. In addition, most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process.
People who have knowledge of basic science facts, concepts, and vocabulary may have an easier time following news reports and participating in public discourse on various issues pertaining to S&T. Even more important than having basic knowledge may be an appreciation for the nature of scientific inquiry. Understanding how ideas are investigated and analyzed can be valuable for staying abreast of important issues, participating in the political process, and assessing the validity of other types of information. (See "Science Fiction and Pseudoscience.") According to a science journalist:
Without a grasp of scientific ways of thinking, the average person cannot tell the difference between science based on real data and something that resembles scienceat least in their eyesbut is based on uncontrolled experiments, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions
[W]hat makes science special is that evidence has to meet certain standards (Rensberger 2000
, p. 61).
The NSF survey contains a series of questions designed to assess public knowledge and understanding of basic science concepts and terms. The survey includes 18 such questions: 13 true or false, 3 multiple choice, and 2 open-ended questions that asked respondents to define in their own words DNA and molecule. In addition, the survey includes questions designed to test public understanding of the scientific process, including knowledge of what it means to study something scientifically, how experiments are conducted, and probability.
Understanding Science Facts, Concepts, and Vocabulary
The percentage of correct responses to most of the NSF survey questions pertaining to basic science facts, concepts, and vocabulary has remained nearly constant. (See appendix table 7-9.) For example, more than 70 percent of those surveyed knew that:
- Plants produce oxygen.
- The continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move.
- Light travels faster than sound.
- Earth goes around the Sun (and not vice versa).
- Not all radioactivity is manmade.
In contrast, about half the respondents knew that:
- The earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
- It takes Earth one year to go around the Sun.
- Electrons are smaller than atoms.
- Antibiotics do not kill viruses.
- Lasers do not work by focusing sound waves. (See figure 7-4 and appendix table 7-10.)
A strong, positive relationship exists between number of correctly answered questions and level of formal education, number of science and mathematics courses completed, and attentiveness to S&T. For example, those who did not complete high school answered an average of 50 percent of the questions correctly compared with scores of 63 percent for high school graduates, 77 percent for college graduates, and 80 percent for those who earned graduate or professional degrees. (See appendix table 7-9.)
In addition, only 22 percent of respondents were able to define molecule, and 45 percent gave an acceptable definition for DNA. Although the percentage of correct responses to these questions was considerably lower than that for most of the short-answer questions, it is noteworthy that the percentage of correct responses increased in the late 1990s.
A higher percentage of men than women answered every question but three correctly. The gender gap was 20 or more points for four questions:
- Lasers work by focusing sound waves (61 percent of men compared with 30 percent of women).
- Light travels faster than sound (89 percent of men compared with 65 percent of women).
- Earth takes one year to go around the Sun (66 percent of men compared with 42 percent of women).
- Earth goes around the Sun and not vice versa (86 percent of men compared with 66 percent of women).
More women than men answered the following questions correctly:
- The father's gene decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl (72 percent of women compared with 58 percent of men).
- Antibiotics do not kill viruses (55 percent of women compared with 46 percent of men).
For the first time, a majority of all survey respondents answered the antibiotic question correctly (although a majority of men missed it). The growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics has received widespread media coverage during the past few years. In identifying the main cause of the problem, the overprescribing of antibiotics, it is almost always mentioned that antibiotics are ineffective in killing viruses. In addition, parents of young children, especially those prone to ear infections, have been warned by their pediatricians about this problem. Although the message still has not reached a large segment of the population, the percentage of those answering correctly has been rising, from 40 percent in 1995 to 51 percent in 2001.
During most of the 20th century, probably the most contentious issue in science teaching has been whether evolution is taught or not taught in U.S. public school classrooms. The latest major dispute in this long-running battle was the Kansas State Board of Education's 1999 decision to delete evolution from the state's science standards. This event received widespread coverage in the press and sparked an outcry in the science community. In addition, most of the public was not happy with the decision; 60 percent of Americans were opposed to the school board's action. Moreover, most Kansans also felt the same way. Thus, it was not too surprising when two board members who had voted for the change were defeated in the next election by candidates who supported the teaching of evolution. Subsequently, the reconstituted Kansas School Board reversed the decision.
The attention received by the Kansas controversy may be responsible for a change in response to the "evolution" question. For the first time, a majority of survey respondents answered true to the statement "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," representing a major change in response to this question and bringing the United States more in line with other industrialized countries in response to this question (Gendall, Smith, and Russell 1995).
Gallup polls taken during the past 20 years consistently show a plurality (45 percent in February 2001) of Americans agreeing with the statement: "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" (Brooks 2001).
In addition, two-thirds of those surveyed (68 percent) favor teaching this belief (known as creationism) along with evolution in public schools, although 29 percent are opposed. However, 55 percent are opposed to teaching creationism instead of evolution (Gallup News Service 2000).
A study conducted for the People for the American Way Foundation took a closer look at the question of teaching evolution and found an overwhelming majority of Americans (83 percent) agreeing that it should be taught in the classroom. However, there is also strong support for teaching creationism. A detailed breakdown of the survey findings shows a wide range of opinion on the issue:
- 20 percent favor teaching only evolution and nothing else in public schools;
- 17 percent want only evolution taught in science classes but say that religious explanations can be discussed in other classes;
- 29 percent do not have a problem with creationism being discussed in science classes but believe it should be discussed as a "belief," not a scientific theory;
- 13 percent believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught as scientific theories in science class;
- 16 percent want no mention of evolution at all;
- 4 percent are in favor of teaching both evolution and creationism but are unsure about how to do it; and
- 1 percent have no opinion (People for American Way Foundation 2000).
Understanding the Scientific Process
The NSF survey also includes questions intended to determine how well the public understands the scientific process. Respondents are asked to explain what it means to study something scientifically. In addition, respondents are asked questions pertaining to the experimental evaluation of a drug and about probability.
In 2001, 33 percent of respondents provided good explanations of what it means to study something scientifically. A large minority (43 percent) answered the experiment questions correctly, including the question(s) that focused on the use of control groups. A majority (57 percent) answered the four probability questions correctly. (See appendix table 7-11.)
A combination of each survey participant's responses to the three items is used to estimate his or her overall level of understanding of the scientific process. To be classified as "understanding the scientific process," a respondent must 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 by explaining why it is better to test a drug using a control group. In 2001, 30 percent of respondents met these criteria. (See footnote 10, figure 7-5 , and appendix table 7-11.)