Trends in Attitudes Toward S&T
Public Attitudes Toward Scientific Research
Public Attitudes Toward Federal Funding of Scientific Research
Public Attitudes Toward Specific Science-Related Issues
Public Attitudes Toward Science and Mathematics Education
In general, Americans express highly favorable attitudes toward S&T. In 2001, overwhelming majorities of NSF survey respondents agreed with the following statements:
- "Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable." (86 percent agreed and 11 percent disagreed)
- "Most scientists want to work on things that will make life better for the average person." (89 percent agreed and 9 percent disagreed)
- "With the application of science and technology, work will become more interesting." (72 percent agreed and 23 percent disagreed)
- "Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation." (85 percent agreed and 14 percent disagreed) (See appendix table 7-12.)
In addition, Americans seem to have more positive attitudes toward S&T than their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Japan. (See text table 7-3 .)
Despite these positive indicators, a sizable segment, although not a majority, of the public has some reservations concerning science and especially technology. For example, in 2001, approximately 50 percent of NSF survey respondents agreed with the following statement: "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith" (46 percent disagreed). In addition, 38 percent agreed with the statement: "Science makes our way of life change too fast" (59 percent disagreed). (See appendix table 7-12.)
Over time these percentages have remained nearly constant, with only slight variation from survey to survey. For example, since 1983, at least 80 percent of survey respondents have agreed that "science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable." The percentages have ranged from 84 percent in 1983 and 1990 to 90 percent in 1999. Similarly, the percentage disagreeing that "we depend too much on science and not enough on faith" has ranged from 39 percent in 1985 to 48 percent in 1997. (See appendix table 7-13.)
In addition, an increasing number of people believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. (See "Public Attitudes Toward Scientific Research.") The concerns that do exist are related to the effect of technology on society. For example, in 2001, a sizable minority, 44 percent, agreed with the statement that "people would do better by living a simpler life without so much technology." (See appendix table 7-14.) Also, about 30 percent of respondents agreed that "technological discoveries will eventually destroy the Earth" and that "technological development creates an artificial and inhumane way of living." (See appendix tables 7-15 and 7-16.)
The existence of public concern about the effect of technology on society does not negate the fact that the vast majority of Americans have highly favorable opinions of technology and are highly appreciative of the role of S&T in the history and economic success of the United States. Results from various surveys show the following:
- More than 90 percent think science and technology have been important "in establishing the United States' influence in the world" and "to America's economic success in the 20th century"; 60 percent think they have been very important. Also, 90 percent believe that science and technology have changed life during the past 100 years for the better, and more than 70 percent say they were more likely to vote for a candidate "who places a high priority on strengthening science and technology" (Bayer/NSF 2000).
- Eighty-nine percent think science and technology will play a major role "if life is going to be better in this country in the future (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 1999a)." More people gave this response for science and technology than for any other item in the survey, including medical advances, which got the second highest vote of confidence. Also, the 89 percent statistic represents a substantial increase over the corresponding 77 percent recorded in the 1996 version of the survey.
- Americans also believe that advancements in science and technology were the nation's and the government's greatest achievements during the 20th century. The space program tops the list of those achievements, followed by technology in general, and computers. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said that the invention of airline travel and television were a change for the better; more than 80 percent gave the same response for the highway system and computers; and more 90 percent put the automobile and radio in the "change-for-the-better" category. The only technologies not receiving strong public endorsement were nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Among technologies introduced in the past decade, Americans are the most enthusiastic about communication technologies, such as email, the Internet, cellular phones, and cable TV, and the least enthusiastic about fertility drugs, Prozac, Viagra, and the cloning of sheep (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 1999b).
- Eighty-seven percent agree that "technology in general makes a positive contribution to society"; only 3 percent think that it makes a negative contribution (American Association of Engineering Societies 1998).
Trends in Attitudes Toward S&T
To track trends in public attitudes toward S&T, 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 S&T. The ratio fell from 1.46 in 1999 to 1.30 in 2001 largely because of a decline in the Index of Scientific Promise. Thus, although people still have highly positive attitudes toward S&T, their attitudes may have been somewhat less positive in 2001 than they were two years earlier. The change occurred across all education groups and among both sexes. (See appendix table 7-17.)
Public Attitudes Toward Scientific Research
An overwhelming majority of Americans consistently believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. In 2001, 47 percent of NSF survey respondents said that the benefits strongly outweighed the harms, and 25 percent said that the benefits slightly outweighed the harms. These percentages have remained nearly constant during the past two decades, as has the percentage of respondents taking the opposite view that the harms outweigh the benefits. However, the most recent data show the latter (which had been in the teens for most of the past two decades) declining from 15 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2001. Concurrently, the percentage of respondents saying the benefits were equal to the harmful results increased from 11 percent in 1999 to 19 percent in 2001. (See figure 7-6 and appendix table 7-18.)
Men express greater confidence than women that the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results. About three-fourths of the men, compared with approximately two-thirds of the women, agreed that the benefits outweighed the harms. Level of education is also strongly associated with a positive response to this question. Those who did not complete high school were less likely than those with more formal education to believe that the benefits outweighed the harms, although it should be noted that even 55 percent of this group said the benefits outweighed the harms. The corresponding percentages for high school graduates and for those having at least a bachelor's degree were 70 and 87 percent, respectively. (See appendix table 7-18.)
Public Attitudes Toward Federal Funding of Scientific Research
All indicators point to widespread support for government funding of basic research. In 2001, 81 percent of NSF survey respondents 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." (See appendix table 7-19.) The level of agreement with this statement has consistently been in the 80-percent range. In 2000, 72 percent of U. K. residents agreed with the statement, as did 80 percent of Japanese residents (in 1995). (See text table 7-3 .)
If the stability and lack of variation of this measure of public support for basic research are noteworthy, so is the consistently small number of people who have the opposite viewpoint. In 2001, 16 percent disagreed with the statement; the same level of disagreement had been recorded two years earlier. (See appendix table 7-20.)
Although there is strong evidence that the public supports the government's investment in basic research, few Americans are able to name the two agencies that provide most of the Federal funds for this type of research. In a recent survey, only 5 percent identified the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as the agency that "funds most of the taxpayer-supported medical research performed in the United States," and only 3 percent named NSF as "the government agency that funds most of the basic research and educational programming in the sciences, mathematics and engineering." (Research!America 2001).
In addition, those with more positive attitudes toward S&T were more likely to express support for government funding of basic research. In 2001, 93 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 68 percent of those with relatively low index scores. (See figure 7-7 and appendix table 7-20.)
In 2001, only 14 percent of NSF survey respondents thought the government was spending too much on scientific research; 36 percent thought the government was not spending enough, a percentage that has grown steadily since 1990, when 30 percent chose that answer. (See appendix table 7-21.) Men are more than likely than women to say the government is spending too little in support of scientific research (40 versus 33 percent in 2001). (See appendix table 7-22.)
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 programs to improve health care, help senior citizens, improve education, and reduce pollution. Only the issues space exploration and national defense received less support for increased spending than scientific research.
In 2001, 48 percent of those surveyed thought spending on space exploration was excessive, the highest percentage for any item in the surveyand nearly double the number of those who felt that the government was spending too much on national defense. In contrast, the latter has been falling steadily, from 40 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2001. (See appendix table 7-21 and "Public Attitudes Toward Space Exploration.")
Sex as an Indicator of Support for Federal Funding of Scientific Research
Men express more support for Federal funding of scientific research than women. The most recent data show that 86 percent of men and 77 percent of women who responded to the survey agreed that the Federal Government should support basic research. (See appendix table 7-19.)
Level of Education as an Indicator of Support for Federal Funding of Scientific Research
Support for federally funded basic research is tied to education level. In 2001, about 80 percent of those surveyed who had not completed college agreed that the Federal Government should support scientific research compared with about 90 percent of those who had completed college. (See appendix table 7-19.)
Public Attitudes Toward Specific Science-Related Issues
Public Attitudes Toward Genetic Engineering
There is no question that genetic engineering has become a hot issue. From the nationwide recall of taco shells containing an unapproved form of genetically modified corn to scientists promising to clone humans in the not-too-distant future, genetic engineering has been the source of a growing number of concerns in recent years. Americans, like their counterparts in other countries, have been trying to understand and weigh the risks and benefits of this issue. In the case of agricultural products, the benefits of expanded yields, reduced perishability, and decreased need for chemical pesticides have been counterbalanced by perceived health and environmental risks and a threat to consumers' ability to make choices about what they eat (Hopkin 2001).
The conventional wisdom that biotechnology is not a contentious issue, including the assumption that opposition is limited to an extremist "fringe," may no longer be true (Priest 2000). The battle for the hearts and minds of the American public is certainly under way:
- Media coverage of agricultural biotechnology increased more than eightfold between 1997 and 2000 (Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001).
- The PBS documentary series Frontline produced "Harvest of Fear," a two-hour special on the subject that aired in April 2001. (See <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/harvest>.)
- The Biotechnology Association of America spent $7.5 million on political advertising in 2000, more than any other special interest group except one (Goldstein 2001).
Despite the exposure of this issue in the media, the most recent data show that 70 percent of the public consider themselves "not very well informed" or "not informed at all" about modern biotechnology; the corresponding statistic for Europeans is 80 percent (Priest 2000, Gaskell et al. 2000). Available data, however, indicate that awareness is increasing (Shanahan, Scheufele, and Lee 2001).
Even though most people do not consider themselves well informed about biotechnology, there is no shortage of researchers studying public opinion, including an international effort to compare attitudes in the United States, Europe, and Canada (Gaskell and Bauer 2001). In the 2000 U.S. survey, participants were asked to assess six biotechnology applications, which are listed here in rank order from the one receiving the least opposition to the one receiving the most: genetic testing for inherited disease, engineering of bacteria to produce pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering of pest-resistant crops, food biotechnology, organ transplants, and animal cloning. In the European survey, genetically modified (GM) food received more negative responses than any other application. (See sidebar "Public Attitudes Toward Biotechnology.")
The 2001 and earlier NSF surveys suggest that the American public is somewhat ambivalent about genetic engineering. Although the evidence is not entirely conclusive, the NSF surveys show the following:
- Support for genetic engineering has never been very high. That is, in no year has a majority of respondents agreed that the benefits outweigh the harmful results.
- Support for genetic engineering has gradually declined during the past 15 years. In 2001, 40 percent of those surveyed thought the benefits outweighed the harms, down from 49 percent in 1985.
The ambiguity in the survey results becomes apparent when one looks at the data on the number of people who think the harms outweigh the benefits. This statistic has also declined in most years, from 39 percent in 1985 to 33 percent in 2001. Consequently, the declining numbers in both the benefits-greater-than-harms and harms-greater-than-benefits categories was offset by a growing number of respondents who think the benefits are equal to the harms. The percentage in this group grew from 12 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2001. (See figure 7-8 and appendix table 7-23.)
Men have always had more favorable attitudes than women toward genetic engineering. The gender gap has usually been at least 10 points. In 2001, 45 percent of men and 34 percent of women responding to the survey said that the benefits of genetic engineering outweighed the harmful results. (See appendix table 7-23.)
College graduates are more likely than high school graduates to tout the benefits of genetic engineering. That is, they are both more likely than others to believe that the benefits are greater than the harms and less likely to say that the harms outweigh the benefits. In 2001, 48 percent of survey respondents who had earned college degrees agreed that the benefits outweighed the harms compared with 37 percent of those who had earned only high school degrees and 39 percent of those who had not graduated from high school. Also, 25 percent of the college graduates thought the harms outweighed the benefits compared with 36 percent of high school graduates. The drop in support for genetic engineering during the past 15 years occurred among both high school and college graduates.
Until 2001, the majority (at least 60 percent) of people classified as attentive to science and technology (who may or may not be college graduates) agreed that the benefits of genetic engineering outweighed the harmful results. This statistic dropped from 64 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2001. In addition, there was a substantial increase in those saying the harmful results outweighed the benefits, from 20 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2001.
Public Attitudes Toward Space Exploration
Public support for space exploration rose during the 1990s, then slipped in 2001. The most recent data show 45 percent of the public agreeing that the benefits of space exploration outweigh the costs, down from 49 percent in 1999. Not since 1985 (before the Challenger accident), have more than 50 percent of respondents to NSF's public attitudes survey stated that the benefits of the space program exceeded the costs. The drop in support during the mid-1980s, from 54 percent in 1985 to 47 percent three years later, was particularly dramatic. NSF survey data suggest that most of the public is having difficulty recognizing the benefits of the space program. The effects of the Challenger accident (and other mishaps, such as the loss of the billion-dollar Mars Observer) are still being felt, and even NASA's recent successes, such as Senator John Glenn's return to space on the space shuttle Discovery in late 1998, have not provided a lasting boost to public opinion. (See figure 7-12 and appendix table 7-25.)
Another survey series (Carlson 2001) has been tracking Americans' views of NASA. In late 1999, 53 percent of those surveyed described NASA's job performance as excellent or good; 43 percent gave the agency a fair or poor rating. In contrast, 76 percent rated NASA's performance as excellent or good following John Glenn's return to space in 1998. The lowest performance rating in this survey series was recorded in September 1993. At that time, only 43 percent thought that NASA's performance was excellent or good.
Like other issues, space exploration receives differing levels of support from men and women. Men are much more likely than women to champion the benefits of space exploration. In every year but two (1990 and 1992), a majority of men responding to the survey agreed that the benefits outweighed the costs, while 40 percent of women held this view. In contrast, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, 50 percent or more of women responding to the survey thought that the costs exceeded the benefits. This is no longer true; in 2001, 45 percent of women thought that the costs outweighed the benefits.
People who have more formal education are more likely than others to say that the benefits of space exploration exceed the costs. In 2001, only 33 percent of respondents lacking a high school education agreed that the benefits outweighed the costs compared with 44 percent of those who had graduated from high school and 55 percent of those who had a bachelor's or higher degree.
Those identified as attentive to S&T or space exploration are more likely than the public at large to believe that the benefits exceed the costs. In 2001, at least 60 percent of each attentive group put the benefits ahead of the costs compared with less than 50 percent of the public at large.
Public Attitudes Toward Use of Animals in Scientific Research
Few issues in science are as divisive as the use of animals in scientific research. (See appendix tables 7-26/a> and 7-27.)
Public attitudes toward research using animals are shaped by:
- The purpose of the research. Using animals in research to fight diseases such as cancer and AIDS draws less opposition than using animals to test cosmetics.
- The type of animal. The public tolerates the use of mice in scientific experiments to a greater degree than the use of dogs and chimpanzees.
- The existence of alternatives, such as computer simulations. When researchers can meet their goals without using animals, the public opposes the use of animals (Kimmel 1997).
Data from the NSF surveys and those conducted by other organizations show the following:
- In 2001, 52 percent opposed research using dogs and chimpanzees.
- Compared with the citizens of other industrialized nations, Americans are more supportive of animal research (Kimmel 1997).
In addition, attitudes toward the use of animals in research continue to depend on the sex and age of the respondent. Women are far more likely than men to say they are opposed to the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research. In 2001, 62 percent of women surveyed voiced opposition, but only 40 percent of men held the same view. (See appendix table 7-27.) This gender gap in opinion cannot be attributed to differences between the sexes in science and mathematics education or differences in science literacy (Kimmel 1997). In 2001, the majority of people 54 years of age and younger opposed the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research, whereas a majority of those 65 and older were supportive. (See appendix table 7-27.)
Public Attitudes Toward Global Warming
Americans seem to be listening to what scientists and others have been saying about global climate change. Data from the 2001 NSF survey show that 88 percent of the public had heard of global warming, and of those, 77 percent believed that "increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming and an increase in average temperatures." (See appendix table 7-28.) In addition, in assessing the severity of the problem, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed responded that the possibility of global warming should be treated as either a very serious (53 percent) or somewhat serious (33 percent) problem. (See appendix table 7-29.)
Gallup polls show an increasing number of Americans "worrying" about global warming between 1997 and 2000. In 2000, 40 percent of those polled reported that they worried a great deal about the "greenhouse effect," or global warming, up from 24 percent in 1997 and 34 percent in 1999. However, the percentage dropped to 33 percent in 2001. The most recent Gallup data show a decrease in the amount of public concern for all 13 environmental problems included in the survey between 2000 and 2001. (See sidebar "Gallup Polls on Environmental Issues" and text table 7-4 .)
Public Attitudes Toward Science and Mathematics Education
Public discontent with the quality of science and mathematics education in the United States persists. As noted earlier in the chapter, surveys taken shortly before the 2000 presidential election revealed education to be at or near the top of lists of the most important problems facing the country.
In response to the 2001 NSF survey, 68 percent of those queried agreed that "the quality of science and mathematics education in American schools is inadequate." The percentage of survey respondents agreeing with this statement has ranged from 63 percent in 1985 and 1999 to 75 percent in 1992. Unlike other survey items, this question revealed no gender gap with respect to attitudes toward the quality of science and math education. (See appendix table 7-30.)
However, a strong positive correlation does exist between level of education and finding fault with the quality of science and math education. In 2001, 52 percent of respondents who had less than a high school education were dissatisfied with the quality of science and math education. In comparison, 68 percent of high-school-only graduates agreed with the statement, as did 76 percent of college graduates.
In another survey, more than 90 percent of those queried agreed that students in their states needed a stronger education in science and math "to be prepared for the new inventions, discoveries, and technologies that the increased investment in research and development will likely bring," and 85 percent agreed that "improving precollege science education should be one of [their] governor's top education priorities." Finally, 82 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate in the November 2000 election if the candidate supported Federal efforts to strengthen U.S. science and math education (Bayer/NSF 2000).
Two NSF/Bayer surveys conducted in 2000 and 2001 included questions about public attitudes toward the results of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). One of the key findings of TIMSS, first conducted in 1995 and repeated in 1999 (see chapter 1, "Elementary and Secondary Education"), was that high school seniors in the United States performed poorly in tests of their knowledge of science and math. In fact, they ranked last or nearly last among the students who participated in TIMSS.
According to the 2000 NSF/Bayer survey, most people were unaware of the TIMSS results, although they received a considerable amount of coverage in the press. Only 7 percent of those queried knew that the scores of U.S. seniors were considerably lower than those of students in most other participating countries; nearly 50 percent thought that U.S. students scored average or higher. However, after being informed of the TIMSS results, almost everyone expressed concern, and 52 percent said that they were very concerned.
In 2001, two-thirds of NSB/Bayer survey respondents considered the TIMSS-R results a warning sign that "U.S. students may be inadequately prepared for the workplace when they enter it in several years."