bypass all navigation science and engineering Indicators Home Page HTML Contents Page PDF Contents Page Help Page Comments Page Print format page
Indicators 2002
Introduction Overview Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Workforce Chapter 4: U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development Chapter 6: Industry, Technology, and the Global Marketplace Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding Chapter 8: Significance of Information Technology Appendix Tables
Chapter Contents:
Public Interest in and Knowledge of S&T
Public Attitudes Toward S&T, Scientific Research, Federal Funding of Scientific Research, and Specific Science-Related Issues
Public Image of the Science Community
Where Americans Get Information About S&T
Science Fiction and Pseudoscience
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Click for Figure 7-13
Figure 7-13

Click for Figure 7-14
Figure 7-14

Click for Figure 7-15
Figure 7-15

Click for Figure 7-16
Figure 7-16

Click for Figure 7-17
Figure 7-17

Science and Technology:  Public Attitudes and Public Understanding

Public Image of the Science Community

Public Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community
Public Perceptions of Scientists
Public Perceptions of Science Occupations

It is generally conceded that scientists and engineers have somewhat of an image problem (Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development 2000). Although their intelligence and work are highly respected (see "Public Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community"), that admiration does not seem to extend to other aspects of their lives. The charming and charismatic scientist is not an image that populates popular culture.[34] For example, the entertainment industry often portrays certain professions such as medicine, law, and journalism as exciting and glamorous, whereas scientists and engineers are almost always portrayed as unattractive, reclusive, socially inept white men or foreigners working in dull, unglamorous careers. (See sidebar "Few Scientists in Prime Time.")

Why does public image matter? What difference does it make if the public image of scientists and engineers is less than positive? Public image is important for at least two reasons:

  • Scientists represent the first line of communication about science to the general public. That is, they are responsible for conveying information, often through the news media, about scientific issues. They can also help the public understand the importance of science and appreciate its benefits. Image has a lot to do with how effective that communication is in capturing the attention of the public. The more appealing the image, the more likely that people will listen to what is being said.

  • Children are strongly influenced by the images they see around them at home, at school, and in popular culture. Researchers in this field point out that television has a tremendous influence on children's attitudes and behaviors, and what they see on television can affect the choices they make in life, including the careers they choose.[35] If they harbor negative stereotypes of scientists and engineers as nerdy and weird-looking, then they could reject science and engineering as potential careers.[36]

Public Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community top of page

Public confidence in the leadership of various professional communities has been tracked for more than a quarter of a century (Davis and Smith annual series). Participants in the General Social Survey were asked whether they had a "great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in the leadership of various professional communities. In 2000, 41 percent reported that they had a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the science community. Only the medical community received a greater vote of confidence. Science has ranked second since 1978, when it displaced the education community for the first time. The military, Supreme Court, banks and financial institutions, major companies, organized religion, and education occupied the next six spots in 2000. The public had the least confidence in the press and television; in 2000, only 10 percent of respondents reported having a "great deal of confidence" in their leadership. (See figure 7-14 figure and appendix table 7-31.)

Although the vote of confidence for the science community has fluctuated somewhat since 1973, it has remained about 40 percent. In contrast, the vote of confidence for the medical profession, once as high as 60 percent in 1974, has been gradually declining during most of the past 25 years.

Public Perceptions of Scientists top of page

The scientist is a man who wears a white coat and works in a laboratory. He is elderly or middle aged and wears glasses…He may wear a beard, may be…unkempt.…He is surrounded by equipment…and spends his days doing experiments (Mead and Metraux 1957).

In the years since Margaret Mead first recorded her observations, several social scientists have administered the "Draw-a-Scientist" Test (DAST) to children. In this test, students are asked to draw pictures of scientists. Those pictures are then examined to see if they contain certain features normally associated with the stereotypical image of a scientist, including:

  • a lab coat (usually white),

  • eyeglasses,

  • facial growth of hair (including beards, mustaches, or abnormally long sideburns),

  • scientific instruments and laboratory equipment,

  • books and filing cabinets,

  • technology or the "products" of science, and

  • captions, e.g., formulae, taxonomic classification, the "eureka!" syndrome.

Other features also are noted, such as the size of a scientific instrument in relation to the scientist; evidence of danger; the presence of light bulbs; the sex, race, or ethnicity of the scientist; and figures that resemble Einstein or "mad scientists" like Frankenstein (Chambers 1983). By counting the number of these indicators in the drawings, the researchers have been able to document the existence and prevalence of the stereotypical image of a scientist, one that contains at least several of the features cited above.

According to the DAST research, the stereotypical image of a scientist is alive and well in the minds of children. Moreover, children seem to form this image early in life, by the time they reach the second grade. It is even more ingrained and pronounced among older children. That is, the older the children, the more identified features their drawings contain. One study found little difference between the images held by college students and those of younger students, despite the fact that the former had probably had contact with actual scientists during their years at college (Barman 1997a; Fort and Varney 1989; Barman 1997b; Rahm and Charbonneau 1997).

In 2001, the NSF survey included questions intended to measure public perceptions of scientists. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with certain statements. For example, almost everyone (96 percent) agreed that "scientists are helping to solve challenging problems," and 86 percent agreed that "scientific researchers are dedicated people who work for the good of humanity." (See appendix tables 7-32 and 7-33.) Less than 20 percent thought that "a scientist usually works alone" and "scientists do not get as much fun out of life as other people do." (See appendix tables 7-34 and 7-35.) Among these four statements, there was little, if any difference in perception between the sexes. However, the more formal education one had, the more positive the perception. This was true for two of the four items. For example, more than a third (37 percent) of those who had not graduated from high school thought that scientists did not get as much fun out of life as other people. This statistic dropped to 18 percent for high school graduates and to 11 percent for college graduates.

Four other statements included in the survey generated larger numbers of negative perceptions than the four items discussed above. However, fewer than half of those surveyed agreed that scientists:

  • were apt to be odd and peculiar people (25 percent agreed),

  • had few other interests but their work (29 percent), and

  • were not likely to be very religious people (30 percent). (See appendix tables 7-36, 7-37, and 7-38.)

In contrast to the first group of questions, each of these statements produced a notable gender gap in perception, with more men than women having negative perceptions. For example:

  • 28 percent of men agreed with the statement that scientists were odd and peculiar people compared with 22 percent of women,

  • 33 percent of men but only 25 percent of women thought that scientists had few interests other than their work, and

  • 34 percent of men versus 26 percent of women thought scientists were not likely to be very religious people.

Public Perceptions of Science Occupations top of page

Despite the persistence of a stereotype that is difficult to dislodge, most people believe that scientists lead rewarding professional and personal lives. In fact, when asked how they would feel if their son or daughter wanted to become a scientist, 80 percent of respondents to the 2001 NSF survey said they would be happy with that decision (18 percent said they would not care and 2 percent reported they would be unhappy).[37] "Daughter" and "son" received equal percentages of positive responses, and men and women both "voted" the same way for both sons and daughters. (See appendix table 7-39.)

A Harris Poll Pilot Study conducted for the American Association of Engineering Societies in July 1998 produced what seems like an even higher level of enthusiasm for science as a career choice. This survey asked participants the following question:

Using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being extremely displeased and 10 being extremely pleased, if your son or daughter or other family member said they wanted to be a scientist, technician, or an engineer, how pleased would you be?

"Scientist" received the highest level of endorsement, a perfect 10 for a median response, followed by engineer at 9, and technician at 8 (American Association of Engineering Societies 1998). One of the many scientific professional societies, the American Chemical Society, recently commissioned a survey of the public's attitudes toward its members and the work they do. Although the chemical industry did not receive high marks, its members did. (See sidebar "Public Perceptions of Chemistry, the Chemical Industry, and Chemists.")

Despite these positive perceptions of science occupations, 53 percent of respondents to the 2001 NSF survey agreed that "scientific work is dangerous." Equal percentages of men and women chose this response, but the level of agreement declined as the level of formal education rose. That is, 70 percent of those who had not completed high school agreed with the statement compared with 56 percent of high school graduates and 30 percent of college graduates. (See appendix table 7-40.)

Prestige of Science Occupations

Perceptions of science occupations can also be assessed by examining the prestige that the public associates with each. Respondents to the most recent Harris survey ranked "scientist" second among 17 occupations in terms of prestige; however, the engineering profession ranked eighth (Taylor 2000).[38] More than 50 percent of respondents chose "very great prestige" for three occupations: doctor (61 percent), scientist (56 percent), and teacher (53 percent). Although these percentages changed little between 1998 and 2000, the prestige of teachers has risen dramatically, from 28 percent in 1982 to 53 percent in 1998. During the same period, there was a relatively small gain in prestige for doctors and a relatively small loss for scientists.

This survey shows that engineers are accorded not only less prestige than doctors, scientists, and teachers, but also less prestige than ministers, military officers, policemen, and members of Congress.[39] According to a recent study, "engineers have enjoyed a consistent but mediocre prestige for the past 20 years" (American Association of Engineering Studies 1998). However, engineers command more respect than architects, lawyers, athletes, and entertainers. The bottom tier includes journalists, union leaders, businessmen, bankers, and accountants.

Are Public Perceptions Based on Knowledge?

Although people perceive science and other occupations in terms of prestige or other value measures, on what do they base their perceptions? That is, how much do people actually know about science occupations and science professionals?

In response to the American Association of Engineering Societies survey in July 1998, sizable minorities of those surveyed did not consider themselves well informed about science and scientists (47 percent) or technology and technicians (41 percent). In addition, sizable percentages of survey respondents thought that the media did only a fair or poor job covering science (56 percent), technology (53 percent), and medical discoveries (44 percent).

The same survey produced telling statistics about the engineering profession. For example:

  • 61 percent of respondents did not consider themselves well informed about engineering and engineers,[40] and

  • 70 percent of respondents thought that the media did only a fair or poor job covering engineering.[41]

In addition, the public frequently underestimates the role engineers play in S&T advancement. For example, engineers have a much larger role in conducting space research, developing new forms of energy, and creating new materials than the public gives them credit for. (See figure 7-16 figure.) In addition, they are "perceived as pragmatic contributors to society—more so than are technicians—but are less attuned to societal issues than are scientists." (See figure 7-17 figure.)


[34]  See Goldman (1989). Theater also helps reinforce the stereotype, In the recent, Pulitzer prize and Tony-winning play Proof, mathematicians are portrayed as "a bunch of brilliant but crazy nerds who do things that are impossible to understand" (Davis 2001). Others, however, like author, screenwriter, and physician Michael Crichton defend Hollywood's depiction of science and technology. Movies such as Jurassic Park provide a needed balance to the "round-the-clock boosterism" science and technology usually receive in our society. According to Crichton (American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Anaheim California 1999), scientists are not the only professionals negatively portrayed on the big screen. Accountants, police officers, and politicians also frequently receive less than positive treatment.

[35]  According to one study of 1,500 television viewers, the more that people watch television, the more they think scientists are odd and peculiar (Gerbner and Linson 1999).

[36]  According to one researcher, "ask any teenager, or even any preteen, what she or he thinks that students gifted in mathematics and science look like, and it is likely that the answer will include an image that looks like the 'nerdy' scientist from Back to the Future: male, with glasses, a pocket protector, and a very strange hairdo.…It is nearly impossible to encourage students to do well in mathematics and science when they are faced with such ridiculous stereotypes everywhere they turn…We need more shows like Apollo 13, where scientists are shown as dedicated, intelligent professionals who lead exciting, fulfilling lives." (Sheffield 1997 pp. 377–78.)

[37]  In a study conducted in the United Kingdom, 74 percent of those surveyed said that science and engineering represent good career choices, while only 4 percent had the opposite point of view. The adjectives used most often to describe scientists and engineers were "intelligent, enquiring, logical, methodical, rational, and …responsible" (Office of Science and Technology and The Wellcome Trust 2000).

[38]  The question asked in this survey was: "I am going to read off a number of different occupations. For each, would you tell me if you feel it is an occupation of very great prestige, considerable prestige, some prestige, or hardly any prestige at all?"

[39] In a study conducted in the United Kingdom, engineering was perceived as a mostly male profession. Although the respondents tended to view the personalities of engineers as "cold and detached," they also saw them as more "socially responsible" and "sympathetic" than scientists (The Office of Science and Technology and The Wellcome Trust 2000).

[40] The comparable figures for science and scientists and technology and technicians were 47 and 43 percent, respectively.

[41] The comparable figures for science, technology, and medical discoveries were 56, 53, and 44 percent, respectively.

Previous Section Top of Section Next Section
home  |  help  |  comments
introduction  |  overview  |  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8  |  appendix tables