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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 7:
Highlights
Introduction
Information Sources, Interest, and Perceived Knowledge
Public Knowledge About S&T
Public Attitudes About Science-Related Issues
Conclusion
References
 
 

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and
Understanding

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Introduction

Chapter Overview
Chapter Organization

Chapter Overview  top of page

The vast majority of Americans recognize and appreciate the benefits of science and technology (S&T). They are aware of the role new discoveries play in ensuring their health and safety and the health of the economy. They have welcomed a wide variety of inventions—automobiles, household appliances, and motion pictures, to name just a few—that have improved their quality of life and standard of living. More recently, Americans have enthusiastically embraced major advancements in communication technologies, including the Internet, cellular telephones, and DVD players.

The public is also highly supportive of the government's role in fostering and funding scientific research. According to a survey conducted at the end of the millennium, Americans believe that advancements in S&T were the nation's and the government's greatest achievements during the 20th century (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 1999).

Although Americans are highly supportive of S&T, their knowledge is limited. Many people do not seem to have a firm understanding of basic scientific facts and concepts. Experts in science communication encounter widespread misunderstanding of how science works. Moreover, surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF)[1] and other organizations show minimal gains over time in the public's knowledge of science and the scientific method and suggest that belief in astrology and other forms of pseudo-science is widespread and growing.

According to a recent report (NIST 2002), many in the scientific community are concerned that the public's lack of knowledge about S&T may result in:

  • Less government support for research

  • Fewer young people choosing S&T careers

  • Greater public susceptibility to miracle cures, get-rich-quick schemes, and other scams

Chapter Organization  top of page

This chapter examines aspects of the public's attitudes toward and understanding of S&T. In addition to data collected in surveys sponsored by NSF, the chapter contains extensive information from studies and surveys undertaken by other organizations that track trends in media consumption and changes in public opinion on policy issues related to S&T. (See sidebar "Data Sources.") One of these sources is the most recent Eurobarometer on "Europeans, Science and Technology" (European Commission 2001), the first comprehensive survey of residents in all European Union member states in nearly a decade.

The chapter is in three parts. The first part focuses on S&T-related information and interest. It begins with a section on sources of news and information, including a detailed look at the role of the Internet. It then examines several measures of public interest in S&T. (Level of interest indicates both the visibility of the science and engineering community's work and the relative importance accorded S&T by society.) The first part also briefly discusses the public's perception of how well informed it is about science-related issues.

The second part of the chapter covers knowledge of S&T. It touches on the importance of scientific literacy; indicators of the public's familiarity with scientific terms and concepts, the scientific method, and technology; and belief in pseudoscience.

The third part examines public attitudes about S&T. It presents data on public opinion about Federal funding of scientific research and public confidence in the science community. It also includes information on how the public perceives the benefits and harms of scientific research and genetic engineering.






Footnotes

[1] The most recent NSF survey was conducted in 2001.


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