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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 7:
Information Sources, Interest, and Perceived Knowledge
Public Knowledge About S&T
Public Attitudes About Science-Related Issues
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Figure 7-10

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Figure 7-11

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Figure 7-12

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Figure 7-13

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and

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Public Attitudes About Science-Related Issues

S&T in General
Federal Funding of Scientific Research
S&T Role in National Security
Biotechnology and Medical Research
Environmental Issues
Technological Advances
Higher Education
Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community
Science Occupations

Public attitudes about science are generally more positive in the United States than in Europe, although both Americans and Europeans strongly support government funding for basic research. Recently, the public has grappled with controversial developments in biotechnology, especially human cloning and stem cell research. (The vast majority of Americans oppose the former, but attitudes about the latter are mixed.) Regardless of their attitudes about these and other science-related issues, the American public's confidence in the science community has remained high for several decades.

S&T in General top of page

In general, Americans have highly favorable attitudes regarding S&T. In the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) 2002 Life Sciences Survey, 86 percent of respondents agreed that developments in science have helped make society better, and 90 percent agreed that "scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives" (VCU Center for Public Policy 2002).[34]

Americans seem to have more positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T than are found in Europe, as reflected in levels of agreement with various statements in the 2001 NSF and Eurobarometer surveys:

  • "Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable." In the United States, 86 percent of respondents agreed, compared with 71 percent of Europeans. In addition, one of five Europeans disagreed, nearly twice the proportion of Americans who disagreed.

  • "With the application of science and technology, work will become more interesting." In the United States, 86 percent agreed, compared with 71 percent in Europe.

  • "Thanks to science and technology, there will be greater opportunities for future generations." In the United States, 85 percent agreed, compared with 72 percent in Europe.

  • "The benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results." In the United States, 72 percent agreed, compared with 50 percent in Europe. In addition, only one-tenth of Americans disagreed, compared with one-fourth of Europeans. Although the percentage of Americans agreeing with this statement has held steady at more than 70 percent since 1988, agreement has declined in Europe, falling 11 percentage points between 1992 and 2001.

Findings from the surveys also suggest certain relationships between knowledge of S&T and belief in its benefits. It seems that in Europe, the more people know about science (i.e., the more knowledge questions they answer correctly), the more likely they are to believe in its benefits (as reflected in their agreement with the four statements discussed above). If such a relationship exists in the United States, it generally is much weaker. Regardless of education level, Americans generally are more likely than Europeans to view S&T as beneficial. (For the most part, this difference is most apparent at the low end of the knowledge scale and lessens as knowledge scores increase.) The one exception to these general conclusions is the statement about the benefits of research outweighing harmful results. Here, the relationship between knowledge and agreement is stronger in the United States than in Europe, and the American-European differences in level of agreement are greater at the upper end of the knowledge scale than the lower end (figure 7-10 figure).

Despite Americans' highly favorable views about the benefits of S&T, a sizeable segment of the population has some reservations. In the 2003 VCU Life Sciences Survey, 63 percent of respondents agreed that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society" (28 percent agreed strongly, 35 percent somewhat), and more than half agreed that "scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions" (19 percent agreed strongly, 36 percent somewhat). In the 2001 Life Sciences Survey, those who said that "religious beliefs provide—guidance in [their] day-to-day living" were considerably more likely than others to support both statements (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001). In Europe, 31 percent of those surveyed agreed that "Europeans should be less concerned with ethical questions relating to modern science and technology"; 46 percent disagreed.

Findings from the NSF and Eurobarometer surveys also reveal some reservations about S&T in both the United States and Europe:

  • "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith." In the United States, 51 percent of respondents agreed with this statement, compared with 45 percent in Europe.

  • "Science makes our way of life change too fast." In the United States, 38 percent agreed, compared with 61 percent in Europe.

In the United States, the more knowledgeable respondents were about science, the less likely they were to agree with these statements (figure 7-11 figure).

Federal Funding of Scientific Research top of page

All indicators point to widespread public support for government funding of basic research in the United States. This has been the case since at least the mid-1980s.

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."[35] The stability of this measure of public support for basic research is noteworthy. The level of agreement with this statement has consistently been around 80 percent since 1985. In addition, a consistently small percentage of respondents have held the opposite view. In 2001, 16 percent disagreed with the statement (appendix table 7-6 Microsoft Excel icon).

Europeans also favor government investment in basic research. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed agreed with the above statement and only 10 percent disagreed. In addition, 83 percent of Europeans agreed that "basic scientific research is essential for the development of new technologies."

Although there is strong evidence that the American public supports the government's investment in basic research, few Americans can name the two agencies that provide most of the Federal funds for this type of research. In a recent survey, only 6 percent identified the National Institutes of Health as the "government agency that funds most of the medical research paid for by taxpayers in this country," and only 2 percent named NSF as "the government agency that funds most of the basic research and educational programming in the sciences, mathematics and engineering in this country." In the same survey, 67 percent could name the Food and Drug Administration as the "government agency that conducts the review and approval of new drugs and devices before they can be put on the market in this country," and 24 percent were able to name the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the "government agency whose primary mission is disease prevention and health promotion in this country" (Research!America 2002).

When Americans are surveyed about national priorities, scientific research is seldom one of their choices. Nevertheless, it is included as one of the priority choices in an ongoing Research!America survey. In the latest survey, 47 percent of respondents said that "more money for science research and engineering" was "very important"; that percentage was higher for all of the respondents' other four priority choices: education programs (84 percent), medical and health research (70 percent), Social Security and Medicare (73 percent), and tax cuts (50 percent) (Research!America 2003).[36] In the previous survey, most respondents said they would favor an elected official who supports increased funding for research (Research!America 2002).

In 2002, 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 held relatively constant for more than a decade. To put the response on scientific research in perspective, it helps to look at the percentage who thought the government was not spending enough in other program areas: improving health care (75 percent) and education (74 percent), reducing pollution (60 percent), improving national defense (31 percent), and exploring space (12 percent) (appendix table 7-7 Microsoft Excel icon).

The loss of the Columbia space shuttle in early 2003 apparently had little, if any, impact on public support for the U.S. space program. Public attitudes about manned space flight were strikingly similar to those recorded in 1986 after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger (see sidebar "Public Opinion in the Wake of the Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy").

Support for increased government spending on research is more common in Europe than in the United States. When asked about the statement "public research budgets ought to be higher in Europe," 60 percent of Eurobarometer respondents agreed.

S&T Role in National Security top of page

Americans are aware of the role of S&T in national security. According to one survey, 26 percent of the population is extremely or very concerned with the threat of biological or chemical terrorism such as anthrax or smallpox, 29 percent are somewhat concerned, and 45 percent are only slightly or not at all concerned. About 90 percent think that scientific research is either extremely or very important in preparing for and responding to threats of bioterrorism, and more than 80 percent strongly or somewhat support increased funding for such research (Research!America 2002).

Another survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization for the Bayer Corporation (2003), found that almost all adult Americans (96 percent) view S&T as playing a critical role in national security both domestically and internationally. When asked about the role of S&T in meeting future terrorist threats, 80 percent said that role is very important, and 17 percent said it is somewhat important.

Americans also are aware of the S&T role in specific aspects of national security, including military, intelligence, and law enforcement preparedness. More than 75 percent of survey respondents said that S&T plays a very important role in military and intelligence preparedness (about 20 percent said "somewhat important"), and 57 percent viewed the S&T role in law enforcement preparedness as very important. Most respondents said that the United States is either very or somewhat reliant on S&T for military preparedness (95 percent), intelligence preparedness (93 percent), and law enforcement preparedness (86 percent); the "very reliant" percentages were 63 percent, 57 percent, and 32 percent, respectively.

Americans also recognize the importance of a knowledgeable public in dealing with national security threats. Nine in 10 agreed that it is important for average Americans to be scientifically literate in order to understand and deal with nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, and cyberterrorism.

Three-fourths of Americans also expect that the emphasis on national security after the events of September 11, 2001, will create new job opportunities in S&T for today's students. Survey respondents also agreed that it is either very important (62 percent) or somewhat important (33 percent) for those entering the new homeland security jobs to be scientifically literate, and 72 percent agreed that scientific literacy is more important for students now than it was before September 11. However, more than half of respondents (52 percent) were very concerned, and 38 percent were somewhat concerned, that today's students may lack "the math and science skills necessary to produce the science excellence required for homeland security and economic leadership in the 21st century."

Biotechnology and Medical Research top of page

The introduction of new technologies based on genetic engineering is one of the few science-related public policy issues to raise controversy in recent years. From a nationwide recall of taco shells containing genetically modified corn not approved for human consumption to scientists promising to clone humans in the not-too-distant future, Americans have been trying to determine whether the potential benefits of biotechnology outweigh the risks. For example, the benefits of genetically modified food (increased productivity, longer shelf life, and reduced reliance on chemical pesticides) have been offset by concerns about health and environmental risks and consumers' right to choose what they eat. These controversies have also surfaced elsewhere in the world, often more dramatically than in the United States. (See sidebar, "European Public Opinion About Mad Cow Disease.")

International Attitudes About Biotechnology

Although antibiotechnology sentiments are more common in Europe than in the United States, optimism about biotechnology actually increased in Europe during recent years, as it did in the United States. These are the latest findings from a series of studies tracking U.S. and European public attitudes about biotechnology and its applications.[37]

In 2002, 69 percent of surveyed Americans thought that biotechnology would "improve our way of life in the next 20 years." This is a considerable gain over the 51 percent who expressed that view in 2000. In addition, the proportion who thought that biotechnology would "make things worse" in the next 20 years fell from 29 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2002. The pattern was similar in Europe, where the proportion of survey respondents who were optimistic about biotechnology increased from 38 percent in 1999 to 44 percent in 2002, while the proportion who were pessimistic dropped from 31 percent to 17 percent. In Europe, the gain in optimism after 1999 was enough to offset the downward trend of the preceding 8-year period, so that optimism is now back to its level of 10 years ago.

How do public attitudes about biotechnology compare with attitudes about other technologies? In 2002, 89 percent of Americans said that solar energy would "improve our way of life in the next 20 years," 88 percent held that view about computers, 82 percent about telecommunications, and 73 percent about the Internet. Expectations were less positive for space exploration (67 percent), cell phones (59 percent), nanotechnology (52 percent), and nuclear power (48 percent). In Europe, the pattern was similar, although the proportion of positive responses never exceeded 80 percent for any technology. Telecommunications, computers, and solar energy all scored in the 70s in Europe; mobile phones and the Internet scored about 10 percentage points lower; and several technologies scored in the 50s, including space exploration, nanotechnology, and nuclear energy (at 27 percent, the lowest).

What does the public think about the usefulness, risk, and moral acceptability of agricultural and medical applications of biotechnology? Data from surveys in Europe (1996, 1999, and 2002) and the United States (1997, 2000, and 2002) show the following:

  • European attitudes about biotechnology in 1996 were about the same as U.S. attitudes in 1997. However, by 1999, there was a dramatic drop in European support for agricultural applications of biotechnology, including genetic engineering of foods (to make them higher in protein, increase their shelf-life, or improve their taste) and crops (to make them more resistant to insect pests). In contrast, U.S. public support for these applications remained virtually unchanged between 1997 and 2000.

  • Between 1996 and 1999, there were moderate to large declines in public support for genetically modified foods and crops in nearly all European countries. The exceptions were Austria (foods and crops), Sweden (foods), and Spain (crops).

  • By 2002, overall support for agricultural applications of biotechnology had changed little in either Europe or the United States. In the majority of European countries, support for genetically modified foods increased somewhat (by levels as high as 16 to 17 percent in Austria, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), while support remained stable in Germany and Finland and declined further in France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
  • In both Europe and the United States, attitudes about medical applications of biotechnology (such as genetic testing to detect inherited diseases) have been significantly more positive than attitudes about agricultural applications. However, although the European and U.S. public continued to express high levels of support for medical applications in 2002, a significant minority of respondents in Europe had concerns about medical uses of genetic information: "Access to genetic information by government agencies and by commercial insurance is widely seen as unacceptable" (Gaskell, Allum, and Stares 2003). Other surveys are finding similar concerns in the United States (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

  • In Europe, public support for medical applications of biotechnology is strongest in Spain and weakest in Austria.

  • Public support for cloning human cells and tissues is stronger, and the subject far less controversial, in Europe than in the United States.

Public Support for Genetic Engineering

In no NSF survey year has a majority of Americans agreed that the benefits of genetic engineering outweigh the harmful results.[38] However, in the latest survey, approximately 9 of 10 respondents said they supported genetic testing to detect inherited diseases.[39] In addition, 6 of 10 supported the production of genetically modified food. Fewer than half supported cloning animals. NSF survey data show a slight, gradual decline in the American public's support for genetic engineering between 1985 and 2001. The shift can be seen most clearly among college-educated respondents and those classified as attentive to S&T issues.

Human Cloning and Stem Cell Research

The most recent survey data show that:

  • The vast majority of Americans oppose the cloning of human beings.

  • There is no consensus on medical research involving human embryonic stem cells. Although public opinion has fluctuated since 2001, it seems to be fairly evenly divided.

Human Cloning. All recent surveys that measure public opinion on human cloning have yielded similar findings: about four out of five Americans say they are opposed, and most of those say they are strongly opposed. In one survey, 65 percent of respondents said they were strongly opposed to human cloning, and only 13 percent said they favored it (VCU Center for Public Policy 2003).

Opposition to human cloning seems to be based on moral objections, not safety concerns. In a 2003 survey, 90 percent of respondents said they believed that cloning of humans is morally wrong; only 8 percent said it was morally acceptable. Public opinion on this subject has held steadfast since 2001 (Gallup 2003).

In 2002, 7 out of 10 respondents agreed that it is morally wrong "for businesses to use human cloning technology in developing new products"; only 19 percent thought this was morally acceptable (VCU Center for Public Policy 2002). In 2003, 8 percent of respondents described themselves as having a "very clear" understanding of the difference between human reproductive cloning and human therapeutic cloning; 26 percent were "somewhat clear," 32 percent were "not very clear," and 33 percent were "not at all clear." (Therapeutic cloning refers to the use of cloning technology in medical research to develop new treatments for diseases.)

Opposition to cloning crosses all demographic boundaries. In the 2002 VCU survey, clear majorities of both college graduates and respondents who expressed a high level of interest in science said they were strongly opposed to human cloning and considered it morally wrong for businesses to use cloning technology in product development. Strong opposition to cloning was also found among respondents who said they clearly understood the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning.

Opposition to therapeutic cloning is not quite as strong as opposition to human cloning in general: 32 percent of respondents in the 2003 VCU survey were strongly opposed to this use of cloning, 16 percent were somewhat opposed, 21 percent strongly favored it, and 29 percent somewhat favored it. Among respondents who said they clearly understood the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning, 46 percent opposed therapeutic cloning and 53 percent favored it; their views were similar to those of respondents who said they did not understand the distinctions. College graduates were somewhat less opposed than others to therapeutic cloning.

Stem Cell Research. Public opinion on stem cell research is not as clear cut as that on cloning. Recent survey findings on the subject are mixed.[40]

The public's interest in stem cell research apparently declined in 2002. When asked how much they had "seen, read, or heard" about medical research involving human embryonic stem cells, 13 percent of survey respondents said "a lot" (compared with 25 percent in 2001) and 20 percent said "nothing at all" (compared with 10 percent in 2001). In both years, about two-thirds of respondents answered "a little" or "not much." College graduates were more likely than others to report exposure to information about stem cell research (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002b).

In one survey, support for medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos declined from 48 percent in 2001 to 35 percent in 2002 and then increased to 47 percent in 2003. Opposition increased from 43 percent to 51 percent and then fell to 44 percent during the same period (VCU Center for Public Policy 2003). In another survey conducted in 2002, 43 percent of respondents said they supported Federal funding for stem cell research, down from 55 percent who gave that response in a Gallup poll conducted in 2001(Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002b). Support for Federal funding was somewhat higher (50 percent) and opposition lower (35 percent) among respondents who said they had heard at least a little about the issue.

A 2002 survey asked respondents what was more important: conducting research toward medical cures or not destroying human embryos (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002b). Nearly half (47 percent) chose the former and 39 percent chose the latter.

In a more recent (2003) survey, 54 percent of respondents said that medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos is morally acceptable, and 38 percent said it is morally wrong. These numbers were virtually unchanged from the previous year's survey (Gallup 2003). Public opinion on the morality of stem cell research tracks closely with views about abortion (VCU Center for Public Policy 2003).

Religious beliefs play a major role in shaping public opinion on various forms of medical research. For example, those who say that religion is important to them are more likely than others to oppose stem cell research and are less likely to think that the benefits of genetic research outweigh the risks. In 2001, 7 out of 10 survey respondents who said that religion was not important to them favored stem cell research, compared with 38 percent of those who said that religion provides a great deal of guidance for them (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

A 2002 survey also asked respondents what influenced their opinion on government funding of stem cell research (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002b). Those who supported funding were most likely to cite media coverage[41] as the most important influence (42 percent), followed by their education (28 percent); religion was not a major factor. In contrast, opponents of funding were more likely to cite their religious beliefs (37 percent) than any other influence.

In the same 2002 survey, political conservatives and respondents with relatively little formal education were more likely than others to oppose stem cell research. Nearly two-thirds of college graduates agreed that the government should fund stem cell research; only one-fourth disagreed. Among respondents who had not completed high school, only one-third (35 percent) favored government funding for stem cell research, whereas nearly half (46 percent) were opposed (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002b).

Scientists and medical researchers are Americans' most trusted source of information on stem cell research. More survey respondents said they had "a lot" of trust in this group than said they trusted specialists in medical ethics (28 percent), family and friends (15 percent), religious leaders (15 percent), President Bush (11 percent), the news media (5 percent), and members of Congress (4 percent) (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

Optimism About Curing Disease

Americans are more confident about the capacity of science and medicine to solve problems associated with disease than they are about society's capacity to address many other problems. Americans are more optimistic about reducing cancer mortality rates (in 2001, 71 percent of survey respondents expected the rate to decline by more than half) than they are about a variety of other challenges facing society, including improving voter turnout, reducing traffic accident fatalities, and cutting the crime rate. The only challenge that elicited greater confidence from respondents was teaching children to read by the time they reach the third grade: 75 percent thought that was possible (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

Environmental Issues top of page

Concern about the quality of the environment declined after 2001, according to the Gallup Organization's Earth Day survey, conducted in March of each year. In 2003, 34 percent of those surveyed said they "worried a great deal" about the quality of the environment, down from 42 percent in 2001 (but about the same as 2002) (Saad 2003a).

Environment Compared With Other Concerns

Of the 11 problems asked about in the Earth Day survey, the quality of the environment ranked 9th in terms of "worry." More people said they worried a great deal about the availability and affordability of health care (55 percent), the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the United States (49 percent), crime and violence (45 percent), the economy (44 percent), drug use (42 percent), illegal immigration (37 percent), hunger and homelessness (37 percent), and unemployment (36 percent). Between 2001 and 2003, worry about the economy, illegal immigration, and unemployment increased, while worry about the other problems either declined or stayed the same (Saad 2003a).

Although the environment does not register with the public as a serious current problem, it is considered one of the most important problems the country will face in 25 years. But even by the long-term measure, concern about the environment has declined. Until 2002, the environment was the most frequently mentioned problem in response to the 25-year outlook question, more important than Medicare and Social Security, lack of energy sources, and the economy. However, in both 2002 and 2003, the economy topped the list of long-term problems. In 2003, 14 percent of those surveyed named the economy (compared with 3 percent in 2001) and 9 percent named the environment (compared with 14 percent in 2001) (Saad 2003a).

Global Warming

In 2002, only 17 percent of Americans said they understood the issue of global warming "very well," about half (52 percent) understood it "fairly well," and the rest (about a third) answered either "not very well" or "not at all." There is a three-way split in public opinion on global warming as a problem, with approximately equal numbers of respondents saying it is a very serious problem, a moderate problem, and a slight problem (or not a problem at all) (Saad 2002).

Whatever their view about the seriousness of global warming, more than half (51 percent) of Americans think its effects have already begun, and others expect to see effects within a few years (6 percent) or within their lifetime (12 percent). Only 10 percent said the potential effects of global warming will never happen. In addition, most Americans (61 percent) believe that human activities are more responsible for increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century than natural causes, and most (62 percent) believe that news reports about the seriousness of global warming are either accurate or underestimate the problem. A third of those surveyed said that the media exaggerate the problem (Saad 2003b).

Although Americans seem to be aware of the issue and believe press reports, they are less concerned about global warming than other environmental hazards. On a list of 10 types of environmental issues, "damage to Earth's ozone layer" and the "'greenhouse effect' or global warming" ranked sixth and ninth, respectively, in 2002 (table 7-7 text table). In addition, after increasing from 24 percent in 1997 to 40 percent in 2000, the number of people who worry a great deal about global warming declined to 29 percent in 2002. In fact, 9 of the 10 items on the list had similar declines between 2000 and 2002, with "maintenance of the nation's supply of fresh water for household needs" the only exception (Saad 2002).

Government Environmental Policy

Although half of Americans think the Federal Government needs to do more to protect the environment, satisfaction with the government's efforts has increased since the 1990s (Dunlap 2003). In 2003, 51 percent of survey respondents said the government was doing "too little" to protect the environment, down from 58 percent in 2000 and 68 percent in 1992. More than a third (37 percent) of respondents in 2003 said the government was doing "about the right amount," up from 30 percent in 2000 and 26 percent in 1992 (McComb 2003).

When survey respondents were asked to choose between two statements about tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth, "protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth" or "economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent," more chose the former than the latter (47 versus 42 percent) in 2003. However, the percentage choosing the first statement has been declining steadily since 2000, reaching its all-time low (since the question was first asked nearly 20 years ago) in 2003; agreement with the second statement reached its all-time high in 2003 (figure 7-12 figure) (Saad 2003a).

In 2003, most respondents (55 percent) opposed opening up the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration; 41 percent were in favor of it. About half (51 percent) opposed expanding the use of nuclear energy; 43 percent were in favor. These percentages have held fairly steady since 2001. In addition, between 70 and 80 percent of those surveyed in 2003 favored more stringent standards for auto emissions and business/industrial pollution, mandatory controls on greenhouse gases, and stricter enforcement of environmental regulations (Dunlap 2003).

Technological Advances top of page

Americans welcome new consumer products that are based on the latest technologies. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the burgeoning market for an array of devices that enhance and expand audio and visual communication capabilities.[42] At least two-thirds of the population now has a personal computer, and a similar percentage has a cell phone. In 2002, almost half (44 percent) said they owned a DVD player, up from 16 percent 2 years earlier. The number owning a Palm Pilot or a similar device more than doubled between 2000 and 2002, from 5 to 11 percent (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2002a). The number of households with cable or broadband access to the Internet has also been climbing rapidly (Cole 2002).

Most people believe that technology plays an important role in their lives. In a 2001 survey by ITEA, 59 percent disagreed with the statement "technology is a small factor in your everyday life." Most people (62 percent) also thought that technology has had a greater effect on society than either the environment (20 percent) or the individual (17 percent). However, an overwhelming majority (94 percent) agreed that "the results of the use of technology can be good or bad" (Rose and Dugger 2002).

In the same survey, 75 percent of respondents wanted to know something about how technology works, compared with 24 percent who admitted not caring how it works as long as it works. Among respondents ages 18 to 29, 84 percent were interested in knowing how technology works.

In Europe, an overwhelming majority (95 percent) of those surveyed agreed that "technology is a major factor in the innovations developed within a country." In addition, 84 percent of Europeans agreed that "science and technology play an important role in industrial development," 64 percent agreed that "our economy can only become more competitive if we use the most advanced technologies," and 56 percent agreed that "the Internet is essential for the development of new economic activities." However, about half of those surveyed in Europe agreed that "scientific research does not make industrial products cheaper" and that "many high-tech products are only gadgets."

Higher Education top of page

Every other year, the American Council on Education commissions a survey to gauge the public's perceptions of higher education. As in previous years, the 2003 survey revealed that most Americans recognize the benefits of higher education (Selingo 2003). Findings from the 2003 survey include the following:

  • Importance of a college degree. About half (51 percent) of respondents agreed that a 4-year college degree is essential for success; 42 percent disagreed. Nearly half (46 percent) agreed that a graduate or professional degree will soon be more important than a 4-year degree; another 18 percent strongly agreed.

  • Value as a resource. An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of those surveyed agreed that colleges and universities are one of America's most valuable resources; 35 percent strongly agreed.

  • Government spending. When asked about state and Federal Government investment in higher education, 67 percent of respondents said that governments should spend more, 10 percent said that governments spend too much, and 10 percent said that current spending is about right.

  • Public vs. private schools. When asked to compare the quality of education at public and private universities, 41 percent of respondents thought education was better at private schools, 13 percent said the opposite, and 38 percent said the quality was about the same.

  • Workforce preparedness. Although 56 percent of those surveyed agreed that college graduates today are well prepared for the workforce, only 4 percent strongly agreed; 34 percent disagreed, and an additional 5 percent strongly disagreed.

  • Research role. More than half (56 percent) of respondents said that it is very important for colleges to conduct research that leads to discoveries about the world; 28 percent said it was important, and 14 percent said it was somewhat important.

  • Business development role. Most respondents thought that colleges play at least a somewhat important role in fostering a healthy economy (i.e., conducting research that will make American businesses more competitive, helping to attract new businesses to local regions, and helping local businesses and industries be more successful); between 36 percent and 42 percent thought these roles were very important.

Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community top of page

Public confidence in the leadership of various professional communities has been tracked for nearly 3 decades. Participants in the General Social Survey (GSS) are asked whether they have a "great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in the leadership of various professional communities (Davis, Smith, and Marsden 2003). In 2002, 39 percent said they had a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community. This was the first time in the history of the survey that greater confidence was expressed in science than in medicine (figure 7-13 figure and appendix table 7-8 Microsoft Excel icon).

Under normal circumstances, the science community would have claimed the top spot in the GSS in 2002. However, 55 percent of respondents said they had a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the military, up from 39 percent in 2000.[43] The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war in Afghanistan may have contributed to the increase in public confidence in the military. A similar trend was seen in the early 1990s, when confidence in the military rose from 33 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 1991 (at the time of the Gulf War); confidence in the military then dropped to 42 percent in 1993.

Other noteworthy changes in public confidence between 2000 and 2002 include:

  • Declines of at least 7 percentage points in scores for the medical community (from 44 to 37 percent), banks and financial institutions (29 to 22 percent), major companies (28 to 18 percent), and organized religion (28 to 19 percent).

  • An increase of 14 percentage points for the executive branch of the Federal Government, from 13 to 27 percent, which was the highest level in a quarter of a century. As with the military, the increase in the public's confidence in the executive branch may reflect the events of September 11, 2001.[44]

  • An increase of 5 percentage points for the U.S. Supreme Court (32 to 37 percent).

The science community has ranked second or third in the GSS public confidence survey in every year since 1973. Although the vote of confidence for the science community has fluctuated somewhat over the years, it has remained around 40 percent. In contrast, although the medical profession has ranked first in most years, its vote of confidence, once as high as 60 percent (in 1974), has been gradually declining.

The public's confidence in the leadership of the press and television (10 percent for both) was the lowest of all institutions. These ratings have changed little in the past 10 years.

Science Occupations top of page

Perceptions of science occupations can be assessed by examining the prestige that the public associates with them. Respondents to an August 2002 Harris poll ranked "scientist" first among 17 occupations in terms of prestige, the first time the top spot did not go to "doctor" (table 7-8 text table).[45] The engineering profession ranked seventh, the same as in 2001 but up one spot from 2000 (Taylor 2002a).

Although the public accorded less prestige to engineers than to scientists, doctors, military officers, teachers, police officers, and the clergy, engineers did command more respect than 10 other occupations."[46]

The public's perception of science occupations can be measured in other ways. 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 said they would be unhappy). Responses were the same for both sons and daughters.

The 2001 Eurobarometer survey found that the three professions held in highest esteem by the European public all had a scientific or technical dimension: doctors (71 percent), scientists (45 percent), and engineers (30 percent). Rankings were similar in 1992 (except that engineers ranked fourth, after judges). Scientists were most likely to be rated highly in Sweden (55 percent), Greece (53 percent), and Denmark (50 percent). In addition, when asked who they would trust to explain the reasons for a local disaster, Europeans were more likely to name scientists than any other group.

An overwhelming majority of surveyed Europeans (96 percent) thought it was important for their country to encourage more young people to enter careers in S&T. Asked why more young people were not choosing scientific studies and careers, more than half of survey respondents agreed that lack of appeal, lack of interest, and difficulty were factors; about a third cited the poor image of science in society.

Seventy-one percent of surveyed Europeans thought more should be done to encourage girls and young women to pursue scientific studies and careers, and 67 percent agreed that "there ought to be more women in European scientific research." Sixty-three percent thought that the European Union should be more open to foreign scientists, and 58 percent agreed that the best scientists leave Europe for the United States.


[34]  When respondents were asked to name the development in science over the last 30 years that "has made the most positive contribution to society," 27 percent said medical and health (including vaccines, research, devices, and medicines), 24 percent said computers and/or the Internet, 5 percent said mass communication (including cell phones, satellites, TV, and radio), and 2 percent said biotechnology (including cloning, embryo research, DNA, and genetic research). When asked to name the development that has had the most negative effect on society, fewer respondents could provide an example (50 percent, compared with the 70 percent who named a positive development), and no single response stood out. The items that received the most votes as negative contributions were mass communication (8 percent), computers and the Internet (6 percent), weapons (5 percent), and nuclear weapons (4 percent) (VCU Center for Public Policy 2002).

[35]  Another survey found support for government funding of scientific research among 81 percent of respondents in 2001 (identical to the NSF survey result) and 75 percent in 2002 (Research!America 2002, 2003).

[36]  In the latest survey, about 60 percent of respondents supported doubling total national spending on government-sponsored medical research over the next 5 years; 30 percent did not support such an increase (Research!America 2003). Support for doubling spending decreased about 10 percent from the previous year's survey.

[37]  The U.S. survey was overseen in 1997 by Jon D. Miller, Chicago Academy of Sciences; in 2000 by Susanna Priest, Texas A&M University; and in 2002 by Toby Ten Eyck, Michigan State University. The European survey was conducted in 1996, 1999, and 2002 for the European Commission by George Gaskell, Martin Bauer, and Nick Alum.

[38]  In another survey conducted in 2001, however, 57 percent of Americans agreed that, overall, the benefits of conducting genetic research outweighed the risk, 27 percent said the opposite, and 13 percent said they didn't know. Most (83 percent) were very or somewhat confident that "new genetic research will lead to major advances in the treatment of diseases during the next 15 years" (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

[39]  In another survey conducted in 2001, 77 percent of Americans agreed that "genetic testing [should be made] easily available to all who want it." Many, however, thought that genetic testing would lead to discrimination: 84 percent believed that health insurance companies would probably deny coverage on the basis of testing results, and 69 percent thought employers would probably turn down job applicants (VCU Center for Public Policy 2001).

[40]  A recent study indicated that the public's lack of knowledge and indecisiveness and the way in which questions are worded are all factors in producing the mixed results in survey research on the subject of human embryonic stem cell research (Nisbet forthcoming).

[41]  Media coverage of stem cell research increased sharply between 2000 and 2001 and then fell steeply between 2001 and 2002 (Nisbet forthcoming).

[42]  A survey conducted in 2002 asked both Internet users and nonusers if communication technology has made the world a better or worse place. Sixty-six percent of Internet users and 54 percent of nonusers said it has made the world better; 6 percent of users and 17 percent of nonusers said it has made the world worse.

[43]  The U.S. military also topped the public confidence list in a poll conducted for the Chronicle of Higher Education, with 65 percent of those surveyed saying they had a great deal of confidence in the military. In that survey, 4-year colleges ranked second (51 percent), followed by the local police force (48 percent) and 4-year public-supported colleges and universities (46 percent). Other institutions mentioned in the survey included doctors (40 percent) and the presidency (33 percent).

[44]  Within weeks of September 11, the number of people who said they trusted the government to do what is right most of the time hit its highest levels in 30 years, rising to 55 percent in one New York Times/CBS News poll (Stille 2002). (As recently as 1998, the figure was as low as 26 percent.)

[45]  The question asked 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?" The rankings are based on the "very great prestige" responses.

[46]  However, in a 2000 Gallup survey that asked the public about standards of honesty and ethics in 32 professions, engineers ranked 9th (Carlson 2000). In a November 2002 Harris poll (Taylor 2002b), scientists ranked fifth out of 21 occupations (after teachers, doctors, professors, and police officers, and just ahead of the President and judges) in response to the question "Would you generally trust each of the following types of people to tell the truth, or not?"

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