Federal Funding of Scientific Research
S&T Role in National Security
Biotechnology and Medical Research
Confidence in Leadership of the Science Community
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
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
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
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 provideguidance
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
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 the United States, the more knowledgeable respondents were about
science, the less likely they were to agree with these statements
(figure 7-11 ).
Federal Funding of Scientific Research
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."
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 ).
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"
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
In the previous survey, most respondents said they would favor an
elected official who supports increased funding for research (Research!America
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 ).
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
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
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,
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
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.
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,
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
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.
However, in the latest survey, approximately 9 of 10 respondents
said they supported genetic testing to detect inherited diseases.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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
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
table 7-8 ).
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.
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
- 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.
- 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
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.
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 ).
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
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.