Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Chapter Overview

Most Americans probably do not think about scientific research and technological development on a daily basis. Yet most recognize and appreciate the related benefits. Most Americans also strongly endorse the government's investment in research, whether or not it leads to tangible improvements in health and safety or the economy or to new technologies that make life easier or more enjoyable.

In fact, with few exceptions, science and technology (S&T) enjoy a positive reputation throughout the world. Most people believe that S&T play a key role in raising their standard of living and improving their quality of life. People around the world have been quick to embrace inventions that make living and working conditions better and businesses more profitable, including the latest advancements in communication technologies, such as the Internet, cellular telephones, and increasingly sophisticated types of entertainment delivery systems. Moreover, emerging fields such as nanotechnology seem to be receiving the public's endorsement.

Despite their favorable attitudes, most people do not know a lot about S&T. Many do not seem to have a firm understanding of basic scientific facts and concepts, knowledge that is necessary not only for an understanding of S&T-related issues but also for good citizenship. Even more worrisome is a lack of familiarity with the scientific process. Both scientists and public policymakers are concerned that the public's lack of knowledge about S&T may result in

  • Less government support for research[1]
  • Fewer young people choosing S&T careers
  • Greater public susceptibility to miracle cures, get-rich-quick schemes, and other scams (NIST 2002)

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Chapter Organization

This chapter examines aspects of the public's attitudes toward and understanding of S&T. In addition to data collected in surveys sponsored by the National Science Foundation (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 an international project designed to measure attitudes toward various technologies in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Preliminary data from the United States and Canada (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005) are included in this chapter. In addition, for the first time, this chapter includes coverage of similar surveys conducted in Russia and several Asian countries.

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 explores three indicators of scientific literacy: familiarity with scientific terms and concepts, understanding of the scientific method, and belief in pseudoscience.

The third part examines public attitudes about science-related issues. It includes data on public opinion about S&T in general, support for federal funding of scientific research, views on environmental issues, and public confidence in the science community. It also presents information on how the public perceives the pros and cons of various technologies such as stem cell research, genetic engineering (including genetically modified foods), and the emerging field of nanotechnology.

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Data Comparability

The surveys that provided the data included in this chapter were sponsored and conducted by a variety of organizations, for different purposes, using different items in varying order and context. Therefore, their results are not directly comparable. This is particularly true for surveys done in other countries, where language and cultural differences add further complexities. (However, it should be noted that many items included in the NSF Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology were replicated-to the greatest extent possible-in all countries covered in this chapter.) Thus, the findings presented in this chapter summarize broad patterns and trends emerging from these diverse sources. Readers will find the specific sources identified throughout the chapter and additional information in the sidebar, "Data Sources."

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[1] A recent unpublished analysis of the results of nearly 200 surveys conducted in 40 countries between 1988 and 2003 concluded that, other things being equal, the more people know about science, the more likely they are to have favorable attitudes toward it (Allum et al. 2005).

National Science Board.