Chapter Overview

In today’s America, science and technology (S&T) are everywhere. Americans encounter S&T in their roles as citizens, workers, and consumers. As citizens, they vote for candidates with different views about global warming, stem cell research, and deficit spending, issues about which atmospheric scientists, microbiologists, and macroeconomists claim expertise. As workers, they compete for jobs in technology-driven sectors of the economy that did not exist a generation ago, where familiarity with recently invented devices and emerging scientific disciplines makes them more competitive. As consumers, in their leisure time, they rely on new technologies to entertain themselves, build relationships with others, and keep informed about the world around them.

It is increasingly difficult for Americans to be competent as citizens, workers, and consumers without some degree of competence in dealing with S&T. Because competence begins with understanding, this chapter presents indicators of how Americans get S&T news and information and how much they know about S&T. How the American citizenry collectively deals with public issues that centrally involve S&T in turn affects whether America will continue to be a fertile environment for developing scientific knowledge and applying it in practical contexts. It also affects the kinds of S&T development America will support. The chapter therefore includes indicators of attitudes about S&T-related issues. Because citizens often rely on trusted leaders to shape their attitudes on contested issues, the chapter includes indicators of public perceptions concerning the influence scientific experts ought to have on S&T-related policies.

Indicators of what Americans know and think concerning S&T may be considered in two essentially different ways. They may be compared to a benchmark that suggests what people ought to know or how they ought to apply their knowledge. These indicators may also be compared with similar indicators for past years or other countries. In an increasingly globalized world, international comparisons become increasingly relevant: a culture in which S&T flourish can give a country a competitive advantage, and public understanding of and support for S&T are components of such a culture.

Chapter Organization

The chapter is divided into four major sections. The first includes indicators of the public’s sources of information about, level of interest in, and active involvement with S&T. This section contains data on public use of the mass media for science news and information and on involvement with informal science in museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums. The second section of the chapter reports on indicators of public knowledge, including measures of factual knowledge and understanding of the scientific process. The third and fourth sections of the chapter are about attitudes toward S&T. The third section contains data on attitudes about S&T in general, including support for government funding of basic research, confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, perceptions of the prestige of S&E as occupations, and opinions about how much influence science and scientists ought to have in public affairs. The fourth section addresses attitudes on specific S&T-related issues. It includes indicators of public opinion about several emerging lines of research and new technologies, including biotechnology, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, stem cell research, and cloning.

A Note About the Data

Throughout, the chapter emphasizes trends over time, patterns of variation within the U.S. population, and international patterns. It gives less weight to the specific percentages of survey respondents who gave particular answers to the questions posed to them. Although, inevitably, the chapter reports these percentages, they are subject to numerous sources of error and should be treated with caution. Caution is especially warranted for data from surveys that omit significant portions of the target population, have low response rates, for which significant methodological information is unavailable, and have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording (see sidebar, "Survey Data Sources"). In contrast to specific percentages, consistent and substantial trends and patterns warrant greater confidence. However, international comparisons, where language and cultural differences affect how respondents interpret questions and can introduce numerous complexities, also require special care.

Right-click on image to save.