Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

Because S&T are relevant to so many aspects of daily life, information about S&T can help Americans make better decisions and develop more confidence in their ability to make sense of the world around them. In addition to opening up avenues to the intrinsic satisfactions that S&T offer, interest in and involvement with S&T can be paths to acquiring more information and achieving greater understanding.

S&T Information Sources

U.S. Patterns and Trends

More Americans get most of their information about current news events from television than any other source. About half report television as their main information source, with substantial percentages reporting newspapers (23%) and the Internet (14%) as their main source (appendix table 7-1Excel.). These figures have not changed substantially since 2004 (NSB 2006). Marked changes in media use for current news occurred throughout the 1990s, including rapid growth in Internet use and sharp declines in regular local and network news viewership and in newspaper readership. However, these trends appear to have slowed or stopped in recent years (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a).

Americans report a somewhat different pattern of primary sources for S&T information than for information about current news events (Horrigan 2006) (figure 7-1figure.; appendix table 7-2Excel.). For both kinds of information, more Americans select television as their primary source than any other medium. Unlike for current news, though, the Internet is the second most common primary source of S&T information, and its margin over other sources is large and growing. The Internet, magazines, and books or other printed material loom larger as primary information sources for S&T than for current news; the opposite is true for television, newspapers, and radio (figure 7-2figure.).

To learn about specific scientific issues, over half of Americans choose the Internet as their main information source (figure 7-1figure.; appendix table 7-3Excel.). Television (19%) is the only other medium that more than 10% of Americans choose as their primary source. Considering that about one-fourth of Americans lack access to the Internet at home or work (Harris Interactive 2006c), the overall proportion who rely on it for specific S&T information is especially noteworthy. However, presumably because of limited access, the percentage of Americans who say they ever get science information from the Internet is lower than the comparable figures for television, newspapers, or magazines (Horrigan 2006).

Recent trends in how Americans say they learn about specific scientific issues suggest the possibility of a declining reliance on longer printed sources, such as books and magazines (but not newspapers), and an increased use of television.[1] Reliance on the Internet, which had grown substantially over the past decade, is still growing but has shown signs of leveling off (figure 7-3figure.).[2]

These trends are open to various interpretations. One possibility, consonant with the idea that the lengthy narrative in printed materials facilitates in-depth analysis of complex issues, is that Americans are increasingly seeking relatively brief and convenient overviews of such issues. This interpretation is consistent with data on recent trends in news consumption, which indicate that availability of Internet news has not increased overall news consumption and that Internet news users more often look for quick updates on the Web than for detailed information (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a). There are other possibilities, however. For example, because America’s media environment is increasingly segmented, the assumption that a particular information source provides a particular kind or quality of information is becoming increasingly problematic. Thus television includes a range of science-related material, presented in specialized programs (e.g., Nova) and channels (e.g., the Science Channel) that cater to people with a sustained interest in science; outlets (e.g., news magazines) that offer occasional, ordinarily reliable scientific information; and even entertainment programs that indiscriminately mix scientific information with fantasy speculations about the physical and biological worlds. Other media also present heterogeneous content. By this interpretation, then, a user who moves from magazines to television may be doing it for a variety of reasons and is not necessarily choosing information of lesser quality.

In general, people who rely more on television for news and information, including S&T information, tend to be older and have fewer years of education than those who rely on the Internet and other sources (appendix tables 7-1 and 7-2Excel.). Access to high-speed Internet connections is also associated with more extensive reliance on the Internet for news and information (Cole 2005; Horrigan 2006).

Perhaps because S&T information is not easily separable from the general flow of information in the mass media, national data that address the processes through which Americans acquire and sort through such information are scarce. A Pew Internet and American Life Project survey (Horrigan 2006) probed how Americans use the Internet to acquire information about science. It found that a clear majority of Internet users had engaged in some information search activities, including "look up the meaning of a particular scientific term or concept" (70%), "look for an answer to a question you have about a scientific concept or theory" (68%), and "learn more about a science story or scientific discovery you first heard or read about offline" (65%). In addition, just over half had used the Internet to "complete a science assignment for school, either for yourself or for a child" (55%) or "check the accuracy of a scientific fact or statistic" (52%). Fewer had used the Internet to "download scientific data, graphs or charts" (43%) or "compare different or opposing scientific theories" (37%). How skillfully or how often Americans engage in the search for scientific information, whether on the Internet or elsewhere, remains unknown.

Using information well involves more than finding it. In an information-saturated society, Americans need to make critical assessments of the information they encounter and somehow determine whether it is credible.

Survey data provide some indications of how Americans assess the credibility of public information. For the past two decades, Americans have been becoming more skeptical of the information they encounter in the major broadcast and print media generally, although this trend has leveled off somewhat recently (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a). Americans’ judgments of media credibility appear to be shaped by more than their critical thinking skills and the quality of the information provided. For example, judgments of the credibility of particular mass media information sources are associated with political party affiliations (Pew Research Center 2005; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a). (For data on perceived credibility of biotechnology information sources, see section on "Biotechnology and Its Medical Applications.")

Compared with survey results on the credibility of the major broadcast and print media, data on the credibility of Internet information suggest greater public confidence, most likely because the survey questions are asked in a context that makes respondents think of information that is neither value laden nor controversial.[3] For example, a majority of Internet users considered most or all online information to be accurate and reliable. In a survey on Internet use, approximately three-quarters of Internet users rate government websites and websites associated with established print and broadcast media as reliable (Cole 2006). These same established media fare less well in survey contexts that are more likely to invite respondents to ponder the reliability of politically sensitive information in the media (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a).

Evidence about how Americans judge the credibility of S&T information in the media is scant. Pew’s study of how Americans acquire science information indicates that Internet users who seek science information online do not always assume that the information they find there is accurate (Horrigan 2006). Eighty percent report that they have "ever" done at least one of the following kinds of checks:

  • Compare it to other information you find online to make sure it’s correct (62%)
  • Compare it to an offline source like a science journal or encyclopedia (54%)
  • Look up the original source of the information or the original study it’s based on (54%)

It is natural to assume that people’s choice of media sources affects how they think about S&T. However, it is difficult to design research that clearly isolates the effects of the media and establishes causal linkages. One reason is that people’s preexisting opinions and orientations are likely to affect their media choices; another is that media content often affects people indirectly, filtered through the views of trusted friends and relatives (see sidebar, "Media Effects").

International Comparisons

Data collected between 2001 and 2004 on sources of S&T information used by people in other countries, including the European Union (EU) states, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and China, uniformly identify television as the leading source of S&T news and information. Newspapers generally ranked second. Relatively few survey respondents cited the Internet as an important source of S&T information, perhaps in part because many lacked access to the Internet. However, national differences in how questions were asked make precise comparisons among different countries impossible. In a 2006 South Korean survey, more respondents named the Internet (23%) as their primary source of S&T information than named newspapers (16%) (Korea Gallup 2007). More recent data on the other countries do not exist; further details on these older data are presented in the 2006 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators (NSB 2006).

Television is also the dominant source of S&T information in India, where about two-thirds of survey respondents in 2004 said it was their main information source (Shukla 2005). Radio (13%) and friends/relatives (12%) ranked ahead of written sources such as newspapers, books, and magazines, which together accounted for 9% of responses. India’s relatively low literacy rate (144th of 176 countries in a 2005 ranking) is useful context for these findings.

Public Interest in S&T

U.S. Patterns and Trends

In surveys, Americans consistently express high levels of interest in S&T. Asked in 2006 whether "I enjoy learning about science and new science discoveries" describes them, about three-fourths of Americans said it describes them either very (43%) or somewhat (31%) well (Horrigan 2006). Likewise, in six annual surveys conducted between 2001 and 2006, between 83% and 87% of Americans reported that they had either "a lot" or "some" interest in new scientific discoveries, with the remaining small minority expressing less interest (table 7-1table.). In 2006, 47% claimed they had "a lot" of interest. More highly educated people tend to express greater interest in S&T (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

High levels of expressed interest in S&T are part of a long-standing pattern, evidenced in the results of 11 National Science Foundation (NSF) surveys conducted between 1979 and 2001 (NSB 2002). In each survey, more than 80% of Americans reported that they were either "very" or "moderately" interested in "new scientific discoveries" and "new inventions and technologies."

However, the NSF surveys also give reason to doubt the strength and depth of Americans’ interest in S&T. Relative to interest in other topics, interest in S&T in these surveys was not particularly high. S&T interest ranked in the middle among the 10 areas frequently listed in the surveys: above space exploration, international and foreign policy, and agriculture and farming; below new medical discoveries, local schools, and environmental pollution; and similar to economic and business conditions and military and defense policy. Of course, a more inclusive concept of S&T might treat several of the topics in this list, such as space exploration and new medical discoveries, as part of the S&T category; furthermore, other topics often include substantial S&T content (see sidebar, "What Are Science and Technology?").

Survey responses about S&T news also raise questions about how interested Americans are in S&T in general. For 10 years, Pew (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a) has collected data on categories of news that Americans follow "very closely." In 2006, S&T news was followed closely by 15% of the public and ranked 10th among 14 topics, ahead of only business and finance, entertainment, consumer news, and culture and the arts (table 7-2table.). As is the case for many other news topics, the percentage of Americans who say they follow S&T closely has declined over this period. But S&T’s decline has been more pronounced, with the result that its relative standing in the list of topics has also slipped over the decade: whereas S&T ranked ahead of seven topics in 1996, three of these had surpassed it by 2002 and have remained ahead since then.

Among regular newspaper readers, articles on "health and medicine" and "technology" rank relatively high as portions of the newspaper that Americans spend "some time" or "a lot of" time reading (table 7-3table.). Data on these topics might be interpreted as indicating relatively high S&T interest; at a minimum, these topics can spur readers to learn about human biology and advances in engineering. Conversely, interest in these topics may be limited to information that is immediately related to personal and family well-being or news about computer technology. The available data do not indicate how survey respondents themselves define the focus or scope of their interest.[4]

Since 1986, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has maintained a news interest index that tracks individual stories that make headlines. The index is based on frequent surveys that record the proportion of Americans who, when asked about a news story, say they are following it "very closely." Stories that attract considerable public interest are often included in several surveys, and results from each survey appear separately several times on the news interest index. For 2002–06, high gasoline prices, the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and debates on the war in Iraq comprise all but one of the top 20 items on the list (the Washington, DC area sniper shootings was the other item) (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2007a). If S&T content were what generated sustained high levels of public interest in a news story, a different set of stories would be at the top of the list.

However, top stories may not be the best indicator of public interest and exposure. S&T stories rarely feature the evolving human drama of wars and disasters or the immediate personal effects of gasoline prices, making it harder for them to capture widespread and sustained attention in the population at large. It is safe to say that all of the top stories at times focused public attention on S&T issues and that Americans who had a sounder understanding of S&T were better able to comprehend at least some aspects of them. Thus, the geology, chemical engineering, and economics involved in finding gasoline, refining it, and getting it to market are at times part of news coverage of gas prices; the atmospheric science, civil engineering, and sociology involved in disasters and disaster response are at times part of news coverage of hurricanes; and the chemistry and biology of weaponry and the political science of building democracy are at times part of the coverage of the Iraq war. The survey data cannot discriminate finely enough to determine how much the public engages with the more scientific and technological aspects of stories like these.

A different kind of news indicator is the amount of coverage news organizations devote to S&T. This indicator can involve either sheer quantity (e.g., newspaper space, broadcast time) or prominence (e.g., lead stories). For 20 years, the Tyndall Report has tracked the time that the three major broadcast networks devoted to 18 categories of news on their nightly newscasts (Tyndall Report 2007). Two categories with large S&T components are science, space, and technology, and biotechnology and basic medical research.[5] Neither category has ever occupied a large percentage of the approximately 15,000 minutes of newscast coverage on the networks; science, space, and technology, the larger of the two categories, garnered 752 minutes in its peak year (1999). Both categories began the period at relatively low levels of coverage, climbed sharply beginning some time in the mid to late 1990s, dropped off even more sharply very early in the new century, and then showed signs of rebounding, but ending well below their peak levels (figure 7-4figure.). Trends in the science, space, and technology category, along with recent annual lists of leading individual stories in that category, suggest that the advent of the Internet and the significance of developments in the nation’s space program affected the amount of news coverage (table 7-4table.). The importance of competing stories, such as terrorist attacks, also plays a role. Data on front-page newspaper stories suggest that science figured somewhat more prominently in 2004 than in 1977, when it was hardly visible (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2005).

International Comparisons

Recent surveys conducted in other countries indicate that the overall level of public interest in S&T is less than that in the United States. In 2005, 30% of survey respondents in Europe said they were very interested in new scientific discoveries, about half (48%) said they were moderately interested, and one-fifth said they were not at all interested. Comparable 2001 U.S. numbers were substantially higher for "very interested" and substantially lower for "not at all interested." The distribution of European responses about interest in new inventions and technologies was almost identical to that for scientific discoveries. There was considerable variation in interest among European countries, and the overall level of interest was down somewhat from 1992, the last time these questions were asked. Survey respondents who said they were not at all interested in either new scientific discoveries or new inventions and technologies most often gave "I don’t understand it" or "I do not care about it" as reasons (European Commission 2005a). As in the United States, men in Europe showed more interest in S&T than women. Unlike in the United States, S&T interest in Europe appears to have declined between 1992 and 2005.

Residents of several Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia, seem to express less interest than Americans and Europeans in S&T. However, China is a notable exception: interest levels for China were about the same as those for the United States (Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology 2002; European Commission 2005a, b; Korea Gallup 2007; Korea Science Foundation 2004; Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre 2004; National Institute of Science and Technology Policy 2002).

Like Americans, Europeans are more interested in medicine than in S&T in general. In the United States, in particular, nearly everyone is interested in new medical discoveries. In contrast, interest in new medical discoveries seems to be much lower in Asian countries than in the West.

Relative to other topics, including S&T-related topics, interest in space exploration has consistently ranked low both in the United States and around the world. Surveys in Europe, Russia, China, and Japan document this general pattern.


Involvement with S&T outside the classroom in informal, voluntary, and self-directed settings such as museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums is an indicator of interest in S&T.[6] By offering visitors the flexibility to pursue individual curiosity, such institutions provide a kind of exposure to S&T that is well suited to helping people develop further interest. Professional scientists and engineers often stress the role of their informal S&T experiences in motivating them to pursue S&T careers (Bayer 2007).

Surveys conducted for the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) indicate that about three of five American adults visited an informal science institution in the year preceding the survey (Griffiths and King 2007; Horrigan 2006). In the Pew survey, almost half said they had visited a zoo or aquarium; the IMLS data indicate that a little more than one-third had done so.[7] The two surveys produced comparable estimates for "natural history museum" and "science or technology museum," with percentages in the low to mid-twenties. The IMLS survey reported similar attendance figures for "nature center" (28%), "arboretum or botanical garden" (23%), and "children’s or youth" museum (20%). Fewer Americans (14% in the Pew survey) said they had visited a planetarium. Data from these surveys are generally consistent with NSF data collected between 1979 and 2001.[8]

When adults visit science-related informal learning institutions, they are more likely to be accompanied by family members and children than when they visit non-science-related institutions such as art or history museums. The IMLS survey asked parents who had visited a museum in the past year about whether their children had also made visits. For children between 3 and 17 years old, over two-thirds visited a zoo or aquarium in 2006. About half visited S&T museums, nature centers, and children’s or youth museums. Comparable figures for history museums and historic sites were about 40%, and the percentage for art museums (22%) was even lower.[9] Although similar percentages of adults (almost half) visited S&T museums and art museums, a much larger percentage of the children of those adults visited S&T museums (55%) than art museums (22%) (Griffiths and King 2007).

Americans who have more years of formal education are more likely than others to engage in these informal science activities (figure 7-5figure.). Whereas 76% of college graduates engaged in at least one of the four informal S&T-related activities during the year preceding the Pew survey, the comparable figures for adults in other education categories were well below this (Horrigan 2006). Similar education differences also exist among visitors to public libraries and art museums. Education patterns in the IMLS data are similar (Griffiths and King 2007). Among Americans who visit these informal science institutions, younger adults and parents of minor children were also somewhat overrepresented.

The IMLS survey found that nearly one-third of Americans visited science-related informal learning institutions remotely via the Internet, mostly in conjunction with their in-person visits. Slightly less than half watched television programs that contained content from these institutions. The percentages for non-science-related institutions are similar.

Fewer Europeans report visits to informal science institutions (European Commission 2005a). In the EU-25, about 27% of adults said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, 16% said they had visited a "science museum or technology museum or science centre," and 8% said they had attended a "science exhibition or science ‘week’." As in the United States, older and less-educated Europeans reported less involvement in these activities. In addition, European adults in households with more inhabitants more often reported informal science activities; insofar as household size indicates the presence of minor children, this probably indicates another parallel with the United States. One demographic pattern is notably different between Europe and the United States: whereas European men (19%) are much more likely than women (13%) to visit informal science or technology museums and centers, in the United States visitors are drawn about equally from both sexes.

Europeans who said they had not visited S&T museums often mentioned lack of time (35%) or interest (22%) in doing so. Reasons relating to lack of awareness, for example, "I didn’t think about it" (21%) and "I do not know where these museums are" (9%), also suggest an absence of strong interest in this kind of activity. However, lack of involvement can stem from factors unrelated to interest, too. Many respondents appeared to consider these institutions relatively inaccessible, either because they were "too far away" (23%) or too expensive (7%).[10]

Compared with the United States, visits to informal science institutions are also less common in Japan, South Korea, China, and, especially, Russia (Gokhberg and Shuvalova 2004). It is unclear to what degree these international variations are a result of differences in interest, differences in accessibility, or other factors.


[1] The patterns in the use of data sources do not necessarily mean that people are getting information from less-detailed sources. Newspapers and the Internet include long articles, and the Internet contains links to additional sources of information. In addition, declining reliance on magazines may result from short-term causes, such as a few S&T magazines going out of business without new ones immediately filling the market niche, rather than from a long-term change in information-seeking patterns.

[2] Like most survey data, General Social Survey (GSS) data, used in figure 7-3 and elsewhere in this chapter, are weighted to make them correspond more closely to known parameters in the general population, such as sex and race distributions. In tables and figures that compare different survey years, the data are presented using a weighting formula that can be applied to all years. In tables that present only 2006 survey results, numbers are calculated using a new weighting formula that is designed to produce more accurate figures for that year. As a result, there may be minor discrepancies between the 2006 GSS results that appear in different tables and figures.

[3] A survey that called attention to particular sources of information on the Internet, such as Weblogs, might well produce different results.

[4] Although health news and science and technology news may appear to be closely related categories, the profile of people who follow each type of news closely is different: 63% of Americans who follow health closely are women, whereas 69% of Americans who follow S&T news closely are men (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006a). Many researchers stress that both interest in and knowledge about S&T are often specific to individually defined domains within this broad category and do not generalize to the category as a whole (see sidebar, "Asset-Based Models of Knowledge").

[5] Science, space and technology includes manned and unmanned space flight, astronomy, scientific research, computers, the Internet, and telecommunications media. It excludes forensic science, S&E education, and telecommunications media content. Biotechnology and basic medical research includes stem cells, genetic research, cloning, and agribusiness bioengineering. It excludes clinical research and medical technology. Stories often do not fall neatly into a single category.

[6] People can become involved with S&T through many other non-classroom activities. Participating in government policy processes, going to movies that feature S&T, bird watching, and building computers are a few examples. Data on this sort of involvement with S&T are unavailable.

[7] It is possible that the substantial difference between Pew and IMLS estimates for "zoos or aquariums" is the result of differences in the categories the two surveys offered to respondents. Both surveys asked about zoos and aquariums, but IMLS also asked about nature centers and children's or youth museums, whereas Pew did not. Pew respondents who visited these kinds of museums may have reasoned that "zoo or aquariums" was the most closely comparable category in the survey and classified their visits accordingly.

[8] The NSF surveys asked respondents the number of times in the past year that they have visited an art museum, a natural history museum, a science or technology museum, a zoo or aquarium, or a public library. The Pew survey asks them whether or not they have visited one of the institutions, and includes planetarium in the list. For the S&T-related institutions in the list, the historic NSF numbers are about 4 percentage points higher than the Pew numbers, but the difference may have to do with how the questions were asked. Some research suggests that when surveys ask for the number of times respondents have engaged in an activity, the percentage saying they have engaged in the activity at least once is larger than the percentage who would answer "yes" if asked whether they had engaged in the activity at all, probably because some respondents experience the first type of question as implying that the activity is common or acceptable (Knauper 1998; Sterngold, Warland, and Herrmann 1994). The IMLS survey's institution categories are sufficiently different from the NSF categories to make focused comparisons over time problematic.

[9] The IMLS survey only asked about children's museum visits in households where adults had visited a museum in 2006, either in-person or remotely via the Internet. Because IMLS assumed that children in other households did not visit museums, there is reason to believe that the actual percentages are somewhat higher than the IMLS estimates.

[10] One possible explanation for differences between Europe and the United States in attendance at informal science institutions is that adult leisure patterns reflect patterns that developed in childhood, when, especially for older Europeans, informal science institutions were less readily available than in the United States. The available national data do not permit a test of this explanation.

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