Public Attitudes About S&T in General
- Promise and Reservations
- Federal Funding of Scientific Research
- Confidence in the Science Community’s Leadership
- Influence on Public Issues
- What Makes an Activity Scientific
- Views of S&E Occupations
The U.S. S&E community hopes to improve society by developing knowledge and using it to solve problems and shape the world in which Americans live. U.S. national policy is built on this hope, which underlies the government’s broad support for scientific research and technological development. The public’s orientation toward S&T in general and toward institutions that are committed to S&T affects America’s willingness and capacity to rely on S&T as a major strategy for improving the country’s quality of life.
Generalized public support for S&T can make a difference in many ways. Public openness to technological change gives U.S. businesses opportunities to build a domestic customer base, create a foundation for worldwide technical competitiveness, and foster the national advantages that flow from pioneering innovations. Broad public and political support for long-term commitments to S&T research, especially in the face of pressing immediate needs, enables ambitious proposals for sustained federal S&T investments to reach fruition. Public confidence that S&E community leaders are trustworthy, S&E research findings are reliable, and S&E experts bring valuable judgment and knowledge to bear on public issues permits scientific knowledge to have influence over practical affairs. And, in an environment where positive public perceptions of S&E occupations predominate, promising young people are encouraged to pursue S&E careers.
To be sure, not all technological innovations, federal S&T investments, scientific pronouncements, or decisions to pursue S&E careers warrant support. It would be easy to cite instances in which scientific and technological optimism has been carried too far, and hard to dispute the idea that assertions that S&T-led social and economic progress will or has occurred in particular instances should be evaluated critically. But widespread, indiscriminate public skepticism about S&T, going beyond the reasoned examination of particular cases, would represent a radical and consequential change in American public opinion and would affect national strategies that link progress in S&T to overall national progress.
This section presents indicators of public attitudes and orientations toward S&T in general, in America and in other countries. It covers views of the promise of S&T and reservations about S&T; overall support for government funding of research; confidence in the leadership of the scientific community; perceptions of the proper influence of scientists over contested public issues about which the research community claims expertise; perceptions about what it means to be scientific and which disciplines and practices are scientific; and views of S&E as occupations. These indicators reflect general attitudes expressed in response to survey questions and disconnected from real-life decisions. How people apply these general views in practical situations, when attitudes toward science are only one of many considerations, is, of course, uncertain.
More than responses to questions about facts or behaviors, responses about attitudes are highly sensitive to the way questions are worded and the context in which they are placed (see sidebar, "Attitudes and Question Wording"). Although this sensitivity affects survey responses about the general attitudes covered in this section, it is probably even more important for the specific, controversial issues, such as stem cell research or global climate change, that are discussed in the next section.
Promise and Reservations
Americans of all kinds—men and women, college graduates and high school dropouts, blacks and whites—consistently endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T. In practically any major American social grouping, individuals who express serious doubt about the promise of science are a rare breed.
In six annual Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Life Science Surveys beginning in 2001, the percentage of respondents who agreed that "developments in science helped make society better" ranged between 85% and 90%. Responses for "developments in new technology" ranged between 83% and 88% in these same surveys. Similarly, between 2002 and 2006, the surveys asked respondents whether they believed "scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives" and found that agreement ranged between 87% and 92% (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006).
NSF surveys dating back to 1979 have yielded similar results. In 2006, about half (48%) of GSS respondents said that the benefits of scientific research strongly outweighed the harmful results. Substantial percentages said that benefits either slightly outweighed harms (22%) or volunteered that the two were about equal (17%), and only a small percentage (6%) said that harms either slightly or strongly outweighed benefits. The remainder said they did not know. These numbers were generally in keeping with those from earlier surveys
Americans also overwhelmingly agree that S&T will foster "more opportunities for the next generation," with about 90% expressing agreement in the 2006 GSS. Agreement with this statement has been increasing moderately for over a decade.
Americans who have more years of formal education and score higher on measures of science knowledge express more favorable attitudes about S&T. A review of numerous surveys from around the world found, other things equal, a weak but consistent relationship between greater knowledge of science and more favorable attitudes toward it (see sidebar, "How Knowledge Relates to Attitudes").
Although data from other countries are not entirely comparable, they appear to indicate that Americans have somewhat more positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T than Europeans, Russians, and Japanese. Attitudes in China and South Korea, however, are comparable with and perhaps even more favorable than those in the United States
Both in the United States and abroad, respondents also express reservations about S&T. For 6 years (2001–06), VCU Life Sciences Surveys have asked respondents whether they agree that "scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society." In each year, a majority has agreed. During this period, though, the percentage that agreed has dropped substantially, going from 73% in 2001 to 56% in 2006. In the 2006 GSS, large minorities of survey respondents registered agreement with other statements expressing reservations about science, including "science is too concerned with theory and speculation to be of much use in making concrete government policy decisions that will affect the way we live" (34% agree, 58% disagree) and "science makes our way of life change too fast" (44% agree, 53% disagree)
Federal Funding of Scientific Research
U.S. public opinion consistently and strongly supports federal spending on basic research. NSF surveys have repeatedly asked Americans whether "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." Since 1979, about 80% of Americans have registered agreement in response to this question. In the most recent survey, agreement was even higher than in the past, with 87% favoring federal support in 2006. Responses to a GSS question about federal spending on scientific research provide further evidence of increasing public support for federal spending on scientific research. For the decade beginning in 1992, the percentage of Americans who thought that the government was spending too little on scientific research hovered between 34% and 37%. This percentage then grew from the 34% registered in 2002 to 38% in 2004 and 41% in 2006. In the 2006 survey, only 11% said that the government was spending too much in this area, which is lower than the comparable figure in any of the other 10 NSF or GSS surveys in which this question has been asked since 1981
Although support for federal research investment is at historically high levels, other kinds of federal spending generate even stronger public support
In other countries where similar though not precisely comparable questions have been asked, respondents also express strong support for government spending on basic scientific research. In 2005, 76% of Europeans agreed that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which adds to knowledge should be supported by government," and only 7% disagreed. Because the European survey offered a middle option ("neither agree nor disagree"), both of these percentages are lower than figures for the United States, where no middle category was offered. Agreement in South Korea, China, Malaysia, and Japan reaches levels generally comparable to those in the United States and Europe. Support for increased government spending on scientific research appears to be relatively common in Europe as well. Over half of Europeans agreed in 2005 that their "government should spend more money on scientific research and less on other things." Although this proportion is nominally higher than the percentage of Americans who support more government spending, numerous context and wording differences between the questions leave responses open to substantially differing interpretations. Public support for increased spending on scientific research was substantially greater in South Korea (67% in 2004) than in the United States (Korea Gallup 2007).
Confidence in the Science Community’s Leadership
For the science-related decisions that citizens face, a comprehensive understanding of the relevant scientific research would require mastery and evaluation of more evidence than even working scientists could handle. In addition to relying on direct evidence from scientific studies, citizens who want to draw on scientific evidence must consult the judgments of leaders and other experts who they believe can speak authoritatively about the scientific knowledge that is relevant to an issue.
Numerous questions arise about how, when, and how well citizens rely on others to help shape their opinions on scientific issues. When it comes to scientific questions, do they trust the leaders of the scientific community to provide reliable information and advice? Whom else do they trust to speak with authority about such matters? How, and how well, do they distinguish widely respected experts and consensual views from marginal dissidents and idiosyncratic judgments? Do they recognize the relevance of scientific evidence as often as they should? Do they exaggerate its relevance in some cases? Insofar as they must trust others, do they do so blindly, or do they make critical, though inevitably partial, evaluations of whose scientific claims warrant their trust and what kinds of evidence make those claims trustworthy?
Public confidence in the leaders of the scientific community is one indicator of public willingness to rely on science. At a minimum, such confidence is ordinarily a prerequisite for taking scientific knowledge seriously in personal and public matters.
Since 1973, the GSS has tracked public confidence in the leadership of various institutions, including the scientific community. The GSS asks respondents whether they have "a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in institutional leaders. In 2006, the percentage of Americans expressing "a great deal of confidence" in leaders was higher for the scientific community than for any other institution except the military. Conversely, the percentage expressing "hardly any confidence at all" was lower for scientific leaders than for leaders of any other institution about which this question was asked
Throughout the entire period in which this question has been asked, the percentage of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence in the leaders of the scientific community has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range, hovering between 35% and 45%
Science has usually ranked second or third in the public confidence surveys, with medicine or the military ranking first. The consistently high confidence in the leadership of the scientific community is in contrast to a general decline in confidence in institutional leaders over the past three decades. The medical community, for example, has seen a long-term decline in confidence: whereas over half of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in medical leaders in the mid-1970s, the number has been around 40% in recent years. Since 2002, science has scored as well as or better than medicine on this indicator, although the scores for the two fields remain close.
Influence on Public Issues
Government support for scientific research is predicated in significant measure on the idea that science can play a useful role in many public decisions. For science to play this role, it is helpful for the general public to support judicious efforts to bring scientific knowledge to bear on public matters and share the view that science ought to be considered relevant and influential.
The 2006 GSS contained new batteries of questions that ask about the appropriate influence of science on four contested public issues to which scientific research might be considered relevant—global climate change, research using human embryonic stem cells, federal income taxes, and genetically modified foods. For each issue, survey respondents were asked how much influence a group of scientists with relevant expertise (e.g., medical researchers, economists) should have in deciding about the issue, how well the scientists understood the issue, and to what extent the scientists would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests." The same questions were asked about elected officials and either religious leaders (for stem cell research) or business leaders (for the other issues). Respondents were also asked a question about their perception of the level of consensus among the scientists regarding a largely factual aspect of the issue and a question that probed their attitude regarding the issue.
The GSS data indicate that Americans believe that scientists should have a relatively large amount of influence on public decisions concerning these issues
Americans also give scientists relatively high marks for understanding the four issues
Patterns for the question about which groups would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests" were similar
One factor that may limit the influence of scientific knowledge and the scientific community over public issues is the perception that significant scientific disagreement exists, making scientific knowledge uncertain (Krosnick et al. 2006). GSS respondents were asked to rate the degree of scientific consensus on a largely factual aspect of each of the four issues, using a five-point scale ranging from "near complete agreement" to "no agreement at all." The "importance of stem cells for research" was the only item for which as many as half of respondents (52%) chose one of the two points near the complete agreement end of the scale. Just 20% of respondents chose one of these points when asked about the extent to which "economists agree on the effects of reducing federal income taxes." For all four issues, this set of questions generated many "don’t know" responses and many responses at the midpoint of the scale, both of which are consistent with the idea that there is widespread public doubt about exactly how scientists view the issues
With a few exceptions, responses to these questions do not differ markedly among demographic groups
The interplay among the various indicators presented in this section cannot be understood without further research and analysis. It is not clear, for example, what mix of perceived attributes—knowledge, consensus, impartiality, or others—affects public perceptions of the appropriate influence of scientists and scientific knowledge on public affairs. Likewise, it is not clear why public perceptions vary concerning different leadership groups or whether the interplay of attributes is the same in all segments of the public. In addition, the choice of factual examples raised in the questions may substantially affect responses. For example, it is possible that economists would be perceived very differently when the issue is foreign trade or environmental scientists when the issue is energy conservation. An alternative set of factual examples might also highlight the role of additional considerations that affect public views of who should influence public decisions.
What Makes an Activity Scientific
The label "scientific" is usually considered a favorable one, and many claim it for their research or occupation. When research studies claim to be scientific, they claim to produce valid knowledge; when occupations claim to be scientific, they claim their practitioners have systematic expertise. Because not all claims to science are equally warranted, it is important for the public to scrutinize these claims critically and use reasonable criteria to judge them.
The 2006 GSS asked two batteries of questions that probed what characteristics Americans associate with scientific studies and what disciplines and practices Americans consider scientific. These indicators provide insight into how Americans discriminate between more and less scientific endeavors.
Attributes That Make Something Scientific
One group of questions asks how important each of eight characteristics is in "making something scientific." These characteristics can be divided into three groups—features of the research process, aspects of the credentials and institutional settings that lend credibility to the research, and external validation by other belief systems (i.e., religious and common sense beliefs). Americans were most likely to consider features of the research process to be very important
Americans thought that researcher qualifications were almost as important, with 62% classifying "the people who do it have advanced degrees in their field" as very important. Institutional settings often associated with research, such as laboratories (41%) and universities (33%), ranked lower. For making research scientific, these settings were viewed as similar in importance to having results that were "consistent with common sense," a belief system that is not a part of science. Most Americans viewed consistency with religion, another belief system outside of science, as either not too important (31%) or not at all important (39%) to making something scientific.
Response patterns for this group of questions are related to education
It is reasonable to interpret the relationship between education and a more dominant emphasis on process criteria for judging whether something is scientific as indicating that more education fosters a more critical, evidence-oriented approach to studies and conclusions that claim to be scientific. This interpretation would likewise suggest that less-educated people more often give weight to more questionable criteria that are either correlated with or unrelated to being scientific. However, other interpretations cannot be entirely ruled out. For example, people who internalize process-oriented understandings of science early in their schooling may be more successful academically and more likely to pursue advanced education. Another possibility is that additional schooling may lead individuals to adopt a conventional account of science in general without having a strong or consistent impact on how they actually evaluate knowledge claims.
Which Fields Are Scientific
The 2006 GSS asked Americans about eight fields of research or practice and whether they were "very scientific, pretty scientific, not too scientific, or not scientific at all." A similar question on the 2005 Eurobarometer about an overlapping set of fields allows some comparison between U.S. and European perspectives.
Practically all Americans perceived medicine as very or pretty scientific
The 2005 Eurobarometer asked about five fields that were included in the 2006 GSS
Views of S&E Occupations
Data on public esteem for S&E occupations may be an indicator of the attractiveness of these occupations and their ability to recruit talented people into their ranks. Such data may also have a bearing on the public’s sense that S&E affect the nation’s well being in the future.
For nearly 30 years, the Harris Poll (Harris Interactive 2006b) has asked about the prestige of a large number of occupations, including scientists and engineers
The percentage of survey respondents attributing "very great prestige" to scientists has fluctuated between 51% and 59% in 11 surveys conducted since 1982 and for which results are available in its most recent Harris Poll summary of trends. During the same period, the percentage for engineers has also fluctuated in a relatively narrow range, moving between 28% and 37%. In neither case has there been a clear trend. In contrast, long-term trends are evident for other occupations, including teachers (up), military officers (up), and lawyers (down).
Scientists ranked higher in prestige than almost all occupations in the Harris surveys. In recent years, their ranking was comparable with that of nurses, doctors, and firefighters and slightly ahead of teachers and military officers. Although engineers are not in this top group, very few respondents say that engineers have "hardly any prestige at all." In 2006, only 4% of the public gave this response, which was about the same as for scientists and four other occupations; only medical doctors ranked noticeably better on the "hardly any prestige at all" measure, and 14 occupations ranked significantly lower.
Prestige appears to reflect perceived service orientation and public benefit more than high income or celebrity (Harris Interactive 2004). Americans are more likely to trust people in prestigious occupations (including scientists) to tell the truth (Harris Interactive 2006a).
Some evidence suggests that Americans rate scientific careers more positively than is the case in at least some other countries. In 2004, a little over 50% of South Koreans said they would feel happy if their son or daughter wanted to become a scientist, but 80% of Americans surveyed in 2001 expressed this feeling. Among Chinese, however, science ranked second to medicine as an occupation that survey respondents would like for their children (NSB 2006).
 Methodological issues make fine-grained comparisons of data from different survey years suspect. Although the question content and interviewer instructions were identical in 2004 and 2006, for example, the percentage of respondents who volunteered "about equal" was substantially different. This difference may have been produced by the change from telephone interviews in 2004 to in-person interviews in 2006 (though telephone interviews in 2001 produced results that are similar to those in 2006). More likely, customary interviewing practices in the three different organizations that administered the surveys affected their interviewers' willingness to accept responses other than those that were specifically offered on the interview form, including "don't know" responses.
 The English version of the European question reads, "The benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects it may have." Respondents can strongly agree, tend to agree, neither agree nor disagree, tend to disagree, strongly disagree, or say that they do not know. The U.S. question is prefaced by the statement that "People have frequently noted that scientific research has produced benefits and harmful results" and asks the respondent, "Would you say that, on balance, the benefits of scientific research have outweighed the harmful results, or have the harmful results of scientific research been greater than the benefits." Respondents who say that the benefits are greater are then asked whether "the balance has been strongly in favor of the benefits, or only slightly." Respondents who say the harmful results are greater are asked a parallel question to distinguish strongly from slightly. Some respondents are recorded as saying that the benefits and harmful results are "about equal" when they volunteer this response.
Although these questions differ in their references to "science" and "scientific research," "effects" and "results," and in the exact wording of the response categories, they are similar in their overall thrust and in the availability of a middle category ("neither agree nor disagree," "about equal"). For other questions that are worded similarly in the 2005 Eurobarometer and either the 2004 or 2006 NSF surveys, the presence of a middle category in Europe and the absence of one in the United States makes direct comparison problematic. This lengthy, though incomplete, comparison regarding a single question pair should provide some indication of why international attitude comparisons should be treated with caution.
 Unlike the U.S. question, the European question joins two logically independent ideas—more spending on science and less spending on other priorities. In addition, because nations begin from different levels of spending, survey responses cannot be read as indicating different views about the proper level of spending in this area, nor do they indicate the strength of sentiment in different countries. Differences in the connotations of questions posed in different languages add further complexities. Perhaps for some or all of these reasons, variations among European countries in responses to this question are large, with about two-thirds of respondents agreeing in Italy, Spain, and France, but less than one-third in Finland and the Netherlands.
 Some Americans may think that science can resolve differences over what to value or settle policy questions without requiring value judgments. This view accords science a kind of influence that goes beyond what the scientific community thinks it can properly exercise. There are no survey data that indicate how many Americans accord science too much influence in this regard.
 Although these questions treat economists as scientists and compare them to other categories of scientists, data reported later in this chapter indicate that many Americans do not consider economics to be very scientific. To understand public perceptions of the role of science and scientists in dealing with contested public issues, it helps to have indicators both for disciplines that the public almost universally sees as scientific and for disciplines whose scientific status is less secure in the public's eyes. Many social scientists (e.g., Gieryn 1999) believe that much can be learned from research on how institutional boundaries are defined and maintained. Universities overwhelmingly categorize economics as a social science.
 These question batteries were designed as indicators of public views regarding the appropriate influence of science on public issues generally. Questions were posed concerning specific issues both because (1) this is likely to increase the degree to which respondents think of similar situations when they make judgments and (2) because views about the appropriate role of science are likely to depend heavily on context. A study of any one of the specific issues would likely make somewhat different distinctions and ask more and different questions about the topic.
Three other issues are worthy of mention: (1) Because survey respondents are variably familiar with the issues posed in these questions, certain categories are characterized with significant imprecision. For example, "medical researchers" is not an optimal characterization of the kind of researchers who are experts on the health effects of genetically modified foods. (2) Judgments that affect trust in leaders may be difficult to capture in survey questions. A concept such as disinterestedness, for example, (in the sense of a judgment made and expressed in light of appropriate collective interests and independent of personal interests that are not supposed to be given any weight) likely cannot be stated in language that can be used in a survey. (3) Comparable data on other issues is lacking, which makes generalizing observed patterns to other issues hazardous. Just as it is uncertain how attitudes that are highly general shape concrete judgments, it is uncertain how more specific judgments generalize beyond the terms in which they are posed. Because different attitude indicators have different limitations, it can be valuable to have indicators with complementary strengths and flaws. In all cases, it is worth keeping the actual question wording in mind when interpreting the significance of patterns in the data.
 The questions were worded as follows:
-"How much influence should each of the following groups have in deciding what to do about global warming? a. Environmental scientists. Would you say a great deal of influence, a fair amount, a little influence, or none at all?" This wording was then repeated in the next two questions, except that "elected officials" and "business leaders" were substituted for environmental scientists.
-"How much influence should each of the following groups have in deciding about government funding for stem cell research? a. Medical researchers. Would you say a great deal of influence, a fair amount, a little influence, or none at all?" This wording was then repeated in the next two questions, except that "religious leaders" and "elected officials" were substituted for medical researchers.
-"How much influence should each of the following groups have in deciding whether to reduce federal income taxes? a. Economists. Would you say a great deal of influence, a fair amount, a little influence, or none at all?" This wording was then repeated in the next two questions, except that "business leaders" and "elected officials" were substituted for economists.
-"Some say that the government should restrict the sale of genetically modified foods. Others say there is no need for such restrictions. How much influence should each of the following groups have in deciding whether to restrict the sale of genetically modified foods? a. Medical researchers. Would you say a great deal of influence, a fair amount, a little influence, or none at all?" This wording was then repeated in the next two questions, except that "elected officials" and "business leaders" were substituted for medical researchers.
 The questions were worded as follows: "On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means "very well" and 5 means "not at all," how well do the following groups understand" each of four public issues: "the causes of global warming," "stem cell research," "the likely effects of reducing federal taxes," and "the risks posed by genetically modified foods." For global warming, respondents were asked about environmental scientists, elected officials, and business leaders. For stem cell research, respondents were asked about medical researchers, religious leaders, and elected officials. For federal taxes, respondents were asked about economists, business leaders, and elected officials. For genetically modified foods, respondents were asked about medical researchers, elected officials, and business leaders.
 The questions were worded as follows: "When making policy recommendations about" each of four public issues "on a scale of 1 to 5, to what extent do you think the following groups would support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests?" The issues were "global warming," "stem cell research," "federal income taxes," and "genetically modified foods." If asked about what narrow interests meant, interviewers were instructed to respond "Well, someone might gain financially if a certain policy were adopted or it might advance his or her career."
 Three of the four questions were worded as follows: "On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means "near complete agreement" and 5 means "no agreement at all," to what extent do" groups of scientists "agree on" an issue. The groups and issues were "environmental scientists/the existence and causes of global warming," "medical researchers/the importance of stem cells for research," "economists/the effects of reducing federal income taxes" and "medical researchers/the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods." The global warming question read "agree among themselves about" instead of "agree on."
 Among the considerations that might be considered relevant are the role of ordinary citizens whose interests are specially affected by a decision and the institutional context for a decision (e.g., public versus private, different branches or levels of government). There is an extensive literature, analyzing mostly qualitative and nonnational data, that explores the complexities in when and why the public treats scientists and others as having the authority to influence or make decisions. Although attempts to synthesize that literature and clarify its relationship to what can be learned from national surveys would be welcome, this kind of multivariate analysis and interpretation goes well beyond the scope of this document.