Public Attitudes About Specific S&T-Related Issues

Public attitudes can affect the speed and direction of S&T development. When science plays a substantial role in a national policy controversy, more than the specific policies under debate may be at stake. The policy debate may also shape public opinion and government decisions about investments in general categories of research. Less directly, a highly visible debate involving science may shape overall public impressions of either the credibility of science or the proper role of science in other, less visible public decisions. Likewise, public attitudes about emerging areas of research and new technologies can have an impact on innovation. The climate of opinion concerning new research areas can influence levels of public and private investment in related technological innovations and, eventually, the adoption of new technologies and the growth of industries based on these technologies.

For these reasons, survey responses about policy controversies involving science, specific research areas, and emerging technologies are worthy of attention. In addition, responses about relatively specific matters provide a window into the practical decisions through which citizens translate more general attitudes into actions, although, like all survey responses, how these responses relate to actual behavior remains uncertain. More generally, even in democratic societies, public opinion about new scientific and technological developments does not translate directly into actions or policy. Instead, it filters through institutions that selectively measure what the public believes and either magnify or minimize the effects of divisions in public opinion on public discourse and government policy (see sidebar, "Designs on Nature").

Policy attitudes always involve a multitude of factors and not just knowledge or understanding of relevant science. Values, morals, judgments of prudence, and numerous other factors can come strongly into play, and judgments about scientific fact are often secondary. In assessing the same issue, different people may find different considerations relevant.

This section begins with data on environmental issues, especially global climate change. It then covers attitudes toward recent and novel technologies, including medical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology (i.e., genetically modified food), and nanotechnology. Data on cloning and stem cell research follow, and the section concludes with some recent data on attitudes toward science and mathematics education.

Environment and Climate Change

The Gallup Organization's annual survey on environmental issues indicates that Americans have recently become somewhat more concerned about environmental quality (figure 7-14figure.) Between 2005 and 2007, the percentage of Americans expressing "a great deal" of worry about the "quality of the environment" rose from 35% to 43%, returning to approximately its 2001 level after 4 years (2002–05) at about 35% (Saad 2006a, 2007).

Despite this rise in concern, however, worry about the environment ranked somewhere in the middle among the 12 issues about which Gallup asked in 2007. Between 70% and 80% of Americans expressed either a great deal or a fair amount of worry about environment and most other issues (Social Security, drug use, crime and violence, future terrorist attacks, the economy, hunger and homelessness, and availability and affordability of energy); only availability and affordability of healthcare (83%) ranked above this range, and only illegal immigration (68%), unemployment (59%), and race relations (51%) ranked below it. In 2006 Gallup surveys, most Americans (62%) believed that the government spent too little to protect the environment and only a handful thought it spent too much (4%) (Gallup Organization 2007a). These numbers are in keeping with 2006 GSS responses to a similar question. Support for additional government spending, after dropping between 1992 to 2003, has rebounded in recent years, rising 11 percentage points between 2003 and 2006. Nonetheless, the trend in support for environmental protection is less evident when Americans are asked about tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth (figure 7-15figure.) Indeed, as gasoline prices increased, public support for oil exploration in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expanded use of nuclear energy rose substantially between 2003 and 2006. However, support dropped significantly in Gallup's 2007 survey (Gallup Organization 2007a).

Global warming has recently become more prominent among environmental issues for the American public. In 2004, 2006, and 2007, Gallup asked Americans how much they worry about 10 environmental issues. The percentage of Americans who said they worried "a great deal" about global warming rose by 15 points during this period, more than for any of the other issues (Carroll 2006, 2007). Even with this increase, however, global warming still ranked eighth among these issues. At 36%, the percentage of Americans worrying a great deal about this issue was 10 or more points below the comparable figure for "pollution of drinking water" (58%), "pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs" (53%), "contamination of soil and water by toxic waste" (52%), and "maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply for household needs" (51%).

Recent data show other signs that awareness concerning global warming is increasing. After 5 consecutive years without any significant change, 2006 and 2007 Gallup surveys registered a small increase in the percentage of Americans who say they understand the global warming issue very well (Gallup Organization 2007a; Saad 2006b). In addition, the number of Americans who say that the effects of global warming have already begun to occur was higher in 2006 and 2007 than it had been in a decade of surveys (Gallup Organization 2007a; Saad 2006b). The percentage of Americans who believe that most scientists think global warming is occurring has also been rising for over a decade (Nisbet and Myers 2007). However, although most Americans think that global warming is mostly the result of human activities rather than natural changes, public opinion on this question has been stable since 2001 (Gallup Organization 2007a).

Biotechnology and Its Medical Applications

Recent advances in recombinant DNA technology enable the manipulation of genetic material to produce plants and animals with more desirable characteristics. Americans, Canadians, and Europeans have similarly favorable attitudes toward biotechnology in general and medical applications in particular.

In 2005, over two-thirds of Americans said that they either strongly supported (19%) or supported (52%) "the use of products and processes that involve biotechnology." Less than one-fourth expressed opposition. In Canada, support for biotechnology had been lower than in the United States in 2003, but climbed to 67% in 2005, closely resembling the U.S. figure (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005).[28] Similarly, in 2005 almost two-thirds of Europeans, when asked about either biotechnology or genetic engineering,[29] said that this technology would have a positive effect on their way of life in the next 20 years (European Commission 2005b).

Americans and Canadians also held similar views of biotechnology's potential in the field of medicine. In 2005, more than 8 of 10 respondents in each country agreed that biotechnology would be one of the most important sources of health treatments and cures in the 21st century (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005).

Few Americans (about 1 in 10) consider themselves "very familiar" with biotechnology. Overall, Canadians report even less familiarity, although this difference is small. Without a strong knowledge base to use in evaluating information, their assessment of the credibility of information sources is an important element in forming their judgments about information on this topic. The Canada-U.S. Survey on Biotechnology asked respondents in both countries to rate their trust in various institutions that could provide information about biotechnology. It found similar results for both Canada and the United States. In both countries, scientific journals and government-funded scientists placed at or near the top of the list. Conversely, privately owned mass media, biotechnology company executives, and religious and political leaders ranked near the bottom in both countries (figure 7-16figure.)

Genetically Modified Food

Although the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops has provoked much less controversy in the United States than in Europe, U.S. popular support for this application of biotechnology is limited and does not explain the difference (see sidebar, "Designs on Nature"). In a series of five surveys conducted between 2001 and 2006, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology (Mellman Group, Inc. 2006) has consistently found that only about one-fourth of Americans favor "the introduction of genetically modified foods into the U.S. food supply." Although opposition to GM food declined to 46% in the most recent survey, opposition remains much more common than support. The Canada-U.S. Survey on Biotechnology (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005) reported a similar finding. The proportion of U.S. survey respondents reporting a negative reaction to the phrase "genetically modified food" (44%) was more than twice the 20% that reported a positive reaction. Nonetheless, an analysis of public opinion on GM food concluded that Americans express more favorable views than Europeans, with Canadians falling somewhere in between (Gaskell et al. 2006).

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology data (Mellman Group, Inc. 2006) suggest that misconceptions about GM food are widespread in the United States. Most Americans (60%) believe they have not eaten GM foods, even though processed foods in the United States commonly contain GM ingredients. This number has not shown a clear trend in the 5 years since Pew began asking this question. People who claim to have heard more about GM foods are more likely to say that they have eaten them. Although this survey found Americans were fairly evenly divided about the safety of GM foods—34% believed they are basically safe, 29% believed they are basically unsafe, and 37% said they had no opinion—opinions change when people have more information. Thus, when Americans are told that GM food is already widely used in commonly purchased groceries, the percentage judging them to be safe rises by about 10 points.[30]

As with biotechnology in general, Americans are apt to rely on trusted sources of information concerning GM food, about which their knowledge is also limited. Among sources listed in both the Pew survey on GM food and the Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat survey on biotechnology, American attitudes are generally consistent: scientists and government rank relatively high and biotechnology companies and the news media rank relatively low. In the Pew survey, more Americans (37%) expressed a great deal of trust in friends and family than in any other group. Although Americans' level of trust in farmers as sources of information on GM food was comparable with that for scientists and academics, others involved in commercial food production, including food manufacturers and biotechnology companies, were near the bottom of the list (figure 7-17figure.).

Surveys have generally found that Americans are even more wary of genetic modification of animals than they are of genetic modification of plants (Mellman Group, Inc. 2005). Stronger ethical and safety concerns appear to play a role in people's concern, and concern is greater among women than among men, although this gender gap has been declining. Many Americans express support for regulatory responses, including labeling foods with GM ingredients, but this support appears to be quite sensitive to the way issues are framed. Thus, whereas 29% of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in "the Food and Drug Administration or FDA," only about half as many expressed the same confidence when the question was posed about "government regulators." In addition, the proportion that expressed great confidence in the FDA dropped by 12 percentage points between 2001 and 2006 (Mellman Group, Inc. 2006).

Additional findings from earlier U.S. surveys can be found in Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 (NSB 2006).


Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at unprecedentedly small scales to create new or improved products that can be used in a wide variety of ways. Nanotechnology has been the focus of relatively large public and private investments for almost a decade, and innovations based on nanotechnology are increasingly common. Even relative to other new technologies, nanotechnology is still in an early stage of development.

The general public remains relatively unfamiliar with nanotechnology. Among 2006 GSS respondents, over half (54%) had heard "nothing at all" about it. An additional 25% had heard "just a little," and smaller proportions had heard either "some" (15%) or "a lot" (5%) (appendix table 7-28Excel.). These numbers are similar to those that Cobb and Macoubrie (2004) reported in a survey done 2 years earlier. Familiarity with nanotechnology was at about the same level in Europe in 2005, where 44% of survey respondents said they had heard of it (Gaskell et al. 2005).

Even among the minority of GSS respondents who had heard of nanotechnology, knowledge levels do not appear to be high (appendix table 7-7Excel.). Over half (57%) correctly responded true when asked whether "nanotechnology involves manipulating extremely small units of matter, such as individual atoms, in order to produce better materials," but many (36%) said they did not know, and a few (7%) thought this statement was false. About half (51%) did not know whether or not "the properties of nanoscale materials often differ fundamentally and unexpectedly from the properties of the same materials at larger scales." For this question, 39% correctly answered true and the remaining 9% answered false.

When nanotechnology is defined in surveys, Americans express favorable expectations for it. After receiving a brief explanation of nanotechnology, GSS respondents were asked about the likely balance between the benefits and harms of nanotechnology. About 40% said the "benefits will outweigh the harmful results," 19% expected the two to be about equal, and only 9% expected the harms to predominate (appendix table 7-29Excel.). The fact that about half of respondents either gave a neutral response (19%) or said they didn't know (32%) suggests that opinion may be open to change as Americans become more familiar with this technology. In a 2005 survey that asked Americans and Canadians about risks and benefits in two separate questions, about half of Americans foresaw substantial benefit or some benefit from nanotechnology, compared with 14% who saw substantial risk or some risk; Canadian responses were almost as optimistic (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005). Eurobarometer data, though not precisely comparable, indicate that European opinion is generally consistent with that of Americans (European Commission 2005b). In the 2005 Eurobarometer, 48% of Europeans expected nanotechnology to have "a positive effect on our way of life in the next 20 years," whereas only 8% expected a negative effect. Although familiarity with nanotechnology is similar in Europe and the United States, more Europeans than Americans said they did not know whether or not this new technology would have a positive effect.

Among Americans, favorable expectations for nanotechnology are associated with more education, greater science knowledge, and greater familiarity with nanotechnology. Men are also somewhat more likely to have favorable expectations than women (appendix table 7-29Excel.). Patterns are similar to those for responses concerning S&T generally. Unlike in Canada, where younger people's views of nanotechnology are significantly more positive than the views of older people, Americans of all ages have similar opinions (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005).

Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning

Unlike most issues involving scientific research, studies using embryonic stem cells have generated considerable public controversy. In the case of stem cell research, strongly held views about moral fundamentals determine many people's attitudes. There is little reason to believe that this is the case for certain other S&T issues, such as nanotechnology.

Although a majority of the public supports such research, a significant minority is opposed. When surveys ask about medical technologies to be derived from stem cell research in the context of expected health benefits, public response is relatively positive. But technologies that involve cloning human embryos evoke consistently strong and negative responses.

Since 2004, the majority of the American public has favored "medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos" (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006). Support grew continuously from 2002 (35% in favor) to 2005 (58% in favor), before returning to about the 2004 level in 2006 (figure 7-18figure.) In five annual Gallup surveys between 2002 and 2006, the percentage of Americans who found such research "morally acceptable" in general climbed from 52% to 61%, while the percentage saying it was "morally wrong" in general correspondingly dropped from 39% to 30% (Gallup Organization 2007b). Likewise, a consistent majority in three Pew surveys conducted between December 2004 and July 2006 agreed that it was "more important to continue stem cell research that might produce new medical cures than to avoid destroying the human embryos used in the research"; about one-third of Americans said not destroying embryos was more important (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006b).

In some circumstances, support for medical technologies derived from stem cell research can be even stronger than support for the research itself. When the question is framed as an emotionally compelling personal issue ("If you or a member of your family had a condition such as Parkinson's Disease, or a spinal cord injury, would you support the use of embryonic stem cells in order to pursue a treatment for that condition?"), 70% of Americans support treatments that use stem cells, and only 21% do not (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006). Responses become more mixed when questions mention "cloning technology" and decidedly negative when the technology is characterized as "used to create human embryos"(table 7-14table.).

Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to reproductive cloning. In a Research!America survey, the idea of using "cloning technology to produce a child" is rejected by about 4 of 5 people, and VCU Center for Public Policy and other surveys produce very similar results (Center for Genetics and Society 2006; Research!America 2006). In six annual VCU surveys, at least 60% of Americans said they were "strongly opposed" to "cloning or genetically altering" humans (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006).

The specter of reproductive cloning can generate apprehension about therapeutic cloning. Asked how concerned they were that "the use of human cloning technology to create stem cells for human therapeutic purposes will lead to a greater chance of human reproductive cloning," over two-thirds of Americans say they are either very (31%) or somewhat (38%) concerned (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006).

Public attitudes toward stem cell research and cloning are not grounded in a strong grasp of the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning, however. Most Americans say they are "not very clear" (35%) or "not clear at all" (35%) about this distinction, with 22% saying they are "somewhat clear" and only 7% characterizing themselves as "very clear" about it. Since VCU began asking this question in 2002, the number of Americans who profess greater comprehension has declined, despite, or perhaps because of, the increased visibility of stem cell research as a public issue.

Support for stem cell research is strongest among people with more years of formal education. Americans who are more religious, more conservative, and older are more likely to oppose such research (Gallup Organization 2007b; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2006b; VCU Center for Public Policy 2006).

Canadian attitudes toward stem cell research are very similar (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005). Although European survey questions about stem cell research, medical applications, and cloning are sufficiently different from U.S. and Canadian data to make direct comparisons impossible, overall patterns and levels of support appear similar to those in North America (European Commission 2005b; Gaskell et al. 2006).

S&T Education

In much public discourse about how Americans will fare in an increasingly S&T-driven world, education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology is seen as crucial preparation for adult life. Perhaps because education is more a local issue than a national one, however, national public opinion data about education in science and related subjects are lacking. A recent national survey of parents with school-age children indicates that most believe that "greatly increasing the number and quality of math and science courses students take in high schools" would do "a lot" or "quite a bit" to improve high school education in America (67%) and that it is "crucial" for most students to "learn higher level math skills like advanced algebra and calculus" (62%) (Public Agenda 2006). Nevertheless, when questions are personalized to their own children, a majority of these parents are satisfied with the amount of science their children are being taught in the schools. The percentage of Americans who believe that "kids are not taught enough math and science" is either a very or somewhat serious problem in their local public schools (32%) is 20 points lower than it was when this question was asked in 1994.


[28] A 2006 Canadian survey showed little or no change from 2005 (Decima Research 2006).

[29] Although experts generally consider these two terms to be synonymous, survey results for "biotechnology" are generally more favorable than for "genetic engineering" (Gaskell et al. 2006).

[30] Food safety concerns are not the only reason that people oppose use of genetically modified foods. Other concerns include the environmental effects of genetically modified crops and the power that large corporations that manufacture genetically modified seed gain over the food supply.

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