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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Chapter Overview

Science and technology (S&T) affect all aspects of American life. As workers, Americans use technology to improve productivity in ways that could not even be imagined a generation ago, applying recently invented tools and applications. As consumers, they entertain themselves with high technology electronic products; make friends, communicate, and keep informed about the world through the Internet; and benefit from advances in medical technologies. As citizens, they may engage in discussions on climate change, stem cell research, and deficit spending—issues about which atmospheric scientists, microbiologists, and macroeconomists have formal training and expertise.

It is increasingly difficult for Americans to be competent as workers, consumers, and citizens without some degree of competence in S&T. Because competence begins with understanding, this chapter presents indicators about news, information, and knowledge of S&T. How the American citizenry collectively deals with public issues that involve S&T may, in turn, affect what kinds of S&T development America will support. Thus the chapter includes indicators of people's attitudes about S&T-related issues. To put U.S. data in context, this chapter examines trend indicators for past years and comparative indicators for other countries.

Chapter Organization

The chapter is divided into four major sections. The first section includes indicators of the public's sources of information about, level of interest in, and active involvement with S&T. The second section reports indicators of public knowledge, including measures of factual knowledge of science and engineering and people's understanding of the scientific process. When possible, it compares American adults' understanding of science to that of American students. The third and fourth sections of the chapter describe public 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 occupations, and opinions about how much influence science and scientists should have in public affairs. The fourth section addresses public attitudes on issues in which S&T plays an important role, such as the environment, the quality of science and math education, and the use of animals in scientific research. It also includes indicators of public opinion about several emerging lines of research and new technologies, including nuclear power, biotechnology, genetically modified (GM) food, nanotechnology, stem cell research, and cloning.

A Note About the Data and the Terminology

This 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, or have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording. In contrast to specific percentages, consistent and substantial trends and patterns warrant greater confidence (see sidebar, "Survey Data Sources").

Most of the international comparisons involve identical questions asked in different countries. However, language and cultural differences can affect how respondents interpret questions and can introduce numerous complexities, so international comparisons require careful consideration.

Throughout the chapter, the terminology used in the text reflects the wording in the corresponding survey question. In general, survey questions asking respondents about their primary sources of information, interest in issues in the news, and general attitudes use the phrase "science and technology." Thus the term "S&T" is used in the parts of the chapter discussing these data. Survey questions asking about confidence in institutional leaders, prestige of occupations, and views of different disciplines use terms such as "scientific community," "scientists," "researchers," or "engineers," so "S&E" is used in sections examining issues related to occupations, careers, and fields of research. Although science and engineering are distinct fields, national data that make this distinction are scarce.


Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010