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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding



Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

Public Knowledge About S&T

Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Public Attitudes About Specific S&T-Related Issues


Survey Data Sources

National scope Sponsoring
Title Years used Information used Data collection
Number of respondents/
margin of error of general
population estimates
United States National Science Foundation (NSF) Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1979–2001); includes University of Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes 2004 1979–2001, 2004 Information sources, interest, informal science institution visits, government spending, general attitudes, science/math education and animal research attitudes Random direct dialing (RDD) computer-assisted telephone survey n = ~1,600–2,000 ± 2.47%
– ± 3.03%
National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago General Social Survey (GSS) 1973–2008 Government spending, confidence in institutional leaders Face-to-face interviews Government spending:
n = 1,574–2,992
± 2.1% – ± 3.5%

Confidence in institutional leaders:
n = 876–1,989
± 2.6% – ± 3.8%
NORC at the University of Chicago GSS S&T module 2006, 2008 Information sources, interest, informal science institution visits, government spending, general attitudes, science/math education and animal research attitudes, nanotechnology awareness and attitudes Face-to-face interviews n = 1,864 (2006)
± 2.68%

n = 1,505 (2008)
± 2.98%
Gallup Organization Various ongoing surveys 1984, 1990–1992, 1995, 1997–2009 Environment, stem cell research, nuclear power attitudes RDD n = ~1,000
± 3.0%
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Center for Public Policy VCU Life Sciences Survey 2001–08 S&T interest, general attitudes, stem cell research and animal research attitudes RDD n = ~1,000
± 3.0% (2006 and 2007)
± 3.8% (2008)
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2000
(8th graders);
(4th and
8th graders)
Science knowledge Paper questionnaires 2000 (independent national sample):
n = 15,955 8th graders
± 2.2% (one question used)

2005 (combined national/state sample):
n = 147,700 4th graders
± 1.0% (one question used)

n = 143,400 8th graders
± 0.8% ± 1.2% (three
questions used)
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) AAAS Project 2061 (unpublished results, 2008) 2007 (middle school students) Science knowledge Paper questionnaires n = 2,047 middle school students
n = 1,597 (follow-up question)
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Biennial News Consumption Survey 1996–2008 Information sources, interest RDD n = 3,615 (2008) ± 2.0%
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press News Interest Index 2007–2008 Information sources, interest RDD n = ~1,000
± 3.5%
Pew Internet & American Life Project Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey 2006 Information sources, interest, involvement RDD n = 2,000
± 3.0%
Harris Interactive The Harris Poll 1977–2008 Occupational prestige attitudes, internet use RDD Occupational prestige: n = ~1,000
(~500 asked about each occupation)
Internet use n = ~2,020
CBS News/ New York Times CBS News/New York Times Poll 2008 Genetically modified food awareness and attitudes RDD n = 1,065
± 3.0%
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (2008) 2008 Nanotechnology awareness and attitudes Telephone interviews n = 1,003
± 3.1%
International European Commission Special Eurobarometer 224/Wave 63.1: Europeans, Science and Technology (2005); Special Eurobarometer 282/Wave 67.2: Scientific Research in the Media (2007); Special Eurobarometer 297/Wave 69.1: Attitudes Towards Radioactive Waste (2008); Special Eurobarometer 300/Wave 69.2: Europeans± Attitudes Towards Climate Change (2008) 1992, 2005, 2007, 2008 Knowledge, trust in scientists and public support for basic research attitudes, among others Face-to-face interviews n = 32,897 total:~1,000 for 27 countries, ~500 for 4 countries (2005)

n = 26,717 total: :~1,000 for 24 countries, ~500 for 3 countries (2007)

n = 26,746 total:~1,000 for 24 countries, ~500 for 3 countries (2008)

n = 30,170 total:~1,000 for 27 countries, ~500 for 4 countries (2008)

± 1.9% – ± 3.1%
Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat Canada-U.S. Survey on Biotechnology 2005 Biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other technology attitudes (includes U.S. data on specific issues) RDD Canada: n = 2,000
± 2.19%
U.S.: n = 1,200 ± 2.81%
British Council, Russia Russian Public Opinion of the Knowledge Economy (2004) 1996, 2003 Various knowledge and attitude items Paper questionnaires n = 2,107 (2003)
Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology China Science and Technology Indicator 2002 (2002) 2001 Various knowledge and attitude items Information not available n = 8,350
China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP) Chinese Public Understanding of Science and Attitudes towards Science and Technology, 2007 (2008) 2007 Various knowledge and attitude items Face-to-face interviews n = 10,059 (2007) ± 3.0%
Japan National Institute of Science and Technology Policy The 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science & Technology in Japan 2001 Various knowledge and attitude items Face-to-face interviews n=2,146
Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity (KOFAC, formerly Korea Science Foundation) Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Tech-nology 2004, 2008 2004, 2006, 2008 Interest, informal science institution visits, various knowledge and attitude items Face-to-face interviews n = 1,000
± 3.1%
Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre Public Awareness of Science and Technology Malaysia 2004 (2005) 2004 Various knowledge and attitude items Face-to-face interviews n = 6,896
± 2.0%
India National Council of Applied Economic Research India Science Survey 2004 2004 Various knowledge and attitude items Face-to-face interviews n = 30,255
Department of Education, NCES Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003
(8th grade)
Science knowledge Paper questionnaires U.S.: n = 8,912
± 1.4% (for all TIMSS questions)

Other 44 countries: n = 2,943–8,952 ± 1.0% – 2.4% (for all TIMSS questions)
BBVA Foundation BBVA Foundation International Study on Attitudes Towards Stem Cell Research and Hybrid Embryos (2008) 2007/2008 combined Knowledge, awareness, and attitudes on stem cell research Face-to-face interviews n = 1,500 in each of 15 countries
± 2.6%
Ministry of Science and Technology of Brazil Public Perceptions of Science and Technology (2007) 2006 Interest, informal science institution visits Face-to-face interviews n = 2,004
± 2.2%
Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Science and Technology in the Israeli Consciousness (2006) 2006 Prestige of science careers Telephone interviews n = 490

Notes: All surveys are national in scope. Statistics on number of respondents and margin of error are as reported by the sponsoring organization. When a margin of error was not cited, none was given by the sponsor.

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Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

Scientific Research in the Media in Europe

In 2007, the European Commission conducted a survey to learn how to motivate European citizens to become more involved in science, research, and innovation. Face-to-face interviews were conducted in people's homes, in their national language, in the European Union's (EU) 27 member states (EC 2007).

The survey shows that the majority of Europeans (57%) are "very" and "fairly" interested in scientific research. Interest is much higher in the EU-15 (62%) than in the 12 countries that recently joined (38%). The countries most interested in scientific research were Sweden, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland. Men and more highly educated individuals expressed more interest in this subject. Medicine attracted the highest degree of public interest (62%), followed by the environment (43%).

Television is the most popular medium for information and also the medium with the widest reach. The majority of EU citizens (61%) watch television programs about scientific research regularly or occasionally, nearly half read scientific articles in general newspapers and magazines, and 28% look at information on scientific issues on the Internet. Television is also the most trusted medium for obtaining science information, ranking first in trustworthiness in 25 out of the 27 EU member states.

Overall, EU-27 citizens are satisfied with media coverage of scientific research, in particular those who are interested in this subject. The majority believe the coverage devoted to scientific research in the media is sufficient, but about one-third believes that it is not given enough importance. Most European citizens view science media coverage as reliable, objective, useful, varied, and sufficiently visual. However, they also express that science media coverage is difficult to understand, removed from their actual concerns, and not entertaining. More highly educated respondents are more likely to view media coverage of scientific information as more useful, understandable, entertaining, and not too far removed from citizen concerns.

Europeans tend to prefer to receive short news reports about scientific research on a regular basis (43%) rather than occasional in-depth information (34%). In addition, they prefer to restrict public scientific debates to scientists and experts rather than to actively participate themselves, and they would prefer that scientists rather than journalists present scientific information.

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Public Knowledge About S&T

Asset-Based Models of Knowledge

Many researchers and educators interested in the public's understanding of science advocate studying the skills people bring to bear on scientific issues that they deal with in their daily lives (e.g., gardening, bird-watching). Because individuals encounter S&T in different ways, they acquire different S&T knowledge "assets," which they then can use to make sense of unfamiliar issues (National Research Council 2009). For researchers and educators who favor an asset-based model of scientific literacy, public understanding of science is less a "generalized body of knowledge and skills that every citizen should have by a certain age" than "a series of specific sets of only moderately overlapping knowledge and abilities that individuals construct over their lifetimes" (Falk, Storksdieck, and Dierking 2007). In education, asset-based perspectives on knowledge have been useful in helping teachers build on children's existing strengths to improve their performance.

Generalized assessments of S&T knowledge may underestimate the assets available to individuals when they deal with S&T matters of greater interest and consequence to them, because these types of assessments ask questions on topics of little interest to many respondents. In contrast, a knowledge assessment that is tailored to an S&T domain with which an individual is familiar might yield very different results. In addition, because people often use their knowledge assets in group interactions, such as a nature outing, some researchers question the value of individual assessments in a test or survey (Roth and Lee 2002).

Researchers have developed measures of adult science understanding to assess how people make sense of specific experiences or scientific materials (Friedman 2008). National indicators that evaluate domain-specific knowledge or group problem-solving are not practical, but a perspective on scientific literacy that stresses domain-specific or group assets is useful, because it points to a significant limitation of generalized indicators of individual scientific literacy.

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New Science Knowledge Questions

These questions were included in the 2008 General Social Survey to assess different aspects of science and technology knowledge. Answers are bold. The factual knowledge questions (questions 1, 3–5, and 7–11) are combined into scale 2 in some figures and appendix tables. Other questions test a person's knowledge of charts and statistics (questions 12 and 13), reasoning/life sciences (questions 2 and 14), and experiment/controlling variables (questions 6 and 14–16). Note that the correct answer for question 14 can be reached by using reasoning skills, knowledge in the life sciences, or understanding of the experiment/controlling variables concept.

Opening script: Now, we are going to do some more detailed questions on science and technology. Scientists and educators are interested in how familiar adults are with the things being taught in today's schools. Many of these questions are likely to concern things that weren't taught or emphasized when you were in school. Some of the questions involve pictures or graphs.

1. What property of water is most important for living organisms?
A) It is odorless.
B) It does not conduct electricity.
C) It is tasteless.
D) It is liquid at most temperatures on Earth.

2. Please look at Card 1. The two objects shown there have the same mass, but object B loses heat more quickly than object A.

Card 1: Body Structures and Heat Loss
Card 1 text description

Which combination of bodily features would be BEST suited to a small animal that lives in a cold climate and needs to minimize heat loss?
A) Long ears and a long body.
B) Small ears and a short tail.
C) A long nose and a long tail.
D) A short nose and large ears.
E) A long tail and a short nose.

3. Which of the following is a key factor that enables an airplane to lift?
A) Air pressure beneath the wing is greater than that above the wing.
B) Pressure within the airplane is greater that that of the outside.
C) Engine power is greater than that of friction.
D) The plane's wing is lighter than air.

4. Lightning and thunder happen at the same time, but you see the lightning before you hear the thunder. Explain why this is so.
A correct response indicates that light travels faster than sound so the light gets to your eye before the sound reaches your ear.

5. A solution of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in water will turn blue litmus paper red. A solution of the base sodium hydroxide (NaOH) in water will turn red litmus paper blue. If the acid and base solutions are mixed in the right proportion, the resulting solution will cause neither red nor blue litmus paper to change color.
A correct response refers to a neutralization or a chemical reaction that results in products that do not react with litmus paper.

6. Please look at Card 2. A student wants to find out if temperature affects the behavior of goldfish. He has 4 fish bowls and 20 goldfish. Which of the experiments on Card 2 should he do? Correct answer: A.

Card 2
Card 2 text description

7. A farmer thinks that the vegetables on her farm are not getting enough water. Her son suggests that they use water from the nearby ocean to water the vegetables. Is this a good idea?
A) Yes, because there is plenty of ocean water.
B) Yes, because ocean water has many natural fertilizers.
C) No, because ocean water is too salty for plants grown on land.
D) No, because ocean water is much more polluted than rainwater.

8. Which one of the following is NOT an example of erosion?
A) The wind in the desert blows sand against a rock.
B) A glacier picks up boulders as it moves.
C) A flood washes over a riverbank, and the water carries small soil particles downstream.
D) An icy winter causes the pavement in a road to crack.

9. Traits are transferred from generation to generation through the…
A) sperm only.
B) egg only.
C) sperm and egg.
D) testes.

10. How do most fish get the oxygen they need to survive?
A) They take in water and break it down into hydrogen and oxygen.
B) Using their gills, they take in oxygen that is dissolved in water.
C) They get their oxygen from the food they eat.
D) They come to the surface every few minutes to breathe air into their lungs.

11. For which reason may people experience shortness of breath more quickly at the top of a mountain than along a seashore?
A) A slower pulse rate.
B) A greater gravitational force on the body.
C) A lower percent of oxygen in the blood.
D) A faster heartbeat.
E) A slower circulation of blood.

12. Please look at Card 3. Day-night rhythms dramatically affect our bodies. Probably no body system is more influenced than the nervous system. The figure on Card 3 illustrates the number of errors made by shift workers in different portions of the 24-hour cycle.

Card 3: Day-Night Cycles, Number of Errors
Card 3 text description

Based on the data illustrated in the figure, during which of these time periods did the most errors occur?
A) 2 A.M. to 4 A.M.
B) 8 A.M. to 10 A.M.
C) 12 P.M. to 2 P.M.
D) 2 P.M. to 4 P.M.
E) 8 P.M. to 10 P.M.

13. As part of a laboratory experiment, five students measured the weight of the same leaf four times. They recorded 20 slightly different weights. All of the work was done carefully and correctly. Their goal was to be as accurate as possible and reduce error in the experiment to a minimum.

Which of the following is the BEST method to report the weight of the leaf?
A) Ask the teacher to weigh the leaf.
B) Report the first measurement.
C) Average all of the weights that were recorded.
D) Average the highest and lowest weights recorded.
E) Discard the lowest five weights.

14. Please look at Card 4. A gardener has an idea that a plant needs sand in the soil for healthy growth. In order to test her idea she uses two pots of plants. She sets up one pot of plants as shown on the top part of the card. Which one of the pictures on the bottom part of the card shows what she should use for the second pot? Correct answer is E.

Card 4
Card 4 text description

Which ONE of the following should she use for the second pot of plants?

Which ONE of the following should she use for the second pot of plants?

15. Please look at Card 5. What is the scientist trying to find out from this experiment?

Card 5
Card 5 text description

A) If the number of fish in the fish bowl affects the behavior of the fish.
B) If the temperature of the fish bowl affects the behavior of the fish.
C) If the temperature and the amount of light affect the behavior of the fish.
D) If the number of fish, the temperature, and the amount of light affect the behavior of the fish.

16. Why did you choose that answer?
A) Because I already know what affects the behavior of fish.
B) Because that is what is allowed to change in this experiment.
C) Because that is what stays the same in this experiment.
D) Because that is what the scientist decided to include in this experiment.

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Knowledge Difference or Measurement Error?

Surveys from different countries have tried to measure public knowledge about how children inherit the chromosomes that determine their sex. The data appear to indicate that Americans understand this topic better than their counterparts in other countries. The true-false question asked in the United States is "It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl." (True.) Europeans and Chinese have been asked the same question about the mother's gene. (False.) Although a knowledgeable survey respondent would treat these questions as equivalent, research on how people answer surveys suggests that they may not be. Survey methodologists have found that many respondents exhibit an acquiescence bias—a tendency to give a positive answer (e.g., true, yes, agree) to questions, independent of their content (Holbrook, Green, and Krosnick 2003; Krosnick 2000). Accordingly, respondents will seem more knowledgeable when the correct answer to a question is "true."

The 2008 GSS included an experiment to test whether observed national differences on this topic are real knowledge differences or are products of acquiescence bias. Some respondents were asked the usual U.S. question, while others got the international variant. The experiment indicated that the national differences result from knowledge differences and not from acquiescence bias. A larger proportion of respondents (71%) answered correctly when the right answer was false than when it was true (62%) (appendix tables 7-9 and 7-10 ).

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Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Public Expectations About Technological Advances

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jon Miller surveyed Americans about the technological breakthroughs they did and did not expect in the next 25 years and looked at the differences in the expectations of three different segments of the public with regard to S&T: the attentive, the interested, and the nonattentive (Miller 1983).

The attentive public included those citizens who were at least moderately interested and knowledgeable about S&T issues and remained informed in these areas. The interested public included individuals who were interested in S&T matters and perceived themselves to be at least moderately well informed, but were not very knowledgeable and did not keep up with information in these areas. The nonattentive public had little interest in, or knowledge about, S&T issues.

The findings showed that majorities of the attentive public, and to a large extent the interested public, thought it was "very likely" that within 25 years science would discover ways to accurately predict earthquakes, to economically desalinate seawater for human consumption, and to find more efficient cheap energy sources and a cure for common forms of cancer. In contrast, Americans who were not attentive to S&T issues leaned toward the "possible but not likely" answer (see table 7-A ).

At present seismologists can provide broad forecasts, but cannot yet accurately predict when and where earthquakes will happen. The cost of seawater desalination has become more competitive than in the past, but it is still not economically viable on a broad scale. Early detection, innovative surgery techniques, and new therapies have improved the prognosis for many types of cancers, but no cure has been found. Miller's survey data suggest that the attentive and interested publics were more optimistic than the nonattentive, but also, in these instances, less accurate in their expectations about the speed of scientific progress.

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Public Attitudes About Specific S&T-Related Issues

"Climate Change" Versus "Global Warming"

The terms "climate change" and "global warming" are often used interchangeably. Scientists increasingly prefer the term "climate change," which conveys the idea that more than a rise in temperatures is occurring (National Academies 2008b). However, most survey data registers opinion about global warming, not about climate change.

Limited research in the United States and Europe suggests that variations in terminology do not significantly affect survey responses on this issue. A large sample of voluntary survey respondents in the United States, randomly divided into two groups, was asked "If nothing is done to reduce climate change/global warming in the future, how serious a problem do you think it will be?" The two groups responded similarly, regardless of which term was used (Villar and Krosnick 2009).

Two similar European experiments also showed that the two terms made little or no difference in perceptions of the problem. In one, respondents were asked to identify "the most serious problem currently facing the world as a whole" from a list that included either "global warming" or "climate change." In the other, the choice of term did not affect how Europeans rated the seriousness of the problem "at this moment" (EC 2008b).


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