Because S&T are relevant to so many aspects of daily life, information about S&T can help Americans make informed decisions and more easily navigate the world around them. Interest in and involvement with S&T can lead Americans to acquire more information and achieve greater understanding.
U.S. Patterns and Trends
More Americans get most of their information about current news events from television than from any other source. When asked "Where do you get most of your information about current news events?," 47% say television, with substantial percentages also reporting the Internet (22%) and newspapers (20%) as their main source (figure
Americans report a somewhat different pattern of primary
sources for S&T information than for information about
current news events (figure
When asked, "If you wanted to learn about scientific issues
such as global warming or biotechnology, where would
you get information?," 54% of Americans choose the Internet
even though almost one out of five Americans cannot
access the Internet at home, work, schools, libraries, and
other locations (Harris Interactive 2008a). Television (21%)
ranked as a distant second (figure
In general, use of the Internet for news and information,
including S&T information, is higher among younger audiences
and increases with education and income. (Access to
high-speed Internet connections is also associated with more
time online and more extensive reliance on the Internet for
news and information [Cole 2007; Horrigan 2006].) Conversely,
the use of television decreases with education and
income and increases with age (appendix table
National data that address the processes through which Americans acquire and sort through S&T information are scarce. A Pew Internet and American Life Project survey (Horrigan 2006) examined 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[ing] up the meaning of a particular scientific term or concept" (70%), "look[ing] for an answer to a question you have about a scientific concept or theory" (68%), and "learn[ing] 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 to "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 effectively involves more than finding it. In an information-saturated society, people often need to assess the quality of the information they encounter and determine its credibility. Survey data provide some indication of how Americans assess the credibility of public information. For the past ten years, Americans have become more skeptical of the information they encounter in major broadcast and print media, but recently this trend has leveled off. Americans' judgments of media credibility are shaped by factors other than 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 for the People and the Press 2008).
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. The vast majority (80%) reported they have checked information at least once in different ways, either by comparing it to other information they found online, comparing it to offline sources (science journals, encyclopedia), or looking up the original source of the information (Horrigan 2006; for additional details see NSB 2008).
As in the United States, data collected between 2001 and 2008 in other countries, including the European Union (EU) states, Japan, Russia, and China, uniformly identify television as the leading source of S&T news and information. In a 2008 South Korean survey, more respondents named the Internet (28%) as their primary source of S&T information than named newspapers (16%) (KOFAC 2009). In most other countries, however, newspapers generally ranked second and relatively few survey respondents cited the Internet as an important source of S&T information. This may be due to differences in the availability of Internet access across countries (Internet World Statistics 2009). National differences in how questions were asked make precise comparisons among different countries impossible.
More recent data on S&T for 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 print 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) may contribute to this reliance on nonprinted sources.
U.S. Patterns and Trends
High levels of self-reported interest in S&T are part of a long-standing pattern, as shown in the results of 12 surveys funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). More than 80% of Americans report they are interested in new scientific discoveries (figure
Relative to interest in other topics, however, interest in
S&T in the GSS was not particularly high (figure
Survey responses about the types of news Americans follow
raise questions about how interested Americans really
are in S&T. For more than 10 years, Pew (Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press 2008) has collected
data on categories of news that Americans follow "very
closely." In 2008, 13% of the public followed S&T news
closely. S&T news ranked 13th among 18 topics, tied with
consumer news and ahead of entertainment, culture and the
arts, celebrity news, and travel (table
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 the same story may appear several times in the news interest index. In 2007, stories that dominated the list of the public's top news stories included the rising price of gasoline, the war in Iraq, and human and natural disasters (such as the Virginia Tech University shootings, the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and the California wildfires) (PEJ 2008). In 2008, stories about the condition of the U.S. economy, rising gas prices, the debate over a Wall Street bailout, the 2008 presidential election, major drops in the U.S. stock market, and the impact of Hurricane Ike appeared near the top of the list (PEJ 2009). Interest in S&T does not appear to have been the central factor motivating the public's interest in these stories rather than others.
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., 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 2009). Two categories with large science, engineering, and technology components are "science, space, and technology," and "biotechnology and basic medical research. "Science, space and technology" includes stories on manned and unmanned space flight, astronomy, scientific research, computers, the Internet, and telecommunications media technology. It excludes forensic science, and telecommunications media content. "Biotechnology and basic medical research" includes stem cell research, genetic research, cloning, and agribusiness bioengineering and excludes clinical research and medical technology. Stories often do not fall neatly into a single category or theme.
Neither category has ever occupied a large percentage of
the approximately 15,000 minutes of annual nightly weekday
newscast coverage on the networks. "Science, space,
and technology," the larger of the two categories, garnered
752 minutes in its peak year (1999) (figure
Trends in the "science, space, and technology" category,
along with recent annual lists of leading individual stories
in that category, suggest that developments in the nation's
space program and new ways to use cellular phones and the
Internet received the largest amount of news coverage (table
Using identical questions, recent surveys conducted in other countries indicate that the overall level of self-reported public interest in S&T is lower than in the United States. Between 75% and 80% of survey respondents in South Korea, China, and Europe said they were "very" or "moderately" interested in "new scientific discoveries" and "use of new inventions and technologies" compared to 86% and 88% respectively of Americans in the 2008 GSS, respectively (appendix table
In the 2005 European survey (called the 2005 "Eurobarometer"), there was considerable variation among different countries in self-reported interest in S&T-related issues, and the overall level of interest was down from the most recent survey in 1992. In both the United States and in Europe, men showed more interest in S&T than women. For more recent European data on interest in scientific research in general, see sidebar "Scientific Research in the Media in Europe."
Interest in environmental issues is similarly high in the United States, Europe, South Korea, and Brazil—about 9 in 10 respondents in each country or region expressed interest in this topic, although slight variations in survey terminology should be taken into account. In Malaysia, interest in "environmental pollution" was lower (61% said they were "interested" or "very interested" in this issue).
Like Americans, Europeans and Brazilians are more interested in medicine than in S&T in general. In the United States, nearly everyone was interested in new medical discoveries (94%); in Brazil, most people (91%) were interested in "medicine and health" issues. In Europe, South Korea, and China, interest in new medical discoveries seemed to be lower—between 77% and 83% said they were "very" or "moderately" interested in this issue. In Malaysia, 59% indicated they were "interested" or "very interested" in the "latest inventions in the field of medicine."
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. 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.
In the 2008 GSS, 59% of Americans indicated that they
had visited an informal science venue during the previous year (appendix table
The proportion of respondents who reported attending the three institutions (zoo/aquarium, S&T museum, and public library) is down slightly from the last time these questions were asked in 2001. However, these differences may be due to changes in the data collection methods over this period discussed earlier in the chapter, rather than to actual changes in attendance.
Respondents in households with children 18 or younger
were more likely to visit a zoo or aquarium, a public library,
and also a natural history museum. Minors in the household
did not make a difference in the proportion of adults who visited
an art museum or an S&T museum (appendix table
Americans with more years of formal education are more
likely than others to engage in these informal science activities
In addition, respondents who get most of their information about S&T from the Internet or use this medium to learn about scientific issues are more likely to have visited any informal science institution, even after controlling for expressed interest in scientific issues. This suggests that use of these different sources of exposure to science information complement, rather than replace, one another.
Fewer Europeans report visits to informal science institutions
(EC 2005). 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: where European
men (19%) are much more likely than women (13%) to visit
informal science or technology museums and centers, these
gender differences do not exist in the United States (appendix table
Compared with the United States, visits to natural history
and science and technology museums are less common in
Japan, South Korea, China, Brazil, and Russia (table