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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

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.

S&T Information Sources

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 7-1 ; appendix table 7-1 ). Since the 1990s, the proportion of Americans getting information about current news events from the Internet has increased considerably and the proportion using newspapers for current events has declined (figure 7-2 ).[1] However, audiences are getting news from both traditional sources (television, print) and the Internet and blending these sources together, rather than choosing between one or another (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2008).

Americans report a somewhat different pattern of primary sources for S&T information than for information about current news events (figure 7-3 ; appendix table 7-1 and 7-2 ). For both kinds of information, more Americans select television as their primary source than any other medium, followed by the Internet. The Internet, magazines, and books or other printed material are more widely used as primary information sources for S&T than for current news; the opposite is true for television, newspapers, and radio (figure 7-3). The proportion of Americans who said the Internet was their primary source for S&T news grew from 22% in 2006 to 28% in 2008. Since 2001, this proportion has more than tripled (figure 7-2 ).

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 7-1 ; appendix table 7-3 ). Reliance on the Internet, which grew substantially over the past decade, is still growing but shows signs of leveling off (figure 7-2 ).

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 7-1 and 7-2 ). Analyses that examine age differences in patterns of media use through repeated cross-sectional surveys hide considerable generational effects, because they only show a snapshot of a single point in time (Losh 2009). Younger generations that grow up relying more exclusively on the Internet are not likely to shift to traditional media as they age.

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).

International Comparisons
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.

Public Interest in S&T

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 7-4 ). When asked in the General Social Survey (GSS) in 2008 about their interest in new scientific discoveries, 86% reported that they are either "very" or "moderately" interested (appendix table 7-4 ). The proportion of respondents expressing interest in new scientific discoveries decreased slightly between 2001 and 2008 (figure 7-5 ), but this decline might have resulted from a difference in the surveys' data collection over that period.[2] Comparable data from the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) show a stable trend in public interest in new scientific discoveries between 2001 and 2006—during this period the proportion of Americans who said they had "a lot" or "some" interest in new scientific discoveries fluctuated between 83% and 87% (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006; see NSB 2008). Interest in new scientific discoveries increases with education and the number of mathematics and science courses people have taken (appendix table 7-5 ).

Relative to interest in other topics, however, interest in S&T in the GSS was not particularly high (figure 7-4 ). Interest in "new scientific discoveries" and "use of new inventions and technologies" ranked in the middle among the 10 areas most frequently listed in the surveys: above space exploration, agriculture and farming, and international and foreign policy; below new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, economic issues and business conditions, and about the same as military and defense policy and local schools. Of course, a more inclusive concept of S&T might treat several of the topics in this list, such as space exploration and new medical discoveries, as part of the S&T category; furthermore, other topics often include substantial S&T content.[3]

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 7-1 ). As is the case for many other news topics, the percentage of Americans who say they follow S&T closely has declined between 1996 and 2008. S&T's relative standing in the list of topics has also slipped; it ranked ahead of seven topics in 1996, but ahead of only two of the same topics in 2008.

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 7-6 ).[4] The time devoted to "science, space, and technology" coverage in the network nightly news has been on a downward trend since 2003, while the time devoted to "biotechnology and basic medical research," though considerably lower, has been on the rise in the same period.

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 7-2 ). In the "biotechnology and basic medical research" category, the war on cancer, the use of genetic testing to predict disease, and stem cell research received the largest amount of news coverage. Time devoted to cancer research coverage is greater than for any other story. The importance of competing stories, such as the economic crisis, plays a role in deciding what news is covered.

International Comparisons
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 7-4 ) (KOFAC 2009; CRISP 2008; EC 2005). Using slightly different questions, about three-quarters of Brazilians said they were "very interested" or "a little interested" in "science and technology" (MCT of Brazil 2006). In Malaysia, 58% of the respondents said they were "interested" or "very interested" in the "latest inventions in new technology" and 51% in the "latest inventions in science" (MASTIC 2004).

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."[5]

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.[6] 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."[7]


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.[8] 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[9] (appendix table 7-6 ). Half said they had visited a zoo or aquarium and over one-quarter had visited a "natural history museum" (27%) or a "science and technology museum" (26%). One in three Americans had visited an art museum and 64% had visited a public library. These data are generally consistent with data collected by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (for more detail on these surveys, see NSB 2008). Among those who visited each of these institutions, the number of annual visits was highest for public libraries, which averaged about 15 visits per year.

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 7-7 ).

Americans with more years of formal education are more likely than others to engage in these informal science activities (figure 7-7 ; appendix table 7-7 ). Those in higher income brackets are more likely to have attended a zoo or an aquarium, a natural history or an S&T museum, or an art museum, but just as likely as those in the lowest income bracket to have visited a public library. In general, visits to informal science institutions are lower among Americans who are 65 or older.

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 7-7 ). (For additional details on the comparison with European data, see NSB 2008.)

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 7-3 ). The proportion of respondents who indicated they had visited a zoo/aquarium is similar in the U.S., China, and Japan. Unmeasured differences in the prevalence and accessibility of informal science learning opportunities across countries make it difficult to attribute different visit patterns to differences in interest.


[1] Data from Pew show that the proportion of Americans who read the newspaper declined from 40% to 34% between 2006 and 2008 and that newspapers would have lost more readers if they did not have online versions. Most of the loss in newspaper readership since 2006 has come from those who read the print version of the newspaper—in 2008, 27% said they had read only the print version of a daily newspaper the day before compared to 34% in 2006 (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2008).
[2] In 2001 this question was part of a single-purpose telephone survey focused on science and technology. In 2008 these data were collected as part of a face-to-face multipurpose survey covering a broad range of behavior and attitudes. It is unclear whether these differences in data collection or a change in public opinion account for the decline in interest observed between 2001 and 2008. In interviews conducted over the phone, respondents may be more likely to respond to questions in a socially desirable way (Holbrook, Green, and Krosnick 2003). In addition, a single purpose survey may suggest to respondents that science and technology are important.
[3] In interpreting survey data that use the phrase "science and technology," it is important to take into account the uncertainties surrounding its meaning and the different associations Americans make when they hear it.
[4] The peak in the coverage of the category "Science, space, and technology" in 1999 illustrated in figure 7-6 includes major network coverage of stories about the so-called millennium bug and business issues from the boom such as the rise of Internet commerce and the browser antitrust wars.
[5] The question on interest in new scientific discoveries included in the 2005 Eurobarometer (EC 2005) was the same three-category question asked in the United States between 1979 and 2001 and in 2008 ("very interested," "moderately interested," and "not at all interested"). The question asked in the 2007 Eurobarometer (EC 2007) was different because it asked about interest in "scientific research" rather than "new scientific discoveries" and gave respondents four options ("very interested," "fairly interested," "not very interested," and "not at all interested"). Thus, the data in this sidebar are not strictly comparable to earlier Eurobarometer surveys or to the U.S. data question on interest.
[6] In Brazil the survey asked respondents about their interest in "medicine and health" issues and "environmental issues" and the question categories included "very interested," "a little interested," and "not at all interested."
[7] In the past, interest in space exploration has consistently ranked low both in the United States and around the world, relative to other S&T topics. Surveys in Russia, China, and Japan have documented this general pattern. However, though there are new U.S. data on this subject, there have been no recent surveys documenting interest in space exploration in other countries.
[8] People can become involved with S&T through many other nonclassroom activities. Examples of such activities include participating in government policy processes, going to movies that feature S&T, bird-watching, and building computers. Nationally representative data on this sort of involvement with S&T are unavailable.
[9] In the 2008 GSS, respondents received two similar introductions to this question. Response patterns did not vary depending on which introduction was given.

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