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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Generalized public support for S&T can make a difference in many ways. Public openness to technological change gives U.S. businesses opportunities to build a domestic customer base, create a foundation for worldwide technical competitiveness, and foster the national advantages that flow from pioneering innovations. Broad public and political support for long-term commitments to S&T research, especially in the face of pressing immediate needs, enables ambitious proposals for sustained federal S&T investments to reach fruition. Public confidence that S&E community leaders are trustworthy, S&E research findings are reliable, and S&E experts bring valuable judgment and knowledge to bear on public issues permits scientific knowledge to have influence over practical affairs. In addition, positive public perceptions of S&E occupations encourage young people to pursue S&E careers.

To be sure, claims of scientific and technological progress should be evaluated critically. But widespread public skepticism about S&T, going beyond the reasoned examination of particular cases, would represent a consequential change in American public opinion. Changing public opinion could affect national strategies that link progress in S&T to overall national progress.

This section presents general indicators of public attitudes and orientations toward S&T in the United States and in other countries. It covers views of the promise of S&T and reservations about science, overall support for government funding of research, confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, perceptions of the proper influence of scientists over controversial public issues about which the research community claims expertise, perceptions about what it means to be scientific and which disciplines and practices are scientific, and views of S&E as occupations.

Promise and Reservations

NSF surveys dating back to 1979 show that Americans endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T. In practically any major American social grouping, few individuals express serious doubt about the promise of science. In 2008, 43% of GSS respondents said that the benefits of scientific research strongly outweighed the harmful results and substantial percentages said that benefits either slightly outweighed harms (25%) or volunteered that the two were about equal (16%). Only 10% of respondents said that the harms either slightly or strongly outweighed benefits and the remainder said that they did not know. These numbers were generally consistent with those from earlier surveys (figure 7-13 ; appendix table 7-17 and 7-18 ). Americans overwhelmingly agree that S&T will foster "more opportunities for the next generation," with about 89% expressing agreement in the 2008 GSS (appendix table 7-19 ). Agreement with this statement has been increasing moderately for over a decade.[20]

Eight annual Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Life Sciences Surveys show similar results. The percentage of Americans who agreed that "developments in science helped make society better" ranged between 83% and 90% (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006 and 2008). Similarly, between 2002 and 2008 the surveys asked respondents whether they believed that "scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives" and found that agreement ranged between 87% and 92%. During the same period, between 88% and 92% agreed that "new technology used in medicine allows people to live longer and better."

Americans who have more years of formal education and score higher on measures of science knowledge express more favorable attitudes about S&T. A review of numerous surveys from around the world found, other things being equal, a weak but consistent relationship between greater knowledge of science and more favorable attitudes toward science. This relationship was stronger in the United States than in any of the other countries in the study (Allum et al. 2008; for more details see NSB 2008). Optimism about science among the most interested and knowledgeable public, however, may not necessarily correspond with accurate expectations about the speed of scientific progress (see sidebar, "Public Expectations About Technological Advances").

Although data from other countries are not entirely comparable, they appear to indicate that Americans have somewhat more positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T than Europeans, Russians, and Japanese. Attitudes in China and South Korea are comparable with the U.S., and on some questions attitudes are even more favorable, but their reservations about science are somewhat higher (appendix table 7-18 ). In all of the countries and regions where survey data exist, statements about the achievements and promise of science elicit substantially more agreement than disagreement.

Both in the United States and abroad, respondents also express reservations about S&T. For eight years (2001–08), VCU Life Sciences Surveys have asked respondents whether they agree that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society." Each year, a majority has agreed; however, the percentage that agreed has dropped substantially, from 73% in 2001 to 56% in 2008. In the 2008 GSS, large minorities of survey respondents registered agreement with other statements expressing reservations about science, such as "science makes our way of life change too fast" (47% agree, 51% disagree). The proportion that agrees with this statement decreases with education, family income, and factual knowledge of science (appendix table 7-20 ). The question has been asked in numerous other countries (appendix table 7-18 ). Although levels of agreement with this statement in the United States appear to be similar to those in Russia, surveys in other countries record much higher levels of agreement.[21]

Federal Funding of Scientific Research

U.S. public opinion consistently and strongly supports federal spending on basic research. NSF surveys have repeatedly asked Americans whether "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the Federal Government." Agreement with this statement has increased slightly since the early 1990s, with 84% favoring federal support in 2008 and only 12% opposing it (appendix table 7-21 and 7-22 ).

Responses to a GSS question about federal spending on scientific research provide further evidence of increasing public support for federal spending on scientific research. Since 1981, the proportion of Americans who thought the government was spending too little on scientific research has increased, fluctuating between 29% and 34% in the 1980s, between 30% and 37% in the 1990s, and between 34% and 41% since 2001. In 2006 and 2008, only about 11% said that the government was spending too much in this area, the lowest levels registered since 1981 (figure 7-14 ; appendix table 7-23 and 7-24 ).

Although support for federal research investment is at historically high levels, other kinds of federal spending generate even stronger public support. Support for increased spending is greater in numerous program areas, including health care (75%), education (74%), assistance to the poor (69%), environmental protection (66%), social security (59%), and mass transportation (46%). Still, based on the proportion of the U.S. population favoring increased spending, scientific research (38%) ranks well ahead of spending in national defense (24%), space exploration (14%), and assistance to foreign countries (11%).[22]

In other countries where similar though not precisely comparable questions have been asked, respondents also express strong support for government spending on basic scientific research. In 2005, 76% of Europeans agreed that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which adds to knowledge should be supported by government," and only 7% disagreed. In 2007, 74% of Chinese agreed to a similar statement. Because both the European and the Chinese survey offered a middle option ("neither agree nor disagree"), these percentages are lower than figures for the United States, where no middle category was offered (appendix table 7-21 ). Agreement in South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and Brazil reaches levels comparable to those in the United States and Europe.

Support for increased government spending on scientific research is relatively common in Europe as well. Over half of Europeans agreed in 2005 that their "government should spend more money on scientific research and less on other things." Although this proportion is nominally higher than the percentage of Americans who support more government spending, numerous context and wording differences between the questions leave responses open to substantially differing interpretations.[23] Public support for increased spending on scientific research was substantially greater in South Korea (67% in 2004) than in the United States (Korea Science Foundation 2004).

Confidence in the Science Community's Leadership

For the science-related decisions that citizens face, a comprehensive understanding of the relevant scientific research would require mastery and evaluation of a great deal of evidence. In addition to relying on direct evidence from scientific studies, citizens who want to draw on scientific evidence must consult the judgments of leaders and other experts whom they believe can speak authoritatively about the scientific knowledge that is relevant to an issue.

Public confidence in the leaders of the scientific community is one indicator of public willingness to rely on science. Since 1973, the GSS has tracked public confidence in the leadership of various institutions, including the scientific community. The GSS asks respondents whether they have "a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in the leaders of different institutions. In 2008, the percentage of Americans expressing "a great deal of confidence" in leaders of the scientific community (39%) was the same as those expressing "a great deal of confidence" in leaders of the medical community (39%) and higher than for all other institutions except the military (51%).

Conversely, the percentage expressing "hardly any confidence at all" was lower for scientific leaders than for leaders of any other institution about which this question was asked (table 7-8 ). Throughout the entire period in which this question has been asked, the percentage of Americans expressing a great deal of confidence in the leaders of the scientific community has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range, hovering between 35% and 45% (appendix table 7-25 ). In contrast, for some other institutions (e.g., the military), confidence has shown more variability over the past three decades.

Science usually ranks second or third in the public confidence surveys, with medicine or the military ranking first. The consistently high confidence in the leadership of the scientific community contrasts with a general decline in confidence in other institutional leaders over the years. The medical community, for example, has seen a long-term decline in confidence. Over half of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in medical leaders in the mid-1970s, compared with about 40% in recent years. Thirty years ago confidence in the medical community was higher than confidence in scientific leaders. However, since 2002 science has scored as well as or better than medicine on this indicator, although the scores for the two fields remain very close.

Influence on Public Issues

Government support for scientific research derives partly from the notion that science can support policymakers in making many public decisions. Science can play this role more effectively if the general public supports the use of scientific knowledge in such decisions and shares the view that science is relevant.

In 2006, the GSS asked about the appropriate influence of science on four public policy issues to which scientific research might be considered relevant—global climate change, research using human embryonic stem cells, federal income taxes, and genetically modified (GM) foods. Survey respondents were asked how much influence a group of scientists with relevant expertise (e.g., medical researchers, economists) should have in deciding about each issue, how well the scientists understood the issue, and to what extent the scientists would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests." The same questions were asked about elected officials and either religious leaders (for stem cell research) or business leaders (for the other issues). Respondents were also asked a question about their perception of the level of consensus among the scientists regarding a largely factual aspect of the issue (e.g., "the existence and causes of global warming" or "the importance of stem cell research") and a question that probed their attitude regarding each issue.

The GSS data indicate that Americans believe that scientists should have a relatively large amount of influence on public decisions concerning these issues (table 7-9 ). For the four issues, the percentage who said that scientists should have either "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of influence ranged from 85% ("global warming") to 72% ("income taxes"). For each issue, the percentage was greater for scientists than for either of the other leadership groups. The contrast among the groups was more pronounced for the three issues that dealt with biological or geophysical phenomena than for income taxes, where elected officials ranked closely behind economists.

Americans also give scientists relatively high marks for understanding the four issues (table 7-10 ). The GSS asked respondents to rate each leadership group's understanding of a largely factual aspect of each issue on a five-point scale ranging from "very well" to "not at all." For the three issues dealing with biological or geophysical phenomena, the differences in perceived understanding were large: between 64% and 74% of the public placed the relevant scientists in one of the top two categories, whereas only 9% to 14% placed any of the other groups in those categories. The contrast among groups was smaller for the tax issue, with economists (52%) ranking ahead of business leaders (44%) and elected officials (28%).

Patterns for the question about which groups would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests" were similar. For each issue, Americans placed the scientific group in one of the top two categories much more often than they placed either of the other leadership groups in those categories.

One factor that may limit the influence of scientific knowledge and the scientific community over public issues is the perception that significant scientific disagreement exists, making scientific knowledge uncertain (Krosnick et al. 2006). GSS respondents were asked to rate the degree of scientific consensus on a largely factual aspect of each of the four issues using a five-point scale ranging from "near complete agreement" to "no agreement at all." The degree of perceived consensus of medical researchers on "the importance of stem cells for research" was the only item for which more than half of respondents (52%) chose one of the two points near the "complete agreement" end of the scale (table 7-11 ). In the case of the perceived consensus of environmental scientists on "the existence and causes of global warming," 42% chose one of these two points denoting a high degree of consensus. Lower proportions of respondents chose one of these two points when asked about the extent to which medical researchers agree on "the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods" (28%) or economists on "the effects of reducing federal income taxes" (20%).

With a few exceptions, responses to these questions do not differ markedly among demographic groups. Americans with higher incomes, more education, and more science knowledge tend to have more favorable perceptions of the knowledge, impartiality, and level of agreement among scientists. For a more detailed presentation of these data and further discussion of this subject, see NSB 2008.

What Makes an Activity Scientific

The label "scientific" is usually considered a favorable one. When research studies claim to be scientific, they claim to produce valid knowledge; when occupations claim to be scientific, they claim their practitioners have systematic expertise. It is important for the public to be able to scrutinize these claims critically and use reasonable criteria to judge them, because not all claims that an activity is scientific are equally warranted.

In 2006, the GSS included two batteries of questions that probed what characteristics Americans associate with scientific studies and what disciplines and practices Americans consider scientific. These indicators provide insight into how Americans discriminate between more and less scientific endeavors. (Data from these questions are reported in greater detail in NSB 2008.)

Attributes That Make Something Scientific
One group of questions asked how important each of eight characteristics is in "making something scientific." These characteristics can be divided into three groups:

  • Features of the research process:
    • The conclusions are based on solid evidence.
    • The researchers carefully examine different interpretations of the results, even ones they disagree with.
    • Other scientists repeat the experiment and find similar results.
  • Aspects of the credentials and institutional settings that lend credibility to the research:
    • The people who do the research have advanced degrees in their field.
    • The research is done by scientists employed in a university setting.
    • The research takes place in a laboratory.
  • External validation by other belief systems:
    • The results of the research are consistent with common sense.
    • The results of the research are consistent with religious beliefs.

Americans were most likely to consider features of the research process to be very important. Over two-thirds said that "conclusions based on solid evidence" (80%), "carefully examin[ing] different interpretations of the results" (73%), and "replication of results by other scientists" (67%) were very important in making something scientific.

Americans thought that researcher qualifications were almost as important, with 62% classifying "the people who do it have advanced degrees in their field" as very important. Institutional settings often associated with research, such as laboratories (41%) and universities (33%), ranked lower. Respondents viewed these settings as similar in importance to having results that were "consistent with common sense." Most Americans viewed consistency with religion as either not at all important (39%) or not too important (31%) to making something scientific.

Response patterns for this group of questions are related to the respondent's education level (figure 7-15 ). Although Americans at all levels of education rated research process characteristics as most important, more highly educated Americans gave these characteristics the highest ratings. In contrast, individual credentials, institutional auspices, and consistency with other beliefs were seen as less important among more highly educated respondents than among others. As a result of these divergent patterns, the gap in importance between process characteristics and other attributes is wide at higher levels of education but relatively narrow for people with less schooling (figure 7-15). (For more details, see NSB 2008.)

Which Fields Are Scientific
The 2006 GSS asked Americans about eight fields of research or practice and whether they were "very scientific, pretty scientific, not too scientific, or not scientific at all."

Practically all Americans (98%) perceived medicine as "very" or "pretty" scientific, even though it is focused more on practical service delivery and less on research than other listed fields, including biology and physics. Nonetheless, both of these disciplines were also overwhelmingly seen as either "very" or "pretty" scientific (94% for biology and 90% for physics). Americans with more years of education and more classroom exposure to science and mathematics were more likely to believe that these two fields were relatively scientific, particularly physics.

Engineering, a discipline which like medicine involves the application of science and mathematics to develop solutions to practical problems, ranked below the other three fields on this measure; 77% perceived engineering as "very" or "pretty" scientific.

About 50% of Americans said that the two social science disciplines on the list (economics and sociology) were "very" or "pretty" scientific. Accounting and history were less likely to be placed at the scientific end of the scale; respondents with less education were more likely than others to classify history as relatively scientific. A similar question on the 2005 Eurobarometer about an overlapping set of fields produced generally similar results (EC 2005).

Views of S&E Occupations

Data on public esteem for S&E occupations are an indicator of the attractiveness of these occupations and their ability to recruit talented people into their ranks. Such data may also have a bearing on the public's sense that S&E affects the nation's well-being in the future.

For over 30 years, the Harris Poll (Harris Interactive 2008b) has asked about the prestige of a large number of occupations, including scientists and engineers (table 7-12 ). In 2008, 56% of Americans said that scientists had "very great prestige," and 40% expressed this view about engineers. Most occupations in the surveys ranked well below engineers.[24]

Between 1977 and 2008, the percentage of survey respondents attributing "very great prestige" to scientists has fluctuated between 51% and 66%. There has not been a clear trend over the years. The comparable score for engineers increased from 30% in 2007 to 40% in 2008, the highest level in thirteen surveys since the question was first asked in 1977.

Scientists ranked higher in prestige than almost all occupations in the Harris surveys. In recent years, their ranking was comparable with that of nurses, doctors, firefighters, and teachers and ahead of military and police officers. Engineers' standing is high and comparable to occupations clustered just below the top group (including clergy, military officers, and police officers).

Prestige appears to reflect perceived service orientation and public benefit more than high income or celebrity; for instance, the proportions of respondents who attributed "very great prestige" to entertainers or actors were 15% and 16%, respectively (table 7-12 ). Americans are more likely to trust people in prestigious occupations (including scientists) to tell the truth (Harris Interactive 2006).

Some evidence suggests that Americans rate scientific careers more positively than is the case in at least some other countries. In 2004, a little over 50% of South Koreans said they would feel happy if their son or daughter wanted to become a scientist. Among Chinese, science (40%) ranked close to medicine (41%) and teaching (43%) as an occupation that survey respondents hoped their children will pursue (CRISP 2008). In the United States, 80% of those surveyed in 2001 expressed positive views regarding their children becoming scientists.

In 2006, the majority of Israelis said they would be pleased if their children became scientists (77%), engineers (78%), or physicians (78%) (Yaar 2006).


[20] Methodological issues make fine-grained comparisons of data from different survey years suspect. For instance, although the question content and interviewer instructions were identical in 2004 and 2006, the percentage of respondents who volunteered "about equal" (an answer not among the choices given)" was substantially different. This difference may have been produced by the change from telephone interviews in 2004 to in-person interviews in 2006 (though telephone interviews in 2001 produced results that are similar to those in 2006). More likely, customary interviewing practices in the three different organizations that administered the surveys affected their interviewers' willingness to accept responses other than those that were specifically offered on the interview form, including "don't know" responses.
[21] There are large differences among European countries. The lowest support for this statement is found in Iceland, with 38% expressing agreement. Other countries where less than half of residents agree include Ireland (42%), Finland (44%), Denmark (44%), the United Kingdom (45%), and the Netherlands (47%).
[22] This type of survey question asks respondents about their assessment of government spending in several areas without mentioning the possible negative consequences of spending (e.g., higher taxes, less money available for higher priority expenditures). A question that focused respondents' attention on such consequences might yield response patterns less sympathetic to greater government funding.
[23] Unlike the U.S. question, the European question joins two logically independent ideas—more spending on science and less spending on other priorities. In addition, because nations begin from different levels of spending, survey responses cannot be read as indicating different views about the proper level of spending in this area, nor do they indicate the strength of sentiment in different countries. Differences in the connotations of questions posed in different languages add further complexities. Perhaps for some or all of these reasons, variations among European countries in responses to this question are large, with about two-thirds of respondents agreeing in Italy, Spain, and France, but less than one-third in Finland and the Netherlands.
[24] There are many different types of specializations within occupations and prestige may well vary within the same occupation or industry.

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