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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Public Attitudes About Specific S&T-Related Issues

Public attitudes can affect the speed and direction of S&T development. When science plays a substantial role in a national policy controversy, more than the specific policies under debate may be at stake. The policy debate may also shape public opinion and government decisions about investments in general categories of research. Less directly, a highly visible debate involving science may shape overall public impressions of either the credibility of science or the proper role of science in other, less visible public decisions.

Likewise, public attitudes about emerging areas of research and new technologies may have an impact on innovation. The climate of opinion concerning new research areas could influence levels of public and private investment in related technological innovations and, eventually, the adoption of new technologies and the growth of industries based on these technologies.

For these reasons, survey responses about policy controversies involving science, specific research areas, and emerging technologies are relevant. In addition, responses about relatively specific matters provide a window into the practical decisions through which citizens translate more general attitudes into actions, although, like all survey responses, how these responses relate to actual behavior remains uncertain. More generally, even in democratic societies, public opinion about new scientific and technological developments does not translate directly into actions or policy. Instead, it filters through institutions that selectively measure what the public believes and either magnify or minimize the effects of divisions in public opinion on public discourse and government policy (Jasanoff 2005).

Attitudes toward policy issues always involve a multitude of factors and not just knowledge or understanding of relevant science. Values, morals, judgments of prudence, and numerous other factors can come strongly into play. Judgments about scientific fact are often secondary. In assessing the same issue, different people may find different considerations relevant.

This section begins with data on environmental issues, including global climate change and nuclear power. It then covers attitudes toward recent and novel technologies, including medical biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology (i.e., GM food), and nanotechnology. Data on cloning and stem cell research follow, and the section concludes with recent data on attitudes toward science and mathematics education and toward scientific research on animals.

Environment and Climate Change

The Gallup Organization's annual survey on environmental issues indicates that Americans have become somewhat more concerned about environmental quality in the last 4 years (figure 7-16 ). Between 2004 and 2008, the percentage of Americans expressing "a great deal" or "a fair amount" of worry about the "quality of the environment" rose from 62% to 74%, returning approximately to its 2001 level (Saad 2008b).

Despite the rise in "worry" about the environment, concern about this issue barely registers when surveys ask Americans to name the country's top problem. In surveys conducted in the first quarter of 2009, only about 2% of Americans mentioned the environment or pollution in an open-ended question asking "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" (The Gallup Organization 2009a, 2009b). In close-ended questions, worry about the environment ranked lower than worry about the economy (90%), the availability and affordability of either energy (82%) or healthcare (81%), and crime and violence (80%). The proportion of Americans worried about the quality of the environment was similar to the proportion worried about Social Security (75%), future terrorist attacks (73%), and hunger and homelessness (73%) and higher than the percentage worried about illegal immigration (70%), unemployment (68%), drug use (67%), and race relations (45%).

In the 2008 GSS, the majority of Americans (66%) believed that the government is spending too little to reduce pollution and only a handful thought it spent too much (8%, appendix table 7-23 ). The proportion who believed that the government is spending too little in this policy area has fluctuated between 60% and 67% since 1997 and is still lower than it was in 1988 and 1990 (76% for both years). The trend in support for environmental protection was less evident when Americans were asked about tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth (figure 7-17 ). In March 2009, only 42% of Americans indicated that the protection of the environment should take precedence over economic growth (down from about 70% in 1990–91 and in 2000).

However, when asked about various proposals to protect the environment in Gallup surveys conducted between 2001 and 2007 (table 7-13 ), strong majorities endorsed government spending to develop alternate sources of fuel for automobiles and to develop solar and wind power. Majorities also favored different environmentally friendly measures such as setting higher emissions and pollution standards for business and industry and enforcing federal environmental regulations more strongly. Lower proportions favored expanding the use of nuclear energy and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration (The Gallup Organization 2009a).

National data on the use of biofuels for energy consumption is scarce, but one survey found that 70% of Americans thought using ethanol was "mostly a good idea" (Broder and Connelly 2007).

Climate change, sometimes referred to as global warming (see sidebar "'Climate Change' Versus 'Global Warming'"), has recently become more prominent among environmental issues for the American public. Since 2000, Gallup has asked Americans how much they personally worry about eight environmental issues. The percentage of Americans who said they worried "a great deal" about "global warming" decreased from 40% in 2000 to 26% in 2004, but increased to 34% in 2008 (Saad 2009). Even with this increase, "global warming" still ranked eighth among these issues. The percentage of Americans worrying "a great deal" about this issue was lower than the percentage of Americans worrying "a great deal" about water-related environmental issues such as "pollution of drinking water" (59%), "pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs" (52%), "contamination of soil and water by toxic waste" (52%), "maintenance of the nation's fresh water supply for household needs" (49%), and also "air pollution" (45%). Response categories in surveys, however, are not always distinct and may evoke overlapping associations in respondents. "Air pollution," for example, is related to carbon emissions and climate change.

Recent data show additional signs that awareness of climate change is increasing. Since 2004, Gallup surveys registered gradual increases in the percentage of Americans who say they understand the "global warming" issue "very well" or "fairly well," from 68% in 2004 to 80% in 2008 (The Gallup Organization 2009a). In addition, the number of Americans who say that the effects of "global warming" have already begun to occur has been steadily increasing since 2004 and was at an all time high in 2008 at 61%. The percentage of Americans who believe that most scientists think "global warming" is occurring has also been rising for over a decade. Most Americans think that "the increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century" are largely the result of human activities rather than natural changes; that percentage has been stable since 2001, hovering between 58% and 61% (The Gallup Organization 2009a).

Nuclear Power

In the debate over America's sources of energy, nuclear power has been a controversial subject. On the one hand, nuclear power is an appealing option to meet energy needs due to its low emissions of greenhouse gases and other atmospheric pollutants. On the other hand, there are serious concerns about this technology, such as risks in the operation of nuclear plants, the disposal of nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation.

Overall, support for nuclear power is lower than for conservation-based energy strategies (table 7-13 ), but it has grown in the last 2 years. American public opinion has been fairly evenly divided since the mid-1990s, but the proportion of Americans who favor the use of nuclear power as one of the ways to provide electricity for the U.S. increased from 53% in 2007 to 59% in 2009 (Jones 2009). A substantial minority of Americans (42%) thinks nuclear power plants are not safe and prior surveys indicate that three out of five Americans oppose the construction of a nuclear energy plant in their local communities.[25]

Despite some differences in wording between the Eurobarometer and the U.S. questions, a 2008 report shows that European public opinion on nuclear energy is divided but support for energy production by nuclear power stations has grown since 2005 (EC 2008a). Support for nuclear energy varies a great deal among countries in this region. In general, citizens of countries that have operational nuclear power plants are considerably more likely to support nuclear energy than citizens of other countries (figure 7-18 ).[26]

Biotechnology and Its Medical Applications

Recent advances in recombinant DNA technology enable the manipulation of genetic material to produce plants and animals with desirable characteristics. The most recent American data on attitudes in this area are from 2005. They show that Americans, Canadians, and Europeans have similarly favorable attitudes toward biotechnology in general and medical applications in particular. A study that collected U.S. and Canadian data found that about two-thirds of survey respondents in each country registered favorable attitudes (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005).[27]

Few Americans (about 1 in 10) consider themselves "very familiar" with biotechnology and Canadians report slightly less familiarity. Without a strong knowledge base to use in evaluating information, their assessment of the credibility of information sources is an important element in forming their judgments about information on this topic. In both the United States and Canada, scientific journals and government-funded scientists were the top-rated institutions that could provide information about biotechnology. Conversely, privately owned mass media, biotechnology company executives, and religious and political leaders ranked near the bottom in both countries. (For more detail on this subject, see NSB 2008.)

Genetically Modified Food

Although the introduction of GM crops has provoked much less controversy in the United States than in Europe, U.S. popular support for this application of biotechnology is limited. According to a 2008 CBS/New York Times poll, 44% of Americans indicated they had not heard much about GM ingredients added to foods to make them taste better and last longer. However, 87% believed that these foods should be labeled and 53% expected that it was "not very likely" or "not at all likely" that they would buy food that was labeled as such.

Overall, these results are consistent with a series of five surveys conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology between 2001 and 2006. These studies consistently found that only about one-fourth of U.S. consumers favored "the introduction of genetically modified foods into the U.S. food supply" (Mellman Group, Inc. 2006). The proportion of U.S. survey respondents reporting a negative reaction to the phrase "genetically modified food" (44%) was more than twice the 20% that reported a positive reaction (Canadian Biotechnology Secretariat 2005). Nonetheless, consumers in the United States expressed more favorable views than Europeans, with Canadians falling somewhere in between (Gaskell et al. 2006).

Although the FDA proposed guidelines for the approval process for genetically engineered animals in September 2008 (Maugh and Kaplan 2008), past surveys have generally found that in the U.S. residents are even more wary of genetic modification of animals than they are of genetic modification of plants (Mellman Group, Inc. 2005). Many express support for regulatory responses, but this support appears to be quite sensitive to the way issues are framed. Thus, whereas 29% expressed a great deal of confidence in "the Food and Drug Administration or FDA," only about half as many expressed the same confidence when the question was posed about "government regulators" (Mellman Group, Inc. 2006). (Additional findings from earlier U.S. surveys can be found in NSB 2006 and NSB 2008.)


Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at unprecedentedly small scales to create new or improved products that can be used in a wide variety of ways. Nanotechnology has been the focus of relatively large public and private investments for almost a decade, and innovations based on nanotechnology are increasingly common. However, relative to other new technologies, nanotechnology is still in an early stage of development and the degree of risk remains uncertain (Chatterjee 2008, Barlow et al. 2009).

Data from the 2008 GSS indicated that overall familiarity with nanotechnology is similar to its 2006 level. The proportion of Americans who had heard "a lot" or "some" about nanotechnology remained virtually unchanged (5% and 15% in both 2006 and 2008), but the proportion of those who had heard "a little" or "nothing at all" declined slightly (appendix table 7-26 ). These numbers are similar to those reported by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies based on a national survey conducted in August 2008 (Peter D. Hart Research Associates 2008). While the questions asked are not strictly comparable, familiarity with nanotechnology in the 2006 GSS was similar to that in Europe in 2005, in which 44% of survey respondents said they had heard of it (Gaskell et al. 2006).

Despite increased federal funding and more than 600 nanotechnology products already on the market (The National Academies 2008a),[28] nanotechnology knowledge levels were not high (appendix table 7-11 ) and remained similar to 2006, even among the minority of GSS respondents who had heard of nanotechnology. In 2008, 63% of the respondents who had heard at least a little about this technology correctly indicated that the statement "nanotechnology involves manipulating extremely small units of matter, such as individual atoms, in order to produce better materials" was true, but many (29%) said they did not know, and a few (8%) thought this statement was false. Almost half (47%) did not know whether the statement "the properties of nanoscale materials often differ fundamentally and unexpectedly from the properties of the same materials at larger scales" was true, while 41% correctly answered true and the remaining 12% answered false. A third of the respondents answered both questions correctly.

When nanotechnology is defined in surveys, Americans express favorable expectations for it. After receiving a brief explanation of nanotechnology, GSS respondents were asked about the likely balance between the benefits and harms of nanotechnology. Similar to 2006, in 2008 38% said the "benefits will outweigh the harmful results" and only 9% expected the harms to predominate (appendix table 7-27 ). In 2008, however, the proportion of Americans who said they did not know whether the benefits of nanotechnology would outweigh the harmful results or vice versa increased, and the proportion who expected the benefits to be equal to the harmful results decreased. The fact that about half of respondents either gave a neutral response (12%) or said they did not know (40%) suggests that these opinions are open to change as Americans become more familiar with this technology.

Favorable expectations for nanotechnology are associated with more education, greater science knowledge, and greater familiarity with nanotechnology. Men are also more likely to have favorable expectations than women (appendix table 7-27 ). In these aspects, patterns are similar to those for responses concerning S&T in general.

In the GSS data, favorable attitudes toward nanotechnology are also associated with greater familiarity with it. That is, Americans who say they are more familiar with nanotechnology are more likely to believe that its benefits will outweigh the risks. However, this association does not mean that when people become more familiar their attitudes necessarily become positive. Some data suggest that when individuals who report knowing little or nothing about nanotechnology hear a balanced statement of its risks and benefits, they develop less favorable opinions of it (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. 2008). Furthermore, recent research suggests that attitudes toward nanotechnology are likely to vary depending on the context in which it is applied, with energy applications viewed much more positively than those in health and human enhancements (Pidgeon et al. 2009).

Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning

Unlike most issues involving scientific research, studies using embryonic stem cells have generated considerable public controversy. In the case of stem cell research, strongly held views about moral fundamentals determine many people's attitudes. There is less reason to believe that this is the case for certain other S&T issues, such as nuclear power.

Although a majority of the public supports such research, a substantial minority is opposed to it. When surveys ask about medical technologies that could be derived from embryonic stem cell research in the context of expected health benefits, public response is relatively positive. But technologies that involve cloning human embryos evoke consistently strong and negative responses.

Since 2004, the majority of the American public has favored "medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos" (VCU Center for Public Policy 2008). Support grew continuously from 2002 (35% in favor) to 2005 (58% in favor) and remained at a similar level in 2008 (figure 7-19 ). In eight annual Gallup surveys between 2002 and 2009, the percentage of Americans who found such research "morally acceptable" ranged from 52% to 64%, and the percentage saying it was "morally wrong" from 30% to 39% (Saad 2008a; The Gallup Organization 2009c). Similarly, in five Pew surveys conducted between August 2004 and August 2007, a consistent but slim majority agreed that it was "more important to continue stem cell research that might produce new medical cures than to avoid destroying the human embryos used in the research" while about a third said not destroying embryos was more important (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008).

Support for stem cell research is higher when the question inquires about research that uses stem cells from sources that do not involve human embryos. Seven out of ten respondents favored this type of research in 2008, down slightly from 75% in 2007 (VCU Center for Public Policy 2008). Support also increased when the question was framed as an emotionally compelling personal issue ("If you or a member of your family had a condition such as Parkinson's Disease, or a spinal cord injury, would you support the use of embryonic stem cells in order to pursue a treatment for that condition?"). In this case, 70% of Americans support treatments that use stem cells and only 21% do not (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006). Responses become more mixed when questions mention "cloning technology" that is used only to help medical research develop new treatments for disease. However, opinion is decidedly negative when the question asks about cloning or genetically altering animals without mention of a medical purpose (table 7-14 ).

Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to human cloning. In a 2008 VCU survey, the idea of cloning or genetically altering humans was rejected by 78% of Americans (VCU Center for Public Policy 2008). The specter of reproductive cloning can generate apprehension about therapeutic cloning. Asked how concerned they were that "the use of human cloning technology to create stem cells for human therapeutic purposes will lead to a greater chance of human reproductive cloning," over two-thirds of Americans said they were either very (31%) or somewhat (37%) concerned (VCU Center for Public Policy 2006).

In 2008, about two-thirds of Americans were "very clear" (23%) or "somewhat clear" (41%) about the difference between stem cells that come from human embryos, stem cells that come from adults, and stem cells that come from other sources (VCU Center for Public Policy 2008). However, public attitudes toward cloning technology are not grounded in a strong grasp of the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning (see glossary for the definitions). Most Americans (64%) said they were not clear ("not very clear" or "not clear at all") about this distinction, with 26% saying they were "somewhat clear" and only 8% characterizing themselves as "very clear" about it. The number of Americans who professed greater comprehension in 2008 was lower than it was when VCU began asking this question in 2002, despite, or perhaps because of, the increased visibility of stem cell research as a public issue.

Support for stem cell research is strongest among people with more years of formal education. Americans who are more religious and more politically conservative are more likely to oppose such research (VCU Center for Public Policy 2008).

A recent international survey on attitudes toward stem cell research in a dozen European countries, the United States, Japan, and Israel found that awareness, knowledge, and attitudes about this type of research vary widely (Fundacion BBVA 2008). Overall, Americans are more aware of stem cell research than residents of most other countries and more often respond correctly to knowledge questions on this subject. Americans are somewhat more likely than residents of several countries in Europe to believe that stem cell research is immoral (appendix table 7-28 ).

Science and Mathematics Education

In much public discourse about how Americans will fare in an increasingly S&T-driven world, quality education in science and mathematics is seen as crucial for both individuals and the nation as a whole.

In the 2008 GSS, majorities of Americans in all demographic groups agreed that the quality of science and mathematics education in American schools is inadequate. Their level of agreement increases with education, science knowledge, income, and age (appendix table 7-29 ). Dissatisfaction with the quality of math and science education increased from 63% in 1985 to 70% in 2008, but is still below its peak in 1992 (75%) (figure 7-20 ; appendix table 7-30 ).

In addition, the proportion of Americans who indicated they believe the government is spending too little money in improving education in the biannual GSS surveys has been consistently over 70% since the early 1980s. Along with improving health care, this is one of the two top areas where the public feels government spending is too low (figure 7-20 , appendix table 7-23 ).

Scientific Research on Animals

The medical research community conducts experimental tests on animals in order to advance scientific understanding of biological processes and test the effectiveness of drugs and procedures that may eventually be used to improve human health.

Most Americans support at least some kinds of animal research. Nearly two-thirds said they favored "using animals in medical research" (VCU Center for Public Policy 2007). According to a different survey conducted by Gallup, the majority of respondents supported this kind of research: 64% opposed "banning all medical research on laboratory animals" and 59% opposed "banning all product testing on laboratory animals" (Newport 2008).

However, opposition has grown in the past two decades. When asked whether scientists should be allowed to do "research that causes pain and injury to animals like dogs and chimpanzees" if it produces new information about human health problems, between 42% and 45% of Americans in the early 1990s disagreed. This proportion increased to 51% in 2001 and 58% in 2008 (figure 7-21 , appendix table 7-31 and 7-32 ).[29] Annual surveys conducted by Gallup since 2001 show a similar pattern. While a majority of Americans say that "medical testing on animals is morally acceptable," this percentage decreased from 65% in 2001 to 56% in 2008 (Saad 2008a). Men are more likely than women to approve this kind of research (appendix table 7-31).

Past NSF surveys suggest that the public is more comfortable with the use of mice in scientific experiments than the use of dogs and chimpanzees (NSB 2002). In 2001 68% of Americans agreed that scientists should be allowed to do research that causes pain and injury to animals like mice if it produces new information about human health problems, compared to 44% who expressed agreement when the question focused on dogs and chimpanzees (NSB 2002).

While recent comparable international data are lacking, a survey conducted by Gallup in 2003 showed that Americans and Canadians were more likely to tolerate scientific research on animals than the British. When asked: "Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general medical testing on animals is morally acceptable or morally wrong," the majority of adults in the U.S. and Canada believed it was morally acceptable (63% and 59%, respectively). In contrast, the majority of British respondents thought it was morally wrong (54%) (Mason Kiefer 2003).


[25] The two questions from the 2009 Gallup survey were each asked to half the sample (N=500).
[26] Countries with nuclear plants include Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Two exceptions to this pattern are Romania and Spain, both of which have operational nuclear power plants but where the level of support for nuclear energy is below the EU-27 average. An earlier Eurobarometer study showed that the Spaniards and the Romanians were less aware of the fact that their countries have nuclear power plants than respondents in other countries with nuclear plants in operation. This low level of awareness regarding the operation of a nuclear plant in their country may lead to a less positive attitude about nuclear energy.
[27] A 2006 Canadian survey showed little or no change from 2005 (Decima Research 2006).
[28] According to a recent report from The National Academies, more than 600 products involving nanotechnology are already on the market; most of them are health and fitness products such as skin care products and cosmetics (The National Academies, 2008a).
[29] The increase in the proportion of respondents who disagree with this statement may be related to methodological issues, because of the changes in data collection discussed above.

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