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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Chapter Overview

Science and technology (S&T) is central to American life. Whether at home, work, school, or out in our communities, S&T affects our daily activities and how we interact in a host of different ways. Many Americans work in jobs in which they innovate using S&T, whereas others use these innovations to produce the goods and services that improve and reshape our lives. S&T gives us new opportunities to get healthy and stay healthy. It affects what and how we eat while providing technologies that keep us entertained and connected. S&T also gives us things to talk about, whether as part of political discussions or simply because so much about S&T can be interesting and important to how the world works. Such conversations are common because S&T is integral to American society. This centrality means that Americans’ attitudes and understanding about S&T matter a great deal.

Sometimes S&T debates involve potential risks to health or the environment or changes to what it takes for individuals or companies to succeed. Societies can do a better job addressing potential concerns when these concerns are well understood, even if some concerns turn out to be unfounded. Americans’ ability to deal with potential risks may affect what kinds of S&T development occurs within the country as well as whether we can take advantage of the S&T that already exists. Individuals may also choose where to focus their careers based on both their personal interests as well as where they feel they can make a meaningful impact.

Given the centrality of S&T to life in the United States, this chapter presents indicators about interest in S&T news, where people encounter S&T in the media, trend data regarding knowledge of S&T, and indicators of people’s attitudes about S&T-related issues. To put U.S. data in context, the chapter examines trend indicators for past years and comparative indicators for other countries.

Chapter Organization

This chapter is divided into four main sections. The first includes indicators of the public’s interest in S&T news, sources of information, and involvement in informal S&T activities. The second section reports indicators of public knowledge, including trend measures of factual knowledge of S&T and people’s understanding of the scientific process. This second section also includes the way individuals respond to knowledge questions. The third and fourth sections of the chapter describe public attitudes toward S&T. The third section presents data on attitudes about S&T in general, including support for government funding of basic research, confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, and perceptions of scientists and engineers. Also included is a focus on the degree to which the public views various fields and activities as “scientific.” The fourth section addresses attitudes on public issues in which S&T plays an important role, such as the environment, climate change, energy, nuclear power, and the use of animals in scientific research. It also includes indicators of public opinion about several emerging lines of research and new technologies, including nanotechnology, genetically modified (GM) food, stem cell research, and cloning.

A Note about Data and Terminology

This chapter emphasizes trends over time, patterns of variation within the U.S. population, and international patterns. It reviews recent survey data from national samples with sound, representative sampling designs. The emphasis in the text is on the trends and patterns in the data.

Like all survey data, the data in this chapter are subject to numerous sources of error and random variation that should be kept in mind when interpreting the findings. Caution is especially warranted for data from surveys that omit significant portions of the target population, have low response rates, or have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording (see sidebars “U.S. Survey Data Sources” and “International Survey Data Sources”). Also, although many of the international comparisons involve identical questions asked in different countries, these comparisons can be affected by language and cultural differences that cause survey respondents to interpret questions differently. International comparisons therefore require careful consideration.

S&T questions asked in the biennial General Social Survey (GSS) are a major source of data for this chapter. The GSS is a high-quality, nationally representative data source on attitudes and behavior of the U.S. population. Questions about S&T information, knowledge, and attitudes have been included in the GSS since 2006 and have formed the basis of this chapter in Science and Engineering Indicators since 2008. The GSS collects data primarily through in-person interviews. Comparable survey data collected between 1982 and 2004 used telephone interviewing; prior to 1982, these data were collected via in-person interviews. Changes in data collection methods over these years, particularly prior to 2006, may affect comparisons over time.

Another important limitation is that recent, high-quality, relevant data are not always available. In some cases, there are large gaps between data collections or only a small number of questions on any given topic. This challenge is particularly acute when it comes to international data. There is a substantial amount of survey work on S&T in Europe, but these data are not collected as regularly as data from the GSS. Asian data are collected even less frequently. Data from Africa and South America are also limited. In general, the current chapter focuses on surveys that have become public after the preparation of the 2012 Indicators report. Earlier data can be found in past editions of Indicators. In addition, Bauer, Shukla, and Allum (2012) summarize survey data up to 2006 from a range of countries and regions.

Throughout this chapter, the terminology used in the text reflects the wording in corresponding survey questions. In general, survey questions asking respondents about their primary sources of information, interest in issues in the news, and general attitudes use the phrase “science and technology.” Thus, S&T is used when discussing these data. Survey questions asking respondents about their confidence in institutional leaders, the prestige of occupations, and their views on different disciplines use terms such as “scientific community,” “scientists,” “researchers,” and “engineers,” so S&E is used when examining issues related to occupations, careers, and fields of research. Although science and engineering are distinct fields, national survey data that make this distinction are scarce. The term Americans, as well as equivalent terms for other countries, is meant to refer to U.S. residents included in a national survey. However, not all respondents were citizens of the countries in which they were surveyed.