In addition to general views about S&T, most people also develop views about specific issues, and these views can shape personal and political decisions. Such specific attitudes are usually associated with general attitudes and knowledge and may come from a range of experiences. Both general and specific views about S&T may affect what people decide to study, what they decide to consume, and whom they trust. Likewise, attitudes about emerging areas of research and new technologies may influence innovation activity in important ways. The climate of opinion concerning new research areas can shape public and private investment in related technological innovations and, eventually, the adoption of new technologies and the growth of industries based on these technologies.
Even in democratic societies, public opinion about new S&T developments rarely translates directly into actions or policy. Instead, institutions selectively assess what the public believes and may magnify or minimize the effects of divisions in public opinion on public discourse and government policy (Jasanoff 2005). It is noteworthy that the public’s attitudes about specific S&T issues such as climate change and biotechnology can differ markedly from the views of scientists (Pew Research Center 2009). This is partly because attitudes toward S&T involve a multitude of factors, not just knowledge or understanding of relevant science. Values, morals, judgments of prudence, and numerous other factors come into play; judgments about scientific fact are often secondary (Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman 2011).
This section describes data about views on environmental issues, including global climate change, nuclear power, and energy development; nanotechnology; agricultural biotechnology (i.e., GM food); cloning and stem cell research; and teaching evolution in schools. It concludes with recent data on attitudes toward scientific research on animals and toward science and mathematics education.
Environmental issues—especially climate change and energy technologies—are often the subject of both public policy debate and news interest. The massive 2010 oil spill in the United States was followed by a 2011 nuclear accident in Japan and attendant calls for the development of new energy alternatives. Recent years also saw the reemergence of a domestic natural gas industry as new technologies made hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technologically and economically feasible. A review of general public views about the environment and specific environmental issues follows, along with reviews of views about climate change and energy technologies.
The environment is important to many Americans, but other issues rate higher on their list of priorities. A 2012 Gallup survey on Americans’ concerns for the nation shows “worry” about the environment rebounded slightly after tying record lows in 2010 and 2011. The 2012 poll found that 37% said they worry “a great deal” about “the quality of the environment,” compared with 34% in 2010 and 2011. The percentage that worries “a great deal” has, however, fluctuated within a 9% range (34% to 43%) since Gallup began asking the question in 2001. These most recent figures are well within that range, suggesting long-term stability (figure
The availability of the 2010 ISSP also makes it possible to provide a number of international comparisons related to environmental issues. Particularly relevant to general environmental concerns is one general question that asked respondents “how concerned” they were “about environmental issues.” It asked them to respond on a five-point scale where 1 meant “not at all concerned” and 5 meant “very concerned.” About 63% of American respondents chose 4 or 5. The U.S. average score in 2010 was relatively low—residents of more than a dozen countries were more concerned about such issues—but also was statistically similar to the scores of many large, developed countries (figure
Within Europe alone, a 2011 Eurobarometer found that 95% of EU residents said that “protecting the environment” was personally “very important” or “important” (European Commission 2011). This figure was essentially unchanged from 2007, when it was at 96%. Further, 76% of EU residents agreed that “environmental problems” have a “direct effect” on their lives; this, too, was similar to 2007 (78%) (European Commission 2011).
The U.S. public’s perceptions of hazards to the environment have been mostly stable over the past two decades. Responses to a series of questions on GSS surveys conducted in 1993, 2000, and 2010 show that Americans consider pollution of America’s rivers, lakes, and streams to be more dangerous to the environment than any of several other potential problems; in 2010, 68% considered water pollution to be very or extremely dangerous. Air pollution caused by industry was considered very or extremely dangerous to the environment by 62%, whereas air pollution caused by cars was less likely to be considered very or extremely dangerous to the environment (43%). Assessments of environmental dangers changed substantially on only one issue—pesticides and chemicals used in farming. About half of Americans (51%) called these very or extremely dangerous to the environment in 2010, up from 37% in 1993.
The 2010 ISSP data also allow U.S. concerns about specific issues to be compared with concerns in other countries. In 2010, the United States sat in the middle range of concern on most issues. As in the United States, the only clear trend for most other countries surveyed in multiple years was that, over time, people viewed agricultural pesticides and chemicals as more dangerous (appendix tables 7-32–7-35).
Climate change (sometimes referred to as global warming) has become a central environmental issue for the American public. It has also been the subject of widespread polling in recent years, with evidence showing clear shifts in views.
Gallup has polled on “global warming” since 1989, when it found that 63% of Americans “worry a great deal” or “a fair amount” about the issue. In March 2013, the comparable statistic was 58%, but this percentage has risen and fallen multiple times. A much smaller percentage (34%), however, told Gallup that they believed “global warming would pose a serious threat” to their “way of life” during their lifetime. As with the question about “worry,” responses to this question have fluctuated over time (Saad 2013). Data from other sources show similar fluctuations (Pew Research Center 2012f; Leiserowitz et al. 2012), and these shifts come alongside shifts in the percentage of Americans who say “there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades” (Pew Research Center 2012f). The Brookings Institution found that people were increasingly pointing to changes in weather patterns as “the primary factor” that has led them to conclude “that temperatures on earth are increasing” (Borick and Rabe 2012).
Within the subset of Americans who believe the earth is getting warmer (i.e., 67% of Americans), about two-thirds (42% of all respondents) said it was likely because of “human activity such as burning fossil fuels,” whereas the remaining third (19% of all respondents) attributed the change to “natural patterns in the earth’s environment.” The percentage attributing perceived change to human activity reached a high of 50% in July 2006 but declined to as low as 36% in October 2009 (Pew Research Center 2012f).
Despite widespread concern, Pew Research Center also reports that “dealing with global warming” has been at, or near, the bottom of the public’s priorities for the president and Congress since at least 2007. About 28% of Americans said it should be a priority in 2013, which is down from 38% in 2007 (Pew Research Center 2013b). Pew Research’s September 2012 survey also found, however, that most Americans said they believe that the threat of climate change is relatively distant from their lives (Pew Research Center 2012f). Risk researchers have long known that people often see risks as more likely to harm others than themselves (Spence, Poortinga, and Pidgeon 2012).
Both Pew Research and Gallup have also asked questions about the degree to which Americans believe there is a scientific consensus around climate change. Gallup reported that, in 2013, 62% of Americans said that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring.” Gallup’s research also shows that the percentage saying a consensus exists rose from 48% in 1998 to a high of 65% in 2008 before falling again (Saad 2013). Several other surveys report similar findings (Pew Research Center 2012f; Leiserowitz et al. 2012).
Survey organizations that collect public opinion data on climate change consistently find views on this topic to be related to party affiliation (Pew Research Center 2012f; Saad 2013).
The most recent internationally comparable, representative data on public views about climate change are from 2010, a year in which Americans were at (or near) relative lows in their concerns about climate change.
The 2010 ISSP indicated that the United States is among the countries with the least concern about climate change (figure
Gallup similarly reported that, in 2010, 53% of Americans saw global warming as a “very” or “somewhat” serious threat to themselves and their families, putting it in the middle range of the 111 countries/economies Gallup polled. The average for Western Europe was 56%. Higher percentages of respondents were concerned in Southern and Eastern Europe (60%), Canada (71%), Latin America (73%), and the developed parts of Asia (74%) than in the United States. Conversely, residents of less developed areas were less concerned than those in the United States, including those in the Commonwealth of Independent States (44%), the Middle East and North Africa (37%), Sub-Saharan Africa (34%), and developing countries in Asia (31%). Gallup also reported that the perceived threat of climate change declined between 2007–08 and 2010 in many developed countries (Ray and Pugliese 2011a).
Americans were also more likely than residents of any other country surveyed to say they believe rising temperatures are “a result of natural causes.” About 47% of U.S. respondents gave this response, whereas 35% said that temperature rises are “a result of human activity.” Another 14% volunteered that they believed both human and natural causes are at play (i.e., they were not explicitly given that choice but offered the opinion anyway). The next closest country to the United States was the United Kingdom, where 39% said climate change is due to natural causes, 37% said human causes, and 18% said both. Gallup reported that the average in “developed Asia” was 76%. About 49% of Western Europeans and 46% of Eastern Europeans said they think climate change is a result of human factors (Ray and Pugliese 2011b). Pew Research has also reported that Americans express less concern about climate change than people in many other countries (Pew Research Global Attitudes Project 2010).
Accidents such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, have put energy decisions at the center of policy debates. Questions about the health, environmental, and social impacts of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) have also emerged in many parts of the country. Overall, public opinion about energy appears to change temporarily in response to new events, while showing no consistent trend over time (see sidebar, “Nuclear Energy and the Fukushima Accident”).
About half of Americans support the use of nuclear energy. Gallup reports that 57% of Americans said they “strongly” or “somewhat” favored nuclear energy in 2012 (Newport 2012b), while the Pew Research Center (2012d) put the level of support at 44%.
For other energy issues, Gallup reports that Americans are about equally divided over whether “protection of the environment should be given a priority, even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies—such as oil, gas, and coal—which the U.S. produces” or whether the “development of U.S. energy supplies...should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” Environmental protection was clearly more favored by respondents in 2001, when 52% chose environmental protection, and this percentage rose to 58% in 2007. However, 41% and 44% of respondents chose environmental protection in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Respondents were also asked how they thought the country should deal with “the nation’s energy problems.” The percentage of people choosing “more conservation by consumers of existing energy supplies” over producing “more oil, gas and coal supplies” has remained about evenly divided since 2010. Preference for conservation climbed from 56% in 2001 up to 64% in 2007 before falling back to 48% in 2011 and 51% in 2012 (Jones 2012).
The majority of Americans support both offshore energy development and alternative energy spending, but opinion on these topics has shifted in recent years. About two-thirds (67%) of Americans said they supported “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling” in September 2008. This dropped to a low of 44% in June 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon spill, but climbed back to 65% by March 2012. In contrast, the percentage that favored “increasing federal spending for research on wind, solar and hydrogen technology” has steadily declined from highs of 82% in polls from February 2006 and April 2009. Support reached lows of 68% in November 2011 and 69% in March 2012 (Pew Research Center 2012d).
Beyond government support, however, Americans say they would like the United States “as a country” to put “more emphasis” on “producing domestic energy” from renewable sources. About 76% of respondents told Gallup they would like more emphasis on solar power, and 71% said they would like more emphasis on wind power. In contrast, 65% would like more emphasis on natural gas, 46% would like more emphasis on oil, 37% would like more emphasis on nuclear, and 31% would like more emphasis on coal (Jacobe 2013).
In the United Kingdom—which has also been debating whether to update its nuclear energy infrastructure—support for nuclear energy has declined in recent years, although the decline may have leveled off. Ipsos MORI found that the percentage of respondents who said they had a “very favourable” or “mainly favourable” “impression...of the nuclear energy industry” was 33% in 2009, 40% in 2010 (just before Fukushima), and 28% in 2011 (just after Fukushima). Similarly, the percentage who said they would “strongly support” or “tend to support” “the building of new nuclear power stations in Britain” went from 42% in 2009 up to 47% in 2010 and then down to 36% in 2011 (Ipsos MORI 2011).
Questions about nuclear energy were also included in the environment module of the ISSP that was fielded in multiple countries in 1993, 2000, and 2010. In 2010, pre-Fukushima, 44% of Americans said that nuclear power stations were very or extremely dangerous; this percentage was relatively low, although it was still similar to a range of countries. There were also many countries where concern was quite high (figure
Genetic modification of food has engendered less opposition in the United States than in much of Europe (Jasanoff 2005), but it remains an active issue of public debate around the world as new products continue to enter the market. Scholars often point to the emergence of an anti-GM movement as something that might have been limited if the scientific community had better communicated with the public during the early research and commercialization phases (Einsiedel and Goldenberg 2006). There has also been active discussion on the question of whether the public wants mandatory labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients despite arguments by scientists that such labeling would inappropriately suggest risks to buyers (Roe and Teisl 2007). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was also reviewing an application concerning the first potential use of genetic engineering in an animal species—Atlantic salmon—in 2013.
The 2010 ISSP included a question asking about the perceived danger of “modifying the genes of certain crops.” The survey found that 25% of U.S. respondents said that modification would be very or extremely dangerous to the environment. The 2000 ISSP yielded similar results (figure
Most U.S. surveys are focused on safety rather than the environment. A 2010 survey by Thomson Reuters found that about 21% of respondents were willing to say that “genetically engineered foods are safe” (Thomson Reuters 2010). This is consistent with a series of five surveys conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology between 2001 and 2006, which 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 2006).
How genetic modification is used matters to Americans. The Thomson Reuters survey found that 35% of respondents said they would eat GM fish, 38% said they would eat GM meat, and 60% said they would eat GM vegetables, fruit, or grain (Thomson Reuters 2010). Past surveys also generally found that Americans are more wary of genetic modification of animals than they are of genetic modification of plants (Mellman Group 2006).
In total, 69% of respondents said they knew that GM foods are already in U.S. stores, and 93% of respondents said “foods should be labeled to indicate that they have been genetically engineered or contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered” (Thomson Reuters 2010).
The 2010 GSS/ISSP results show that the United States (25%) is less concerned about genetic modification than most other countries. There were several countries that were similar to the United States but none were more positive, on average. Also, residents of some countries became more concerned between 2000 and 2010 (e.g., Bulgaria and Mexico), while others became less concerned (e.g., Denmark and Japan) (appendix table
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 more than a decade, and innovations based on nanotechnology are increasingly common. More than 1,000 nanotechnology products—more than 5 times the number available in 2006—were on the market by 2011 (Pew Project on Emerging Technologies 2011). However, relative to other new technologies, the public generally reports relatively low levels of understanding (Ladwig et al. 2012).
The 2010 GSS found that 24% of U.S. respondents said they had heard “a lot” or “some” about nanotechnology, up 4 percentage points from both 2006 and 2008. A plurality (44%) of Americans in the 2010 GSS reported having heard “nothing at all” about nanotechnology (NSB 2010). About 37% of 2010 GSS respondents also said the benefits would outweigh the harms, 9% said the benefits and harms would be about equal, and 11% expected the harms to predominate. The remaining 43% held no opinion (NSB 2010). The balance of opinion was similar in 2006 and 2008. As with GM food, attitudes toward nanotechnology 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).
More Europeans than Americans appear to have heard about nanotechnology. About 45% of EU residents said that they had heard of nanotechnology in 2010. Overall, 44% of EU residents agreed that nanotechnology should be encouraged, 35% disagreed, and 22% had no opinion about this issue (Gaskell et al. 2010). One recent study of UK residents found that providing balanced information resulted in more positive views about nanotechnology for those who started out positive about nanotechnology, while those who started out negative became more negative. Such individuals were also less likely to be “ambivalent” after receiving balanced information. Those who started out with a neutral attitude, however, became more ambivalent about nanotechnology after receiving balanced information (Fischer et al. 2012).
Stem cell and cloning research focuses on understanding how to use genetic material to produce living cells, tissues, and organisms. Such research creates opportunities for enhanced understanding of life as well as opportunities to develop new health care treatments. The focus on health, human life, and the destruction of human embryos, however, creates a range of ethical issues that have spurred public debate.
Most Americans appear to support the use of stem cells for medical research, and support has stayed within a 5% range in recent years. Annual Gallup Poll data showed that, in 2013, 60% of Americans saw using stem cells from human embryos in medical research as “morally acceptable.” About 32% said it was “morally wrong.” The percentage of Americans seeing the use of human embryos as moral climbed from 52% in 2002, when Gallup started polling on the issue, to a high of 64% in 2007. Since then, the percentage of Americans viewing stem cell research as morally acceptable has ranged between 57% and 62% (Newport and Himelfarb 2013).
Support for stem cell research is greater when the question posed asks about research that uses stem cells from sources that do not involve human embryos. About 7 out of 10 respondents (71%) favored this type of research in 2010, down slightly from 75% in 2007 (VCU 2010). Support was also greater when the question was framed as an emotionally compelling personal issue (i.e., “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?”) (VCU 2006).
Gallup has also asked Americans about human cloning. In 2013, Gallup found that only 13% of Americans said human cloning is “morally acceptable” and that 83% said it was “morally wrong.” The percentage indicating that cloning is morally acceptable was 7% in 2001 and 2002 and has stayed between 8% and 13% since then (Newport and Himelfarb 2013).
It appears that Americans are particularly opposed to human cloning when there is no mention of a medical purpose. As reported in the 2012 Indicators, a 2010 survey showed that 8 in 10 Americans rejected the idea of cloning or genetically altering humans (VCU 2010). Opinions were more mixed when questions mentioned “cloning technology” that is used only to help medical research develop new treatments for disease; opinion about therapeutic cloning has been slowly growing more positive in recent years. Public attitudes toward cloning technology are not grounded in a strong grasp of the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning (see “Glossary” for definitions). In 2010, a 54% majority of Americans were “very clear” or “somewhat clear” 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 2010).
A 2010 Eurobarometer found that 63% of those surveyed across the EU supported the use of stem cells from human embryos either with no special laws (12%) or “as long as this is regulated by strict laws” (51%). The use of adult stem cells, in contrast, was supported by 69% of Europeans, including 15% who saw no need for special laws and 54% who would approve of “strict laws.” The survey did not address human cloning, but it included several questions about animal cloning, and the results also show widespread disapproval. About 17% said that they saw it as “safe for future generations,” and 70% of EU residents disagreed that “animal cloning in food production should be encouraged” (European Commission 2010b).
In the United States, the topic of whether and how evolution should be taught in the public schools has been a source of controversy for almost a century. Public views about evolution and the role of teaching evolution in the schools have been relatively stable over the course of 30 years.
Public opinion about how evolution should be taught in U.S. public schools consistently shows two key patterns. First, when asked whether intelligent design should be taught alongside or in addition to evolution, a majority of Americans favor this approach to education. Second, when asked whether creation should be taught instead of evolution—thereby replacing it in the science curriculum—a majority oppose this idea, but a sizeable minority favor it. Opposition to replacing evolution ranged between 44% and 54% from 1999 to 2005, whereas support ranged from 37% to 44% over the same period (Plutzer and Berkman 2008; Berkman and Plutzer 2010). A 2007 survey of 926 high school biology teachers also found that 28% might be classified as advocates for evolutionary biology in their classrooms, whereas about 13% of teachers said they tell their students that “creationism or intelligent design” are “valid, scientific” theories about the “origin of the species.” Teachers who had taken a college-level course addressing evolution were significantly more likely to advocate for evolutionary biology (Berkman and Plutzer 2011). The difficulty of sampling in such surveys of special populations, however, means that this type of data should be interpreted with caution.
The medical research community conducts experimental tests on animals for many purposes, including testing the effectiveness of drugs and procedures that may eventually be used to improve human health and advancing scientific understanding of biological processes.
Most Americans support at least some kind of animal research, but support has fallen in recent years. About 56% of Americans said they saw “medical testing on animals” as “morally acceptable” in 2013, similar to the 55% who gave this response in 2011 and 2012 (Newport 2012a). These figures put support at the lowest level registered since Gallup began asking the question in 2001, when 65% said they saw such testing as acceptable (Newport and Himelfarb 2013). A comparison of surveys from 1988 and 2008 found a similar pattern of declining support (NSB 2012).
The 2011 and 2012 Gallup numbers also suggest less support than research by VCU (2007) that showed nearly two-thirds of respondents favoring “using animals in medical research.” A comprehensive 2008 Gallup survey also found that a majority of respondents wanted to maintain access to animal testing animal research; 64% opposed “banning all medical research on laboratory animals,” and 59% opposed “banning all product testing on laboratory animals” (Newport 2008). There also appears to be a sizeable gender gap in opinions about animal research, with women less likely than men to support animal testing (Saad 2010), as well as an age gap with younger respondents being less supportive of animal testing (Wilke and Saad 2013).
A 2010 European-wide survey showed that EU residents have a range of views about animal research but are, on balance, supportive of such practices. Respondents were asked whether “scientists should be allowed to experiment on animals like dogs and monkeys if this can help sort out human health problems.” About 44% of EU residents said they “totally” or “tend to” agree that such experiments should be allowed, whereas 37% said they “totally” or “tend to” disagree. The report also indicated that, across the countries surveyed, men (49%) were much more likely to agree that animal testing should be allowed than women (39%). Those who said they were well informed about science (47%) or interested in science (48%) were also more favorable to animal testing than the average. When asked about animal research using mice—instead of dogs and monkeys—66% of EU residents indicated that would be acceptable (European Commission 2010a).
Although the news media are important to how adults think about S&T, the formal education system remains most people’s primary introduction to S&T. A 2013 Pew Research study found that 11% of Americans named science as the subject that K–12 schools should emphasize more than other subjects. This made science the third most named subject. The most commonly named subject was math (30%), followed by “English/Grammar/Writing/Reading.” “Computers/Computer Science” came sixth (4%). When asked, 46% of Americans said the reason “many young people don’t pursue degrees in math and science” is because these subjects “are too hard.” About equal numbers said these subjects might be “too boring” (20%) or “not useful for their careers” (22%) (Pew Research Center 2013a).
In the 2008 GSS, the majority of Americans in all demographic groups agreed that the quality of science and mathematics education in American schools was inadequate. The level of dissatisfaction increased with education, science knowledge, income, and age. Dissatisfaction has also varied over time: it was 63% in 1985, peaked at 75% in 1992, and declined to 70% in 2008 (NSB 2010). Further, about half of Americans said that their local public schools did not put enough emphasis on teaching science and math, an equal portion (48%) said the emphasis was about right, and just 2% said there was too much emphasis on teaching science and math in the local schools (Rose and Gallup 2007). In addition, the percentage of Americans in the biennial GSS surveys who said they believe the government is spending too little money on improving education has remained greater than 70% since the early 1980s. This is consistently one of the top areas in which the public says government spending is too low.