Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding
Interest in Science and Technology
Understanding Basic Scientific and Technical Concepts
Attentive Public for Science and Technology Issues
Sources of Scientific and Technical Information
- Americans receive most of their information about public policy issues from television news programs and newspapers. When placed on a uniform metric of the number of uses or hours per year, the public consumption of television news and newspapers dwarfs all other information sources. In 1997, Americans watched an average of 432 hours of television news and read 196 newspapers in a 12-month period. During this same period, Americans watched 72 hours of science shows on television. Individuals with cable or satellite TV service watch more science television programs than people without this service.
- Fifty-seven percent of Americans use a computer at home or at work. Computer use has increased steadily during the last decade. In 1997, a typical American used a computer at work for an average of 369 hours and used a home computer for an additional 130 hours. A significantly higher proportion of college graduates use a computer than of individuals with fewer years of schooling.
- In 1997, an estimated 11 percent of Americans lived in a household with more than one working computer. In contrast, only 8 percent of Americans had any access to a home computer in 1983.
- Nearly 32 million Americans have a home computer that includes a modem, and 18 percent of adults reported in 1997 that they had used an on-line computer service during the preceding year. This is a significant increase in home access to on-line resources since 1995. In 1997, 29 percent of adults in the United States reported having a home computer with a CD-ROM reader, opening additional information acquisition opportunities. Nearly two-thirds of Americans with a graduate or professional degree have a home computer with a modem, compared to 31 percent of those with a high school degree. Similarly, 41 percent of Americans with a graduate degree reported that they use an on-line computer service, compared to only 17 percent of high school graduates.
- Twelve percent of adults-approximately 22 million people-indicated that they had previously tried to find some specific items of information on the Web. This pattern of response indicates that people are using the Web as they might use reference materials in a library. An analysis indicated that approximately 6.5 million Americans had attempted to find some information on the Web about a specific health condition or problem, and approximately 8.8 million had tried to find some scientific information on the Web-including information on the space program, environmental information, and computer information.
Attitudes Toward Science and Technology
- Americans continue to hold the scientific community in high regard. According to the most recent General Social Survey, approximately 40 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community and in the leadership of the medical community. These levels of national esteem have been stable for nearly two decades and are far higher than the levels reported for the leadership of other major institutions in society.
- Americans hold positive attitudes toward science and technology and have high expectations for future benefits from science. When two sets of attitude questions were converted into 0-100 scales reflecting the promise of science and reservations about science, Americans posted a mean score of 70 on the Index of Scientific Promise and 37 on the Index of Scientific Reservations. This level of reservation is the lowest reported by citizens in major industrial nations. On a separate measure that asked citizens to assess the relative benefits and potential harms from scientific research, 75 percent of Americans believe tha the benefits of scientific research outweigh any present or potential harms. This level of positive assessment of scientific research has been stable for four decades and is consistent with the high esteem noted above. College graduates and citizens attentive to science and technology policy hold even more positive views of science.
- Despite their positive views of scientific research, Americans are deeply divided over the development and impact of several important technologies: nuclear power, genetic engineering, and space exploration. For more than a decade, Americans have been evenly divided on the benefits and harms of using nuclear power to generate electricity. A similar division exists over the benefits and potential harms of genetic engineering, but there is a clearer difference by level of education. College graduates hold a much more positive view of genetic modification research. The general public is evenly divided over the relative benefits and costs of the space program. College graduates and those who are attentive to space exploration remain very positive toward the program.
- Nearly 80 percent of Americans agree that the Federal Government should support basic scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge even when it does not provide any immediate benefits. Asked of national samples of American adults since 1985, total public approval of government support of basic scientific research has remained constant at about 80 percent throughout the last decade. During the same time period, approximately 90 percent of Americans with a baccalaureate degree voiced approval for government support of basic scientific research.
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