Chapter 7:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Sources of Scientific and Technical Information


In recent decades, there has been a marked increase in the number and variety of sources providing information about science and technology.[14] Major weekly news magazines generally have a section on science or medicine and a section on computers and networks. The number of popular science books continues to grow, and many reviewers conclude that the quality of them is increasing. There has been substantial growth in cable television coverage of science and technology, and the number and quality of science-related sites on the World Wide Web grows daily. In this context, it is interesting to find out which Americans are using which kinds of science and technology information sources, and to what effect.

General Patterns of Information Acquisition top

Building on trend data from previous Science & Engineering Indicators studies, it appears that Americans utilize numerous sources and institutions for scientific and technical information, but television and newspapers remain primary sources. In 1997, 68 percent of American adults reported that they watched a television news show for at least one hour on a typical day, and 46 percent indicated that they read a daily newspaper. (See figure 7-17 and appendix table 7-24.) Over one-quarter of Americans listen to one or more hours of radio news on a typical day, and 14 percent claim to read a weekly news magazine on a regular basis. Fifteen percent reported that they read a science magazine on a regular basis. These same results show that 70 percent of Americans use a public library at least once each year and that 45 percent claim to use a pubic library five or more times each year, although it is not possible to determine from the data whether science materials were utilized. Approximately 27 percent[15] of American adults now have access to the World Wide Web, and approximately 28 percent[16] report having an e-mail address at home or at work.

In broad terms, these indicators are threshold measures, reflecting the percentage of Americans who used various information sources more than some minimal threshold in a typical month or during the previous year. Using the same database, it is also possible to estimate the volume of use of these information sources and to place them all on the same metric-the number of uses or hours of use per year. By comparing different information sources on the same metric, it is possible to obtain a more useful picture of the patterns of potential scientific and technical information acquisition.

Regarding broadcast media, the 1997 results indicate that Americans watch an average of 1,075 hours of television each year and that 432 of those hours are devoted to television news. (See figure 7-18 and appendix table 7-25.) In this context, Americans report that they watch an average of 72 hours of science television per year. Since respondents in 1997 were asked the name of each show that they claimed to watch regularly or periodically, this is a credible estimate of viewership. The frequency of viewing science television shows is unrelated to the number of years of formal schooling or to the number of science and mathematics courses taken in high school and college. It is apparent, however, that individuals who subscribe to a cable television service or have a satellite dish watch significantly more science television shows than individuals without cable or satellite services. In 1997, cable subscribers reported watching an average of 84 hours of science television shows, compared to 35 hours for individuals without cable or satellite service. Men were significantly more likely to watch science television shows than were women.

Among print media, newspaper reading is dominant. In 1997, Americans reported reading an average of 196 newspapers during the previous 12 months. (See figure 7-19 and appendix table 7-25.) Comparatively, Americans read an average of three news magazines and two science magazines during the same 12-month period. Americans in 1997 used a public library 11 times during the year and borrowed 12 books and 2 videotapes from the public library. Sixty-one percent of American adults reported that they bought one or more books during the previous year; and 31 percent indicated that at least one of the purchased books involved science, mathematics, or technology (including computer use). During the same 12-month period, Americans reported visiting a science museum, natural history museum, zoo, or aquarium an average of two times.

The reading of newspapers, news magazines, and science magazines is positively related to the number of years of formal schooling and the number of high school and college science and mathematics courses. (See appendix tables 7-24 and 7-25.) The individual with a graduate degree read approximately 238 newspapers, 6 news magazines, and 4 science magazines in a 12-month period. It appears that high school and college science and mathematics courses stimulate a lasting interest in science and technology, as reflected in the patterns of science magazine reading and science museum attendance. Men were significantly more likely to read a science magazine than were women.

Citizens attentive to science and technology policy issues displayed a high level of information consumption, utilizing both broadcast and print sources. Science policy attentives reported slightly more hours of television news viewing than other citizens, and they read significantly more newspapers than other Americans. (See appendix table 7-25.) Science and technology policy attentives read significantly more news magazines and science magazines than other citizens, and were more frequent visitors to public libraries than non-attentives. The members of the attentive public for science and technology policy were more likely than other Americans to visit a science and technology museum or other informal science learning resource.

Use of New Information Technologies top

The 1990s was a period of emergence of electronic media. Over the last decade, individual access to computers at work or at home has increased substantially and steadily. (See "The Use of Computer Technology in the United States.") By 1997, 57 percent of Americans reported using computers at work, at home, or both. (See figure 7-20 and appendix table 7-26.) Fully 88 percent of college graduates in the United States indicated that they used a computer at work or at home, compared to 60 percent of high school graduates and 21 percent of those who did not complete high school. In 1997, two-thirds of the attentive public for science and technology policy reported that they had regular access to a computer at work or at home. [Skip Text Box]

The Use of Computer Technology in the United States top

Three new indicators collected for the first time in 1997 illustrate the broad and growing use of computers and computer-based technologies by American adults. First, 43 percent of Americans lived in a household in 1997 with one or more working computers, and 11 percent of Americans reported that they have more than one working computer in their home. (See figure 7-21.) In contrast, in 1983, only 8 percent of American adults had access to a home computer.

The distribution of home computers and of multiple home computers is strongly related to level of educational attainment. Three-quarters of adults with a graduate or professional degree own a home computer, with 29 percent having two or more working computers in their home. Similarly, 24 percent of individuals with extensive high school and college coursework in science and mathematics reported having two or more working computers in their home, as did 16 percent of the attentive public for science and technology.

Second, approximately 28 percent of Americans have an e-mail address, and 5 percent of U.S. adults-about 9 million individuals-have two or more e-mail addresses. (See figure 7-22.) The multiple e-mail addresses appear to reflect one e-mail address associated with work and a second e-mail address for home or family use.

The distribution of e-mail addresses is strongly related to the level of educational attainment. Slightly more than 60 percent of adults with a graduate or professional degree have at least one e-mail address, and 19 percent have two or more e-mail addresses. A similar pattern is found among baccalaureate-holders, with 55 percent having an e-mail address and 16 percent having two or more e-mail addresses. Furthermore, 60 percent of individuals with extensive high school and college coursework in science and mathematics reported having an e-mail address, as did 42 percent of the attentive public for science and technology.

Third, approximately 16 percent of Americans reported having access to the World Wide Web from their home computer in 1997. To understand how individuals use the Web, all respondents in the Indicators study were asked if they had tried to obtain any specific information from the Web, or whether they primarily browsed the various sites on the Web. Twelve percent of adults sampled-representing approximately 22 million people-indicated that they had previously tried to find some specific item 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.

Each respondent who reported some prior effort to find specific information on the Web was asked to describe in general terms the kind of information that he or she was seeking. An analysis of these responses 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. More than 15 million adults reported that they attempted to find other kinds of specific information on the Web. (See figure 7-23.)

While these results indicate that the vast majority of Americans do not presently use the Web as an information source, the relatively high level of use reported among the first segment of the American population to obtain Web access suggests that it is likely to become a major source of reference-type information in the decades ahead, as the total level of Web access continues to expand.

The 1997 results show that Americans do a substantial amount of work on their computers. The average respondent reported spending 369 hours a year using a work computer and 130 hours using a home computer.[17]

A third of Americans have a home computer that includes a modem, and 18 percent report using an on-line or Internet service. (See appendix table 7-27.) Nearly two-thirds of Americans with a graduate degree or professional education have a home computer with a modem, and 41 percent reported that they use an on-line service. Over half of the attentive public for science and technology policy reported that they own a home computer and use it an average of 225 hours per year. Nearly half of this attentive public have a home computer with a modem, and are thus better positioned to make extensive use of the Internet and its information resources.

Twenty-nine percent of Americans indicated that they have a home computer that includes a CD-ROM reader, a technology that opens important new information resources ranging from larger reference works to collections of visual images with sound. The number of government agencies and private organizations that are distributing information in this medium is growing rapidly. As with other electronic media, better educated Americans are the most frequent users of this new technology.

Americans use a wide variety of sources to obtain new information, including information about science and technology. Americans with fewer years of formal education tend to rely on broadcast media, primarily television. College-educated Americans are frequent viewers of both television news and television science shows, but appear to rely more heavily on print media and, increasingly, on electronic information sources.

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Footnotes

[14] See Lewenstein (1994) for a survey of public communications about science and technology in the United States.

[15] This estimate includes individuals with access to the World Wide Web through their home computer, their work computer, and through Web television (not reported in the appendix tables).

[16] This estimate combines those individuals who have an e-mail address either at home or at work, and is not reported as a separate category in the appendix tables.

[17] The hours of computer use by individuals who reported that their place of business was in their home were counted as work hours.


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