Chapter 7 | Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding
Overall, the survey results presented here continue to indicate that interest in, general knowledge of, and general attitudes about S&T remain relatively positive and stable in the United States. As in previous years, Americans express relatively high levels of interest in various S&T issues, with the one change being that they continue to shift their focus toward getting that information online. The results also show that many Americans know basic facts about science, although many still get the NSF trend questions wrong. For attitudes, a substantial majority of Americans continue to see substantially more benefits than harms from science, have relatively high levels of confidence in the scientific community, and would like to see science supported.
However, whereas interest, knowledge, and general S&T attitudes may be stable, indicators of attitudes about specific S&T issues—including environmental, energy, and emerging technologies—suggest that many Americans are increasingly concerned about pollution and new technologies. The fact that the available indicators for different environmental issues have moved together suggest a common source of concern. There also remain, however, many Americans who see the opportunity for substantial continued progress through S&T or who have relatively low environmental concern. Overall, the majority of Americans appear concerned about the state of the environment and the degree to which advanced technology areas, such as nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, may create new dangers and yet remain generally supportive of S&T and scientists. Further, while there are limited data, it appears that Americans tend to have lower average levels of concern about S&T issues, and higher average levels of optimism, than the populations of other countries.
In reviewing this chapter, it is important to recall that the purpose of the types of indicators described here is to allow a data- and evidence-based discussion about what Americans think and know about topics related to science, technology, and engineering. The emphasis on between-group comparisons, over-time comparisons, and between-country comparisons is not to rank groups or countries but to provide the type of context that allows a discussion about the nature of the global landscape within which the United States operates. Such comparisons can tell us where the United States may have had success and where there might be potential for improvement. For example, the fact that Americans appear to visit more S&T museums and centers than residents of many other countries might suggest an area of strength on which we might build. As an Indicators chapter, the current report, however, highlights the nature of and trends in public views without assessing why changes may have occurred. This leaves to others the challenge of determining the causes of the patterns and trends described. Some of this literature is cited here, but the work of better understanding public attitudes and knowledge about science is ongoing.
Further, in reading the chapter, it is important to consider the overall mosaic that can be assembled from all of these indicators and to avoid putting too much emphasis on any specific statistic. Survey data are powerful tools for understanding the world but, as with all surveys, the indicators discussed are subject to random variation, and it is therefore important to analyze long-term trends and multiple related questions before drawing strong conclusions. Another ongoing limitation of the available indicators is that many of the international comparison data come from Europe, with only limited recent data from the Asia-Pacific region, where there is a high level of S&T activity. Data from Africa and South America are even scarcer. Similarly, the questions asked vary by country in small and large ways. As such, international comparisons should be made with caution, and thoughtful consideration should be given to what we may know and what we do not know.
Despite such concerns, one pattern in the surveys reviewed continues to stand out. The data show quite consistently that Americans who have had more exposure to S&T—including those who are college educated and have completed college courses in science and mathematics—tend to understand more about S&T, see S&T in a more positive light, and engage with S&T more often. Although it is not clear whether these associations are causal, the pattern underscores the potential role of formal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in shaping how people think about S&T. It is also important, however, to recognize that Americans interact with science beyond formal education systems through channels such as museums, a range of media (television, websites), and daily interactions with others in their personal or professional lives. Data on these types of exposure pathways are not generally as available as data related to formal education.
Those who would seek to change knowledge and attitudes about S&T now have a wide range of formal and informal channels through which to reach Americans. Attracting young people to S&T professions and cultivating positive attitudes about the value of S&T will be important for the United States to remain a world leader in S&T. Efforts to engage with the public on such matters are occurring through a range of online tools and community locations (e.g., schools, museums, festivals, restaurants), workplaces, and homes. The challenge for those who see progress on S&T as important to economic and social development is to ensure that the members of the S&T community engage their fellow citizens actively, openly, and respectfully in the best traditions of science.