Chapter 7 | Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding
Interest, Information Sources, and Involvement
Trends in Americans’ understanding of and attitudes about topics such as S&T depend, in part, on how much exposure they get to such content throughout their lives, as well as how much attention they pay to such content (Slater, Hayes, and Ford 2007). Exposure and attention to S&T can make residents more informed, shape their attitudes, and help them make decisions that are better for themselves, their families, and their communities. Media use may also foster a desire to seek and consider new information (Rimal, Flora, and Schooler 1999). All of these issues are interconnected and are meant to provide indicators of where S&T fits in peoples’ lives.
This section reviews overall expressed interest in media reports about S&T and where the public turns to within the news media when looking for S&T information. It concludes with indicators of personal involvement in S&T-related activities through visits to museums and other cultural institutions.
Public Interest in S&T
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Most Americans continue to say they are interested in S&T. In 2016, 42% said they were “very interested” in new scientific discoveries, and another 42% said they were “moderately interested” (Figure 7-3). Similarly, 42% said they were “very interested” in use of new inventions and technologies, with 46% “moderately interested.” Medical discoveries drew the highest interest: 60% said they were “very interested,” and another 35% said they were “moderately interested.”
Americans expressed relatively low interest in two other science topics. About a quarter (24%) said they were “very interested” in space exploration (44% “moderately interested”). This puts space exploration near the bottom of the list of subjects asked about in the survey, similar to agricultural and issues (21% “very interested” in 2016). Beyond science, Americans were “very interested” in local school issues (44%), economic issues and business conditions (39%), and military and defense policy (34%).
Although generally down from previous highs, science-related interest has been fairly stable in recent years, with the exception of interest in environmental pollution, which has continued a slow decline over several decades (Figure 7-4). In 1990, 64% of respondents said they were “very interested” in the topic of environmental pollution, but this fell to 42% in 2016. Interest in medical discoveries is also lower than it was in previous decades, although it has been relatively stable in recent years (Figure 7-4; Appendix Table 7-1 provides data by selected issues, and Appendix Table 7-2 provides data by demographic groups). It is not clear from the data as to why respondents have been less likely to express interest in environmental pollution over time. In contrast, the discussion of specific environmental issues later in this chapter indicates that concern about the environment is relatively high in historical terms. The term pollution may have become less salient as public discussion has turned to issues such as climate change, or the change may have something to do with the fact that environmental pollution may be perceived as a negative topic, whereas the other subjects may be seen as relatively neutral or positive. Also, while interest in environmental pollution has steadily declined, concern about specific environmental issues has gone up and down several times in recent decades. (Note that “level of interest” and “level of concern” are not necessarily equivalent.) Individuals can be concerned about a particular issue but not be highly interested in that topic (or the broader underlying issue), especially in cases in which the topic has been on the public agenda for many years.
Interest in science topics—as with most other topics—is associated with education levels, as well as with mathematics and science course taking. Women tend to be more interested in medical discoveries (63% for women, compared to 55% for men), whereas men are more interested in other S&T topics. For example, 47% of men said they were very interested in new scientific discoveries, compared to 38% of women (Appendix Table 7-2).
Questions about interest may greatly depend on the specific wording used to describe the subject and on the type of response that survey participants are allowed to select. Although new scientific discovery ranks in the middle of a group of issues in the GSS data (42% were “very interested”), a Pew Research Center study (Mitchell et al. 2016) found that only 16% of Americans said they followed news about S&T in the newspaper, on television, radio, or the Internet “very closely.” This response was similar to the percentage of Americans who say they followed sports “very closely” but was about half of the number who said they followed government and politics (30%) or crime (27%) “very closely.”
Public interest in selected issues: 2016
Responses to the following: There are a lot of issues in the news, and it is hard to keep up with every area. I’m going to read you a short list of issues, and for each one I would like you to tell me if you are very interested, moderately interested, or not at all interested. Responses of "don’t know" are not shown. Percentages may not add to 100% because of rounding.
NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2016). See Appendix Table 7-1.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Public interest in selected science-related issues: 1981–2016
Data are not available for all years. Responses to the following: There are a lot of issues in the news, and it is hard to keep up with every area. I’m going to read you a short list of issues, and for each one I would like you to tell me if you are very interested, moderately interested, or not at all interested. Figure shows only "very interested" responses.
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1981–2001); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2008–16). See Appendix Table 7-1.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Outside of the United States, a majority of residents of other countries for which there are 2015 or 2016 data also typically report high levels of interest in various science topics—particularly, health. Direct comparison is problematic, but the available evidence suggests that the United States often has similar or higher levels of interest in science topics than other countries. In Asia, for example, a large-scale 2015 survey of Chinese respondents found that 93% said they were interested in health topics, which is similar to the 95% of Americans who expressed high or moderate interest. Similarly, 78% of Chinese respondents said they were interested in new scientific discoveries, compared to 84% of Americans who expressed interest. For new inventions and technologies, 75% of Chinese said they were interested in new inventions and technologies, compared to 88% of Americans who expressed some interest (CRISP 2016). In Europe, expressed interest appears to be lower than in the United States or China. For the United Kingdom (UK), the Wellcome Trust (2016) found that 77% of UK residents said they were interested in medical research, similar to previous years, and 63% of UK residents said they were interested in hearing directly from scientists about the scientists’ research. In Germany in 2016, 41% said they had a considerable interest in scientific topics, and an additional 43% of Germans said they had some interest (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In Switzerland, about half chose either 5 (20%) or 4 (31%) on a 5-point measure that asked them to describe their interest in science and research as somewhere between “no interest at all” and an “enormous amount of interest” (Schafer and Metag 2016). In northern Europe, about 75% of Finns said they were interested in following news about medicine, 73% said they were interested in general science news, and 68% said they were interested in environmental news (FSSI 2016). Science interest in South America appears to be somewhat lower, with 58% of respondents in Chile saying in 2016 that they were interested in science (CONICYT 2016) and 52% of Argentinians saying that they were interested in S&T. About 70% of Argentinians, however, said they were interested in medicine and health (MCTIP 2015).
Further back, a 2013 pan-European study found that 53% of Europeans were “very interested” or “fairly interested” in S&T versus 87% of Americans, who were “very interested” or “moderately interested.” The 27 European countries surveyed display a broad range of interest levels, with a high of 77% in Sweden and lows of 34% and 35% in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, respectively (European Commission 2013).
S&T Information Sources
U.S. Patterns and Trends
The news media environment continues to change as new organizations emerge, existing organizations disappear or merge, and journalistic routines change in response to economic, social, and technological forces. The available data show clear trends in the sources Americans say they use to get news about current events and S&T.
As background, according to the GSS data, daily newspaper readership declined from 67% in 1972 to 25% in 2014 and 20% in 2016. The percentage who say they never read a newspaper climbed from about 4% in 1972 to 29% in 2014 and 38% in 2016. The available question does not specifically ask respondents about whether they consider reading a newspaper online when responding to this question; therefore, it is difficult to know if the drop in news readership represents a drop or a shift toward online newspaper reading. Pew Research Center (Mitchell et al. 2016) findings suggest that about three quarters (77%) of Americans follow the national news “very closely” (33%) or “somewhat closely” (44%). This suggests that many Americans continue to get news, though not from traditional print newspapers (Figure 7-5). Also, whereas the GSS reports that newspaper reading has declined, the data suggest that television viewing time has stayed stable in the face of technological change. According to the GSS, Americans said they watched about 2.9 hours of television per day in 2016, and this number has stayed between a low of about 2.8 hours (multiple years) and a high of about 3.2 hours (multiple years) per day since 1975.
Primary source respondents used to learn about current news events, science and technology, and specific scientific issues: 2016
"All other" includes radio, magazines, books, government agencies, family, and friends or colleagues.
NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2016). See Appendix Table 7-3 through Appendix Table 7-5.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
With regard to source, for news about general current events, 45% of Americans said that the Internet was their primary source of information about current events in 2016, up from 37% in 2014 (Figure 7-6). This means the Internet has now surpassed television as Americans’ main source of news. About 37% of Americans said television was their primary source of information in 2016, down from 43% in 2014. Newspapers also dropped to 7% in 2016 from 11% in 2014 (Figure 7-6; Appendix Table 7-3). The percentage of Americans who report getting information about current events from the Internet has increased steadily since about 2001, and the percentages using newspapers and television for current events have declined.
For news specifically about S&T, Americans are also more likely to rely on the Internet than on television. In 2016, 55% of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of S&T information, up from 47% in 2014. This percentage has grown steadily since 2001, when the Internet was added to the survey and 9% named it as their primary source of S&T news. Reliance on television has continued to drop. About 24% of Americans reported that television was their primary source of S&T news in 2016, down from 28% in 2014. In 2016, 4% of Americans said that they get their S&T information from newspapers, compared with 6% in 2014 (Figure 7-6; Appendix Table 7-4). Of the 55% who said they go online for S&T information, 36% (i.e., 20% overall) said that they use a search engine such as Google to seek information, while 45% (or 25% overall) said they use online newspapers (25%), online magazines (14%), or other online news sites (6%). Of course, Google searches might lead people to one of these other sources of information.
The Internet has also been the most common resource that Americans say they would use to seek information about specific scientific issues, and this has continued to grow since at least 2001 (Figure 7-6). In 2016, 69% said they would go online to find information about a specific S&T issue. Another 12% said they would turn to television, and just 3% said they would use newspapers. In 2014, 67% said they would use the Internet, up from 63% in 2012 (Figure 7-6).
Primary source respondents used to learn about current news events, science and technology, and specific scientific issues: 2001–16
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2006–16). See Appendix Table 7-3 through Appendix Table 7-5.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Different subgroups of Americans tend to rely on different sources of information. Generally, higher levels of education and income are associated with relatively higher levels of Internet and newspaper use, whereas respondents with lower levels of education and income are more likely to say they rely on television. For example, 39% of those whose highest education level is high school say they use the Internet for current event news, while 56% of those with bachelor’s degrees give this response. In contrast, 42% of those whose highest level of education is high school say television is their primary source of current event news, compared to 26% of those with bachelor’s degrees. Newspaper reliance is more common for relatively older respondents, and Internet reliance is more common for relatively younger and higher-earning respondents. In 2016, almost no respondents under the age of 24 said that newspapers were their primary source of S&T news, although this does not mean they may not have received science news written for newspapers and published online. Television use is also somewhat less common for younger respondents (Appendix Table 7-3, Appendix Table 7-4, and Appendix Table 7-5).
International patterns of media sources for news appear to differ from those in the United States, especially in the continuing importance of television. However, different question wording and the fact that many international surveys allow specifying more than one news source prevent direct comparison. For example, in China, 93% of respondents said that television was a main source for S&T information, while 53% said the Internet and 39% said newspapers were among their main sources (CRISP 2016). In the UK, individuals were more likely to report that they had heard about or seen medical research on television (43%) than through a website or newspaper (21% and 19%). However, 90% said they had looked for information about medical research online. In Germany, 67% said they often (33%) or sometimes (34%) get information about science and research from television, compared to 54% for newspapers and magazines and 44% for the Internet (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In Finland, 81% said television was “very important” or “fairly important” as a source of science and research information, compared to 71% who said that newspapers were personally important and 70% who indicated the Internet was important (FSSI 2016). In South America, 39% of Chileans said they always or almost always watch S&T or nature programs on television, 23% said they always or almost always use the Internet to search for science information, and 19% said the same about reading such information in newspapers (CONICYT 2016).
U.S. Patterns and Trends
Many U.S. residents may encounter S&T through America’s rich and diverse informal science and cultural institutions (Bell et al. 2009). In 2016, zoos and aquariums were the most popular type of informal science institutions, with 48% of Americans saying they had visited such a facility in the previous year. This proportion has gradually declined from about 58% in 2001 and 52% in 2008. Attendance levels are now back to where they were through much of the 1980s and 1990s (Appendix Table 7-6). Beyond zoos and aquariums, 30% of Americans said they had visited a natural history museum in the previous year, and 26% said they had visited an S&T museum. These percentages are similar to those for 2012.
Americans with more years of formal education were more likely than others to visit informal science sites, as were those in higher income brackets (Appendix Table 7-7). In general, visits to informal science institutions peak during the years in which people are raising their children. About 73% of those in the 35–44 age group reported visiting at least one informal science institution in the previous year, compared to 68% in the 18–24 age group and 35% of those in the 65 and over age group. One limitation of the data is that they do not speak to the quality of the institution visited and the full range of informal S&T activities that individuals may participate in during a given year (e.g., science festivals, maker days, stand-alone talks, citizen science activities).
Examples of natural history museums include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, District of Columbia, the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia. An S&T museum can include museums or centers such as the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, District of Columbia, the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio, the Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, or the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California (ASTC 2017).
Other countries tend to have a similar or lower likelihood of having participated in the informal science activities for which there are U.S. data. In 2015, 54% of Chinese respondents said they had visited a zoo or aquarium in the last year, 22% said they had visited a natural history museum, and 23% said they had visited an S&T museum (CRISP 2016). About 46% of Germans said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, and 40% said they had been to a science or technology museum in the last year, although the German survey did not differentiate between natural history museums and more S&T-focused museums (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In the UK, 36% said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, and 20% said they had been to a science museum or an S&T museum or center (Wellcome Trust 2016). About 31% of Chileans said they had been to a zoo or aquarium in the last year, and 15% said they had been to an S&T museum (CONICYT 2016).