Chapter 7 | Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding
The advancement and use of science and technology (S&T) are central to American life; S&T shapes what we do at home, at work, and in our communities. Many Americans produce new S&T at work (see Chapter 3), while others use S&T-based innovations to produce the goods and services that improve and reshape our lives. S&T gives us new opportunities to get healthy and stay healthy, including by influencing what and how we eat. It provides technologies that keep us connected and entertained. S&T often enters our conversations about daily life decisions and may stimulate us intellectually and emotionally. The centrality of S&T to American life means that Americans’ attitudes about and understanding of S&T can reflect and affect the country’s culture, well-being, and economy.
All technologies involve risks and benefits that may take time to become apparent. S&T discussions often center on these potential risks and benefits, as well as on moral issues raised by adopting scientific processes and technologies. Societies can do a better job of addressing potential concerns when the nature of these concerns is well understood and discussed (e.g., [NRC 1996, 2008]; [NASEM 2016a]). Americans’ desire to seek potential benefits from S&T and deal with potential risks may affect what kinds of S&T are developed or used. For example, Americans must collectively decide how much of society’s resources to devote to S&T research and development and where to devote those resources. Individuals may also choose where to focus their careers based on both their personal interests and their understanding of where they can make a meaningful contribution. Family members can also make decisions that may shape what young people learn, think, and feel about science.
Given the centrality of S&T to the United States, this chapter presents indicators about interest in S&T news, where people encounter S&T in the media, trend data regarding knowledge of S&T, and indicators of people’s attitudes about S&T-related issues. To put U.S. data in context, the chapter examines trend indicators for past years and comparative indicators for other countries, where reliable data are available.
A review of five key indicators in this chapter—interest in new scientific discoveries, basic scientific knowledge, belief that science creates opportunity, confidence in the scientific community, and support for science funding—indicates that Americans’ overall attitudes about science are generally stable or becoming more positive, with some small fluctuations. The key indicators were chosen because data are available for a relatively long period for each indicator and because the indicators reflect the main themes raised in the chapter. Looking at these indicators together provides a sense of how Americans’ overall attitudes and knowledge about S&T have changed over more than 30 years.
Specifically, the percentage of Americans saying that they are “very interested” in new scientific discoveries has been relatively stable in recent years, although the percentage is lower than in previous decades. Similarly, Americans’ basic knowledge of science has also grown slightly over time. The percentages agreeing that S&T creates new opportunities and that it is important to fund scientific research have also been at relatively high levels in recent years compared with those from previous highs (Figure 7-1). Each of these five indicators is associated with education level, whether measured in terms of highest degree earned (Figure 7-2) or science- and math-specific courses taken in high school and college. In contrast, respondents’ age and sex are generally unrelated or weakly related to these types of key indicators (Figure 7-2).
Key science and engineering knowledge and attitude indicators: 1981–2016
Data are not available for all knowledge and attitude indicators for all years. Includes the responses "strongly agree" and "agree" to the following statements: Agreement that science creates more "opportunities for the next generation" and Agreement that the federal government should fund scientific research. Data present the percentage of respondents who expressed a particular view, except in the case of the knowledge quiz average, which shows the estimated average percent of correct answers in each year.
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1981–2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2006–16). See Appendix Tables 7-1, 7-8, 7-18, 7-22, and 7-28.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
Key science and engineering indicators, by selected respondent education, sex, and age: 2016
Includes the responses "strongly agree" and "agree" to the following statements: Agreement that science creates more "opportunities for the next generation" and Agreement that the federal government should fund scientific research.
NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2016). See Appendix Tables 7-1, 7-10, 7-18, 7-21, and 7-29.
Science and Engineering Indicators 2018
The chapter is divided into four main sections. The first includes indicators of the public’s ongoing engagement with S&T, including interest in S&T news, sources of information on S&T, and involvement in informal S&T activities. The second section reports on indicators of public knowledge, including trend measures of factual knowledge of S&T and people’s understanding of the scientific process. The second section also includes results of survey experiments designed to better understand how question wording affects responses to knowledge questions on controversial issues. The third section presents data on attitudes indicating public support for S&T in general, including support for government funding of basic research and confidence in the leadership of the scientific community. The fourth section addresses attitudes on public issues in which S&T plays an important role, such as the environment, climate change, energy, nuclear power, and the use of animals in scientific research. It also includes indicators of public opinion about several active lines of research and new technologies, including genetically engineered food, stem cell research, and cloning.
A Note about Data and Terminology
The chapter emphasizes trends, patterns of variation within the U.S. population, and comparisons between public opinion in the United States and in other countries or regions. It reviews survey data from national samples with sound, representative sampling designs. The text focuses on the trends and demographic patterns in the data. Where possible, the focus is on new or updated data released since publication of Science and Engineering Indicators 2016.
The biennial General Social Survey (GSS), sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is a major source of data for this chapter. The GSS is a nationally representative, face-to-face survey on the attitudes and the behaviors of the U.S. population. The data are weighted to ensure representativeness. Questions about S&T information, knowledge, and attitudes were added to the GSS by NSF beginning in 2006. Comparable survey data were collected by telephone for NSF between 1982 and 2004. As with the GSS, data collected for NSF prior to 1982 come from face-to-face interviews. The changes in data collection methods over these years may affect comparisons over time. Such situations are highlighted in the text.
A range of other data sources is also used in the chapter, although only surveys involving probability-based samples are included. The primary sources of additional U.S. data include Gallup and the Pew Research Center. Like all survey data, the results reported in this chapter are subject to many sources of error—such as sampling error, response error, and measurement error due to question wording and random variation—that should be kept in mind when interpreting the findings. This report exercises caution in interpreting results from surveys that omit portions of the target population, have low response rates, or have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording. Only differences that are statistically unlikely to have occurred by chance and that are substantive are emphasized in this chapter. The GSS typically uses face-to-face interviews, but most of the data from groups such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center use telephone samples (including both landlines and mobile phones) that inherently exclude those without telephones. The only Internet-based surveys used in the chapter are those collected by GfK and the Pew Research Center, both of which choose their panel members based on techniques similar to the telephone samples used by other organizations. For these, probability-based sampling typically is done using telephone and mail to invite people to be part of the panel, and then respondents are probabilistically selected for individual surveys. The additional step means that response rates are often lower than high-quality telephone surveys. Nevertheless, face-to-face surveys are believed to be the best way to obtain high response rates and to maximize participation by respondents with low income or education levels who may be less likely to respond to other types of surveys (see sidebar U.S. Survey Data Sources and sidebar International Survey Data Sources).
Another important limitation is that up-to-date, high-quality data are not always available. In some cases, there are only single surveys covering a particular period, large gaps between data collection years, or only a small number of questions on any given topic. This challenge is particularly acute when it comes to international data. There have been many surveys on S&T in Europe, but these are not conducted as regularly as the GSS, and data from Africa and South America are especially rare. As noted, the current chapter focuses on data that have become available after the preparation of the 2016 Indicators report. Earlier data can be found in past editions of Indicators (e.g., [NSB 2016]). A summary is also available in Bauer, Shukla, and Allum (2012) of relevant data (up to 2006) from numerous countries and regions. Moreover, even in cases in which international comparisons attempt to compare identical questions, the responses may not be wholly comparable because of cultural differences in the meaning of the questions.
Throughout this chapter, the terminology used in the text reflects the wording in the corresponding survey questions. In general, survey questions asking respondents about their primary sources of information, interest in issues in the news, and general attitudes use the phrase science and technology. Thus, S&T is used when discussing these data. Survey questions asking respondents about their confidence in institutional leaders, the prestige of occupations, and their views on different disciplines use terms such as scientific community, scientists, researchers, and engineers, so science and engineering (S&E) is used when appropriate for examining issues related to occupations, careers, and fields of research. Although science and engineering are distinct fields, national survey data that make this distinction are scarce (see, however, [NSB 2014:7-35]). The term Americans is used throughout to refer to U.S. residents included in a national survey; equivalent terms (e.g., Canadians) are used for residents of other countries. However, not all respondents were necessarily citizens of the countries in which they were surveyed. When discussing data collected on behalf of NSF, the term recent is used to refer to surveys conducted since 2006, when data collection shifted to the GSS.