Public Attitudes about S&T in General

Scientific interest and knowledge are only aspects of how people think about S&T. How people perceive science and scientists can also matter considerably. Such attitudes could influence the public’s willingness to fund S&T through public investment (Besley forthcoming; Miller, Pardo, and Niwa 1997; Muñoz, Moreno, and Luján 2012), as well as young people’s willingness to enter S&T training and choose jobs in S&T (Besley 2015; Losh 2010). Committing resources—whether money to fund science research or time to pursue S&T training—means trusting that such commitments will pay off over the long term for individuals, families, and society. General views about S&T may also help shape opinions about specific technologies and research programs that could enhance lives or pose new risks.

This section presents general indicators of public attitudes and orientations toward S&T in the United States and other countries. It covers information on the perceived promise of and reservations about S&T, overall support for government funding of research, and confidence in scientific community leaders. Overall, the data show that Americans support both S&T and the people involved in S&T.

Perceived Promise of and Reservations about S&T

International Comparisons

Most survey respondents in other countries also generally report strong belief in the value of science, although these beliefs appear to be somewhat higher in the United States. In China, 84% of respondents said in 2015 that they thought S&T would lead to more opportunities for future generations (compared to 91% in the United States for a similar question) (Appendix Table 7-17). About 69% of respondents also said that they thought that “scientific and technological development will create more jobs than [it] will eliminate” (CRISP 2016). In Germany, 10% of respondents agreed that science does more harm than good, and 20% said that science would make life better for future generations. In contrast, 68% said it will lead to both benefits and harms (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). The responses cannot be directly compared to the United States—where 12% said they believed benefits and harms were about equal (Appendix Table 7-15)—because the equivalent U.S. question does not explicitly give respondents the middle option. Respondents have to volunteer, without prompting, that they see both benefits and harms as equally likely. In Switzerland, 61% of respondents indicated that they generally thought science made life better by selecting 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale, where 1 indicated complete disapproval with a relevant statement and 5 indicated complete approval (Schafer and Metag 2016). Only about a third (34%) also agreed that science makes life move too fast (compared to 51% in the United States). About a third (34%) of Swiss residents also, however, approved of a statement that said the advantages of science and research made it worth the potential damages. In Chile, 39% of respondents said they thought S&T would bring “many” risks to the world, and another 31% said they thought S&T would bring “some” risks, whereas only 25% said S&T would bring “few risks” or “no risks” (CONICYT 2016).

While not as recent, a 2013 special Eurobarometer on S&T found that, across Europe, large majorities saw substantial benefits from S&T. More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents said they felt that S&T had a “very” (60%) or “fairly” (17%) positive influence on society in their home country (European Commission 2013). Europeans were asked whether they believe S&T would “provide more opportunities for future generations.” Three-quarters of Europeans (75%) agreed. A separate 2013 survey indicated that 74% of Canadians agreed that S&T would create more opportunities (CCA 2014). A third GSS question that was included in the 2013 special Eurobarometer focused on whether respondents agreed or disagreed that “science makes our way of life change too fast,” for which about 62% of Europeans agreed (European Commission 2013). The 2013 Canadian survey suggested that just 35% of Canadians thought science makes life “change too fast” (CCA 2014).

Federal Funding of Scientific Research

International Comparisons

Respondents in all other countries for which there are data, including both developed and developing countries, also support funding for scientific research. In China, 77% said science should be funded, even if it provides no benefits (compared to 83% for the equivalent question in the United States). In Germany, 49% indicated that, even if the government had to cut spending, it should try to maintain funding for scientific research. Another 45% said research for funding should be cut about the same amount as cuts to other areas (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). In Switzerland, 73% gave a response of 4 or 5, where 5 indicated “total approval” and 1 indicated “complete disapproval” when presented with a statement about the need to fund science, even without immediate returns. The same proportion (73%) indicated approval for a more general statement that the government should fund scientific research (Schafer and Metag 2016). In Finland, 74% said they believe that investing in science was worthwhile (FSSI 2016). In South America, 91% of Chilean respondents said they agreed that the government should increase funding for scientific research, similar to surveys over the previous decade (CONICYT 2016).

More generally, a broad survey of Europeans found strong support for spending on scientific research in the past. For example, in 2010, 72% of Europeans agreed that scientific research should be supported even in the absence of immediate benefits (European Commission 2010a). A 2013 survey of Canadians similarly found that 76% of respondents said they thought the government should support scientific research (CCA 2014).

Confidence in the Science Community’s Leadership

International Comparisons

Residents of other countries also typically indicate they have positive views about scientists, although the available questions vary substantially, making direct comparison difficult. In China, 41% of respondents said they saw science as an occupation with a positive reputation, and 31% said the same about engineers (CRISP 2016). Only teachers (56%) and doctors (53%) were seen more positively than scientists. In Switzerland, using a 5-point scale, 57% of respondents indicated that they had confidence in scientists, in general, while 63% indicated they had confidence in university scientists and 35% indicated they had confidence in industry scientists (Schafer and Metag 2016). In Finland, 75% of respondents said they had “very” or “fairly” high trust in universities and colleges, and 66% of respondents said they trusted scientific research and the scientific community (FSSI 2016). In South America, 80% of Argentinians said they have a lot of confidence in scientists as sources of information, and 65% said they see being a scientist as prestigious (MCTIP 2015). In Chile, 79% indicated they saw S&E careers as prestigious, with only medicine (85%) being seen as more prestigious (CONICYT 2016).

Some surveys also found evidence of concern about the degree to which scientists communicate with the broader public. In Germany, only 39% of respondents agreed that scientists communicate enough about their work (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). Similarly, in Switzerland, 45% of survey respondents indicated that they thought scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think (Schafer and Metag 2016). In South America, 62% of Chilean respondents indicated that they felt scientists do not adequately inform the public about the scientists’ research (CONICYT 2016).

The German survey did not include questions about general trust in scientists and instead focused on trust related to specific issues (Wissenschaft im dialog 2016). The survey found that while 53% of respondents said they trusted scientists on the topic of renewable energy, trust dropped to 40% when respondents were asked about climate change and 17% when respondents were asked about genetic engineering of plants (i.e., genetically modified foods).