Skip all navigation and go to page content

Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

The Internet is the main source of information for learning about specific scientific issues such as global climate change and biotechnology.

  • Americans are now about equally likely to rely on the Internet as on television as their primary source of general science and technology (S&T) information.

Americans have consistently expressed interest in S&T, with 41% reporting they were "very interested" and 50% reporting they were "moderately interested" in new scientific discoveries.

  • However, Americans also express similar or higher levels of interest in a range of other news topics.
  • On average, Europeans appear to express lower levels of public interest in "new scientific discoveries and technological developments" relative to Americans, although there is considerable variation among different European countries.

In 2008, a majority of Americans said they had visited an informal science institution such as a zoo or natural history museum within the past year. This proportion is generally consistent with results from surveys conducted since the 1980s.

  • Americans with more formal education are more likely to visit informal science institutions.
  • Visits to informal science institutions tend to be less common in Europe, Japan, and Brazil. Visits to a zoo are about equally common in China and the United States.

Public Knowledge About S&T

Many Americans continue to give multiple incorrect answers to questions about basic factual knowledge of science or the scientific inquiry process. In the United States, levels of factual knowledge of science have been stable for more than a decade.

  • Americans' factual knowledge of science is positively related to their formal education level and the number of science and math courses they have taken. Younger generations also exhibit higher levels of factual knowledge about science than older generations.
  • Men tend to score higher than women on factual knowledge questions in the physical sciences; women score equally well as men on questions in the biological sciences.
  • People who score well on factual knowledge measures also tend to know more about emerging science topics such as nanotechnology.

Levels of factual knowledge of science in the United States are comparable to those in Europe and appear to be higher than those in Japan, China, or Russia.

  • In Europe, China, and South Korea, demographic variations in factual knowledge are similar to those in the United States.

Americans' understanding of the process of scientific inquiry is stable, after modest improvements since the mid-1990s. Understanding of what constitutes an experiment is greater in 2010 than in previous years.

  • Americans' understanding of scientific inquiry is strongly associated with their factual knowledge of science, their level of formal education, and the number of science and mathematics courses they have completed.
  • Men and women obtain similar scores on understanding of scientific inquiry.

Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Americans in all demographic groups consistently endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T.

  • In 2010, 69% of Americans said that the benefits of scientific research have strongly or slightly outweighed the harmful results; 9% said the harmful results outweighed the benefits.
  • Americans tend to have more favorable attitudes about the promise of S&T than Europeans, the Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, and the Chinese. Attitudes in South Korea tend to be more favorable than those in the United States.
  • Reservations about science accompany these favorable attitudes. Nearly half of Americans agree that "science makes our way of life change too fast," and large proportions of Chinese and South Korean residents voice the same sentiment.

Support for government funding of scientific research remains strong.

  • In 2010, 82% of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research.
  • In 2009, 73% of Americans said spending on basic scientific research "usually pays off in the long run"; fewer than two in ten said such spending was "not worth it." About the same percentage (74%) said spending on engineering and technology "usually pays off in the long run."

The public continues to expresses confidence in science leaders.

  • In 2010, roughly equal percentages of Americans expressed "a great deal" of confidence in medical leaders and scientific leaders; military leaders were the only group in whom more Americans expressed a great deal of confidence.
  • On science-related public policy issues (global climate change, stem cell research, nuclear power, and genetically modified foods), Americans regard science and engineering leaders as both knowledgeable and impartial—relative to other leaders—and believe they should be influential in decisions about these topics.
  • However, Americans also perceive a considerable lack of consensus among scientists on these issues.

A majority of Americans accord scientists "very great prestige." Ratings for engineers are lower but nonetheless better than those of most other occupations.

  • In 2009, more Americans rated scientists as having "very great prestige" than did so for almost any other occupation surveyed, second only to firefighters.
  • Nearly four in ten (39%) Americans rated engineers as having "very high prestige"—well above most other occupations considered on the survey.

Public Attitudes About Specific S&T Issues

Americans' support for the development of alternative sources of energy increased in the 2000s. Assessments of environmental hazards from pollution, nuclear power, and climate change were largely stable between 1993 and 2010.

  • A majority of Americans said the government spends too little on developing alternative energy sources, and most favor providing incentives for using solar and other alternative energy sources.
  • In 2010 and 2011, about one-third of Americans (34%) said they worry about environmental quality "a great deal," following an increase from 2006 to 2008. More Americans considered water pollution as "very" or "extremely dangerous" to the environment than they did several other potential problems.
  • Climate change continues to divide opinion. In a 22-nation survey, respondents from the United States, China, and the UK were less likely to consider climate change a "very serious problem" than those in a number of other countries. Respondents from only two nations (Poland and Pakistan) were less likely than Americans to consider climate change a "very serious problem."
  • Support for the use of nuclear power to generate electricity increased from 53% in 2007 to 62% in 2010. However, a substantial minority says that nuclear power plants are not safe—a proportion that may increase after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

A majority of Americans favor medical research that uses human embryonic stem cells. However, Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to reproductive cloning and wary of innovations using "cloning technology."

  • Support for embryonic stem cell research has increased since 2004, with 62% in favor of embryonic stem cell research in 2010. A higher proportion (71%) favors stem cell research when it does not involve human embryos.
  • More than three-quarters of Americans oppose human cloning.

Americans remain largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology, despite increased funding and a growing numbers of products on the market that use nanotechnology.

  • Public awareness of nanotechnology remains limited. Even among respondents who had heard of nanotechnology, knowledge levels are not high.
  • Those who have heard "a lot" or "some" about nanotechnology are more likely to say the benefits of such technology will outweigh any harms than to say the harmful results will outweigh the benefits.
  • Europeans are split, on average, over whether nanotechnology use in consumer products should be encouraged or not (44% to 35%, respectively, with 22% holding no opinion).