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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Public Attitudes About S&T in General

Public support for S&T can make a difference in many ways. Public openness to technological change can give U.S. businesses opportunities to build a domestic customer base, create a foundation for worldwide technological competitiveness, and foster the national advantages that flow from pioneering innovations. Broad public and political support for long-term commitments to S&T research, especially in the face of pressing immediate needs, facilitates ambitious proposals for sustained federal S&T investments to reach fruition. Public confidence that S&E community leaders are trustworthy, S&T research findings are reliable, and S&E experts bring valuable judgment and knowledge to bear on public issues encourages reliance on scientific knowledge in practical affairs. In addition, positive public perceptions of S&E occupations encourage young people to pursue S&E careers.

This section presents general indicators of public attitudes and orientations toward S&T in the United States and other countries. It covers views of the promise of S&T and reservations about science, overall support for government funding of research, confidence in scientific community leaders, perceptions of the proper influence of scientists on controversial public issues about which the research community claims expertise, and views of S&E as occupations.

Promise and Reservations About S&T

A majority of Americans see science as having, on balance, a positive effect on society and regard scientists and engineers as contributing to the well-being of society. At the same time, a majority of Americans also express reservations about the role of S&T in society.

NSF surveys dating back to 1979 show that roughly seven in ten Americans see the effects of scientific research, in general, as more positive than negative for society. In 2010, 46% of GSS respondents said the benefits of scientific research strongly outweigh the harmful results, and 23% said that benefits slightly outweigh harms. Only 9% of respondents said the harms either slightly or strongly outweigh the benefits. Of the remaining respondents, 14% volunteered that the two are about equal and 8% gave no response. These numbers are generally consistent with earlier surveys; those saying the benefits strongly or slightly outweigh the harmful results ranged from 68% to 79% over the 30-year survey period (figure 7-11; appendix table 7-20). In practically any major American social grouping, few individuals express strong doubt about the benefits of science.

Americans overwhelmingly agree that S&T will foster "more opportunities for the next generation" (appendix table 7-21). Agreement with this statement has been increasing moderately for more than a decade; nine in ten Americans agreed in 2010.[30]

The annual VCU Life Sciences Surveys show similar results. The percentage of Americans who agreed that "developments in science helped make society better" ranged from 83% to 87% over the past decade, with about half of the public (48%) saying that science helped make society "a lot" better in 2010 and 34% saying it made society "somewhat better." Similarly, between 2002 and 2010, the surveys asked respondents whether they believed that "scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives" and found that agreement ranged between 87% and 92% (VCU 2010). During the same period, between 88% and 92% of respondents agreed that "new technology used in medicine allows people to live longer and better."

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2009a) also demonstrates a strong public regard for the benefits to society from S&E. Respondents considered a series of occupational groups and rated each in terms of their contribution to the well-being of society. Seven in ten Americans said that scientists contribute "a lot" to the well-being of our society; 64% said the same about engineers. Medical doctors were evaluated similarly, with 69% of respondents saying they contribute a lot to society. Only the military and teachers were considered by more Americans to contribute a lot to society (table 7-11).

What kinds of contributions do Americans have in mind? The Pew Research Center survey asked respondents to express, in their own words, some of the ways science has had a positive effect on society. More than half of all responses referred to medical contributions: 32% of responses referred to general improvements in healthcare and medicine and 24% referred to specific vaccines and disease research. Other responses were less common. These included space exploration (8% of responses), the environment (7% of responses), and communication and computer technologies (7% of responses).

Americans who have more years of formal education and score higher on measures of science knowledge express more favorable attitudes about S&T. A review of numerous surveys from around the world found—other things being equal—a weak but consistent relationship between greater knowledge of science and more favorable attitudes toward science. This relationship was stronger in the United States than in any of the other countries in the study (Allum et al. 2008). (For more details, see NSB 2008.)

Americans also express reservations about S&T. The VCU Life Sciences Surveys found that a majority of Americans agree that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society." In 2010, 58% of respondents agreed with this statement and 35% disagreed; however, the percentage that agreed has dropped substantially, from a high of 73% in 2001. Majorities or near majorities agree with statements expressing reservations about science in other surveys, as well. For example, in the 2010 GSS, about half (51%) agreed that "science makes our way of life change too fast"; 47% disagreed. Men and women are about equally likely to express reservations about science. Those expressing fewer reservations about science on this statement tend to have more formal education, more science and math education, and more factual knowledge of science (appendix table 7-22).

International Comparisons

International surveys also indicate strong public support for S&T. Although data from other countries are not entirely comparable, they appear to indicate that Americans hold at least equally or somewhat more positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T than Europeans, Russians, and Japanese. Attitudes in China and South Korea are comparable with the United States; on some questions, attitudes are even more favorable, but reservations about science are somewhat higher in China and South Korea as well (appendix table 7-23). Attitudes about S&T have grown increasingly positive in Malaysia over recent years; in 2008, 74% of Malaysians agreed that scientific research has more positive than negative effects, up from 45% in 1998. In all of the countries and regions where survey data exist, statements about the achievements and promise of science elicit substantially more agreement than disagreement.

As in the United States, respondents abroad also express reservations about S&T. Numerous international surveys have asked for agreement or disagreement with a statement that "science makes our way of life change too fast" (appendix table 7-23). Levels of agreement with this statement appear to be lower in the United States than in several other countries, although there are large differences of viewpoint across European nations.

Federal Funding of Scientific Research

U.S. public opinion consistently and strongly supports federal spending on basic research. Since 1985, NSF surveys have asked Americans whether, "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government." In 2010, 82% agreed or strongly agreed with this statement; 14% disagreed. Agreement with this statement has ranged from a low of 76% in 1992 to a high of 87% in 2006 (figure 7-12; appendix tables 7-24 and 7-25).

The 2009 Pew Research Center Survey found that nearly three-quarters of Americans express support for federal spending on S&E. Asked whether government investments "usually pay off in the long run," or are "not worth it," 73% said spending on basic scientific research "usually pays off in the long run"; 74% said the same about engineering and technology. Furthermore, six in ten Americans said "government investment in research is essential for scientific progress," 29% said "private investment will ensure that enough scientific progress is made, even without government investment," and the remainder gave no response.

Another indicator, the proportion of Americans who thought the government was spending too little on scientific research, increased from 1981 to 2006, fluctuating between 29% and 34% in the 1980s, between 30% and 37% in the 1990s, and between 34% and 41% in the 2000s. In 2010, 36% of respondents said government spending on scientific research was "too little," 47% said it was "about right," and 12% said it was "too much" (figures 7-13 and 7-14; appendix table 7-26). Support for increased government spending is greater for a number of other program areas, with the highest support for spending on education (74%). About six in ten Americans say government should spend more on developing alternative energy sources (61%), assistance to the poor (61%), health (58%), and environmental protection (57%). Support for increased spending in other areas is lower. Support for increased spending on scientific research (36%) is roughly comparable to that for spending on improving mass transportation (40%) and parks and recreation (32%). Still, based on the proportion of the U.S. population favoring increased spending, scientific research garners more support than spending in national defense (25%), space exploration (16%), and assistance to foreign countries (8%).[31]

A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center (2011) suggests that the economic downturn of recent years and other factors have dampened Americans' appetite for increased government spending in a number of areas. In the Pew Research Center survey, public support for increasing spending on scientific research was 36%, down from 39% in 2009; support for decreasing scientific research spending was 23% in 2011, up from 14% in 2009.

International Comparisons

In other countries where similar though not precisely comparable questions have been asked, respondents also express strong support for government spending on basic scientific research. In 2010, 72% of Europeans agreed that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which adds to knowledge should be supported by government," and only 9% disagreed. In 2007, 74% of Chinese agreed to a similar statement. These percentages may be lower because of a difference in question wording, however. Both the European survey and the Chinese survey offered a middle option ("neither agree nor disagree"), whereas no middle category was offered in the United States (appendix table 7-23). Agreement in South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and Brazil is comparable to that in the United States and Europe.

Confidence in the Science Community's Leadership

For the science-related decisions that citizens face, a comprehensive understanding of the relevant scientific research would require mastery and evaluation of a great deal of evidence. In addition to relying on direct evidence from scientific studies, citizens who want to draw on scientific evidence may consult the judgments of leaders and other experts who they believe can speak authoritatively about the scientific knowledge that is relevant to an issue.

Public confidence in leaders of the scientific community is one indicator of public willingness to rely on science. Since 1973, the GSS has tracked public confidence in the leadership of various institutions, including the scientific community. The GSS asks respondents whether they have "a great deal of confidence," "only some confidence," or "hardly any confidence at all" in the leaders of different institutions. In 2010, four in ten Americans expressed "a great deal of confidence" in leaders of the scientific community, nearly half (49%) expressed "some confidence," and fewer than one in ten (7%) expressed "hardly any confidence at all" in the scientific community (figure 7-15; appendix table 7-27).

About the same proportion expressed "a great deal of confidence" in leaders of the medical community (41%) as in leaders of the scientific community. The military was the only institution with higher levels of expressed confidence (52%). This pattern is consistent with past surveys where science usually ranked second or third in public confidence, with medicine or the military ranking first. The consistently high confidence in the leadership of the scientific community contrasts with views of other institutional leaders over the years. For example, confidence in the military has fluctuated more widely over the past three decades. The medical community has seen a long-term decline in confidence during the 1970s and 1980s. More than half of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in medical leaders in the mid-1970s, compared to about 40% in recent years. Thirty years ago, confidence in the medical community was higher than confidence in scientific leaders. However, during the past decade, the public was about equally likely to express confidence in medical and scientific leaders.

Influence of Scientific Experts on Public Issues

Government support for scientific research derives partly from the notion that science can support policymakers in shaping many public decisions. Science can play this role more effectively if the general public supports the use of scientific knowledge in such decisions and shares the view that science is relevant.

In 2006 and 2010, the GSS asked about the appropriate influence of science on four public policy issues to which scientific research might be considered relevant. In 2010, those issues were global climate change,[32] research using human embryonic stem cells, federal income taxes, and nuclear power.[33] In 2006, those issues included GM foods but not nuclear power. Survey respondents were asked how much influence a group of scientists or engineers with relevant expertise (e.g., medical researchers, economists, nuclear engineers) should have in deciding about each issue, how well the experts understood the issue, and to what extent each would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests." The same questions were asked about elected officials and either religious leaders (for stem cell research) or business leaders (for the other issues). Thus, the questions allow a comparison among leadership groups at a single point in time as well as a comparison of perceptions about occupational groups over time.

The GSS data indicate that most Americans believe that scientists and engineers should have either a "great deal" or "a fair amount" of influence on these public decisions. Relative to other groups, more say that scientists and engineers should have a great deal of influence about these issues than say the same about other groups when it comes to global warming, stem cell research, nuclear power, and GM foods (table 7-12).

The only exception to that pattern was found on tax issues. When it comes to decisions about reducing federal income taxes, 18% said that economists should have "a great deal" of influence and 23% said the same about elected officials. Both the 2006 GSS and the 2010 GSS found the same patterns in Americans' preferences about each group's influence on these public issues (see appendix table 7-28).

Americans also gave scientists relatively high marks for understanding each issue, a pattern that underscores the perception of scientists and engineers as experts in these areas (table 7-13). The GSS asked respondents to rate each leadership group's understanding of a largely factual aspect of each issue on a 5-point scale ranging from "very well" to "not at all." For the issues dealing with biological or geophysical phenomena, the differences in perceived understanding were significant: between 27% and 58% of the public placed the relevant S&E group in the top category of understanding, whereas only 3% to 16% placed any of the other groups in that category. The contrast among groups was smallest for the tax issue, with economists (27%) ranking ahead of business leaders (16%) and elected officials (10%) as understanding the likely effects of reducing federal income taxes "very well." The same patterns were found in 2006 and 2010 (see appendix table 7-29).

Perceptions of impartiality in judgments about these issues may also influence preferences about the role of leadership groups in public issue debates and decisions. When asked which groups would "support what is best for the country as a whole versus what serves their own narrow interests," the patterns were similar, with more Americans saying the relevant S&E group would support what is best for the country than saying the same about other leadership groups. For all issues, S&E groups were more likely to be seen as supporting what is best for the country than other leadership groups (table 7-14; appendix table 7-30).

One factor that may limit the influence of scientific knowledge and the scientific community on public issues is the perception that significant scientific disagreement exists, making scientific knowledge uncertain (Krosnick et al. 2006). GSS respondents were asked to rate the degree of scientific consensus on a largely factual aspect of each of the issues using a 5-point scale ranging from "near complete agreement" to "no agreement at all." The degree of perceived consensus was highest for medical researchers on "the importance of stem cells for research" (58% rated this group at one of the two points nearest the "complete agreement" scale point.) A 53% majority also saw nuclear engineers as at or near complete agreement about "the risks and benefits of using nuclear power to generate electricity." About four in ten (38%) gave the same level of rating for perceived consensus to environmental scientists on "the existence and causes of global warming." Lower proportions of respondents chose one of these two points when asked about the extent to which medical researchers agree on "the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods" in 2006 (28%), or economists on "the effects of reducing federal income taxes" in 2010 (21%) (table 7-15; appendix table 7-31). (See sidebar, "Differences Between Scientists and the Public on S&T-related Issues," for more perceptions of scientific consensus.)

With a few exceptions, responses to these questions do not differ markedly among demographic groups. Americans with more education and more science knowledge tend to have more favorable perceptions of the knowledge, impartiality, and level of agreement among scientists.

Views of S&E Occupations

Data on public esteem for S&E occupations are an indicator of the attractiveness of these occupations and their ability to recruit talented people into their ranks. Such data may also have a bearing on the public's sense that S&E affects the nation's well-being in the future.

For more than 30 years, the Harris Poll (Harris Interactive 2009) has asked about the prestige of a large number of occupations, including scientists and engineers (table 7-16). In 2009, 57% of Americans said that scientists had "very great prestige," and 39% expressed this view about engineers. Most occupations in the surveys were rated well below engineers.[34]

The percentage of survey respondents attributing "very great prestige" to scientists has fluctuated narrowly between 52% and 57% since 2003. More Americans rated scientists as having "very great prestige" than did so for almost any other occupation considered in the Harris surveys. In recent years, their rating was comparable to that of nurses, doctors, firefighters, and teachers, and ahead of military and police officers. In 2009, it was second only to firefighters.

Engineers' standing is comparable to occupations clustered just below the top group of occupations rated (including clergy, military officers, farmers, and police officers). A plurality of Americans said engineers have "very great prestige"; this figure has fluctuated between a low of 28% in 2003 and a high of 40% in 2008, and was about the same in 2009, at 39%.

The relative ratings of each occupation are, of course, dependent on the set of occupations considered on the surveys. Prestige appears to reflect perceived service orientation and public benefit more than high income or celebrity; for instance, fewer than two in ten Americans attributed "very great prestige" to entertainers or actors (table 7-16).

International Comparisons

Elsewhere, S&E occupations are also highly regarded. Among the Chinese in 2008, science (40%) rated close to medicine (41%) and teaching (43%) as an occupation that survey respondents hoped their children would pursue (CRISP 2008). In 2006, the majority of Israelis said they would be pleased if their children became scientists (77%), engineers (78%), or physicians (78%) (Yaar 2006). On at least one measure, Americans rated scientific careers more positively than was the case in at least some other countries. In 2004, a little more than 50% of South Koreans said they would feel happy if their son or daughter wanted to become a scientist. In the United States, 80% of those surveyed in 2001 expressed positive views regarding their children becoming scientists.


[30] Methodological issues make fine-grained comparisons of data from different survey years suspect. For instance, although the question content and interviewer instructions were identical in 2004 and 2006, the percentage of respondents who volunteered "about equal" (an answer not among the choices given) was substantially different. This difference may have been produced by the change from telephone interviews in 2004 to in-person interviews in 2006 (though telephone interviews in 2001 produced results that are similar to those in 2006). More likely, customary interviewing practices in the three different organizations that administered the surveys affected their interviewers' willingness to accept responses other than those that were specifically offered on the interview form, including "don't know" responses.
[31] This type of survey question asks respondents about their assessment of government spending in several areas without mentioning the possible negative consequences of spending (e.g., higher taxes, less money available for higher priority expenditures). A question that focused respondents' attention on such consequences might yield response patterns less sympathetic to greater government funding.
[32] The GSS questions on global climate change used the term "global warming."
[33] The 2010 GSS survey included ratings of nuclear engineers in addition to medical researchers, environmental scientists, and economists. As discussed below, the patterns of results were similar whether the group with relevant expertise was engineers or scientists.
[34] There are many different types of specializations within occupations, and prestige may well vary within the same occupation or industry.