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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Assessing public attitudes and understanding about S&T can involve looking at what a technologically advanced society requires to succeed, either currently or in the future. Comparisons over time and between countries can also help identify achievements and areas for concern.

Those who believe that advanced societies require strong S&T performance will likely find many of the available indicators about S&T heartening. Americans remain interested in S&T, and a majority of Americans continue to say that they visit at least one informal science institution, such as a zoo or aquarium, annually. Most Americans are also able to answer basic S&T knowledge questions. In terms of attitudes, a large majority of Americans say that they want funding for scientific research and hold scientists and engineers in high regard. Most Americans also express positive views about various emerging technologies, including nuclear energy, biotechnology, and stem cells. In most cases, indicators for these attitudes have changed little in recent years, and Americans are more positive and have more factual knowledge about S&T than residents of other countries.

However, proponents of S&T may also find some indicators less reassuring. In particular, they may note that indicators of media content show that S&T has represented just a small percentage of the available news content in recent years. Likewise, data showing that many Americans have difficulty answering relatively simple knowledge questions about S&T are not encouraging. Also, while Americans say they are interested in S&T and want to fund S&T, other issues generate greater interest and elicit more support for government funding. Although most of the available indicators have remained stable, stability may represent cause for concern to those who hope to see Americans become more knowledgeable or more supportive of science. Comparisons with other countries are not unambiguously reassuring either. Although Americans generally score better on factual knowledge questions and are more positive about S&T than residents of other countries, multinational surveys have identified several countries where residents have more knowledge or are more supportive of S&T in specific areas.

Although most of the indicators are stable, changes appearing in the most recent data might also cause concern. In 2012, fewer Americans could provide an adequate description of what makes something scientific or were willing to reject astrology as unscientific. Americans were also less supportive of stem cell research than in previous years. People focused on environmental issues might also worry that some indicators show that Americans are becoming less concerned about the environment than in previous years and are less concerned about such issues than residents of many other countries. Climate change is one topic for which substantial evidence suggests that Americans have become less concerned than in the past and where residents of most other countries are closer to sharing the assessment of the evidence that prevails in the scientific community.

One limitation of the available indicators is that much of the data come from Europe, with only limited recent data from the Asia-Pacific region, where there is a high level of S&T activity.

Regardless of the standard used in assessing public attitudes and understanding of S&T, one pattern in the data continues to stands out. Year after year, Americans who are more highly educated—particularly those who are college educated and have completed college courses in science and mathematics—tend to understand more about S&T, tend to see S&T in a more positive light, and tend to engage with S&T more often. Although it is not clear whether this association is causal, the pattern underscores the role of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in fostering public understanding of S&T and possibly in developing orientations toward S&T that are similar to those that prevail in the scientific community.