How people perceive science can matter in a range of different ways. It can affect the public’s willingness to fund S&T through public investment, young people’s willingness to enter into S&T training and choose jobs in S&T, and parents’ willingness to encourage such career paths. Committing resources—whether time or money—to S&T means trusting that our commitment will pay off over the long term for ourselves, our families, and our communities. General views about S&T may also affect our views about specific technologies and research programs that could enhance our 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 views on the promises of S&T and reservations about science, overall support for government funding of research, confidence in scientific community leaders, views of science and engineering as occupations, and views about the degree to which specific fields and work activities are scientific. Overall, the data make it clear that Americans support both S&T and the people involved in S&T.
Overall, Americans remain strong believers in the benefits of S&T even while seeing potential risks. Surveys since at least 1979 show that roughly 7 in 10 Americans see the effects of scientific research as more positive than negative for society. In 2012, this included 50% who said they believed the benefits “strongly” outweigh the negatives and 22% who said the benefits slightly outweigh the potential harms (appendix table
Americans with more education, income, and scientific knowledge hold a stronger belief in the benefits of science than others. For example, 55% of those who had not completed high school said they believe science does more good than harm, but 89% of those with bachelor’s degrees and 92% of those with graduate degrees expressed this view. Similarly, 86% of those in the top income quartile saw more benefits than harms from science, whereas 60% of those in the lowest bracket expressed this view. Almost all (87%) of those in the top knowledge quartile said they saw more benefits than harms, but just half (50%) of those in the lowest knowledge quartile gave this response (appendix table
Americans also overwhelmingly agree that S&T will foster “more opportunities for the next generation” but continue to express worry that it may make life change too quickly. In 2012, about 87% of Americans “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that S&T will create more opportunities (appendix table
The 2010 ISSP also included two questions about the promises of science. It asked respondents in 31 countries whether they thought that societies were putting too much faith in science and whether science may do more harm than good. Comparable data were also collected by the ISSP program in multiple countries in 1993 and 2000.
In 2010, about 41% of U.S. residents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “we believe too often in science, and not enough in feelings and faith.” The average response of U.S. residents put the United States in the middle range of countries. Over time, Americans have become more likely to disagree with the statement, along with several other countries (figure
The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey also asked a range of questions about general attitudes toward science. It found that Europeans and Americans were similar in endorsing the benefits of science but that Europeans in the 10 countries surveyed expressed more reservations. The survey used an 11-point scale that went from “totally disagree” at “0” to “totally agree” at “10” for all questions. Seven questions assessed perceptions about the “positive facets of science,” and 11 questions addressed reservations (appendix table
As noted, it appears that Americans hold similar views to the 10-country European average and, in some cases, see less promise for science than the residents of the other countries surveyed. For example, survey recipients were asked whether they disagreed or agreed with the statement that “science is the motor of progress.” The U.S. average agreement was 6.9, lower than the European average of 7.4 and tied with the United Kingdom for the lowest average. The Czech Republic (7.9) and Poland (7.9) had the highest average agreement. Another statement addressed whether “science is central to a society’s culture.” The U.S. average was 6.3, lower than the overall European average of 6.8, although a few European countries had lower scores. The lowest was Denmark, with an average score of 5.3, and the highest was Germany, with an average score of 7.3.
On several questions, however, Americans expressed fewer reservations than Europeans. For example, fewer Americans agreed that “people would be better off if they lived a simpler life, without so much science and technology.” Americans had an average score of 4.4 on this question, whereas the 10-country European average was 5.1. Germany (4.0) and Denmark (3.4) were the only countries that provided a more pro-science response than the United States. Indeed, Denmark and Germany were the only two countries that were consistently as positive, or more positive, than the United States. The United Kingdom was also often similar to the United States. Americans were the most likely to disagree that “science drives out religion” and that “science makes our way of life change too fast.” The U.S. score on the religion question was 3.9, whereas the 10-country European average was 4.9. The U.S. score on the “way of life question” was 4.7, whereas the 10-country European average was 6.0 (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
Within Asia, different question wording makes comparisons difficult, but most respondents appeared to support S&T. In 2010, 75% of Chinese respondents “fully” or “basically” agreed that S&T brings more advantages than disadvantages, whereas only one-fifth (20%) said they thought that “we are too dependent on science such that we overlook belief” (CRISP 2010). In 2011, 54% of Japanese respondents said “there are more pluses” or “on the whole, there are more pluses” to S&T development (NISTEP 2012). Koreans were asked separate questions about the risks and benefits of S&T. About 78% “agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that S&T promotes a “healthy and convenient life,” and 76% agreed that S&T “helps in everyday life.” However, 65% also agreed that S&T “creates problems” (KOFAC 2011).
U.S. public opinion consistently and strongly supports federal spending on basic scientific research. In 2012, 83% of Americans “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “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.” This is similar to both 2010 (82%) and 2008 (84%). Since 1985, agreement with this statement has ranged from a low of 76% in 1992 to a high of 87% in 2006 (figure
Americans with relatively higher levels of education and more science knowledge are particularly likely to support funding scientific research. For example, 75% of those who had not completed high school agreed that funding was needed, but 94% of those with graduate degrees expressed this view. Also, 73% of those in the lowest quartile of S&T knowledge agreed that support was needed, whereas 88% of those in the highest knowledge quartile expressed this view (appendix table
Another indicator of views about S&T is the percentage of Americans who say they think the government is spending too little on scientific research. In 2012, 38% of respondents said government was spending “too little,” 45% said the amount was “about right,” and 12% said it was “too much.” The percentage who said they thought the government spent too little on science gradually 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 and 2010s (figure
Compared with support for government spending in other areas, however, support for spending on scientific research is not especially strong, according to the GSS. Americans are more likely to say several other areas need government spending more than S&T. Education (75%) consistently receives the most support from Americans, compared with about 6 in 10 who say that government should spend more on assistance to the poor (61%), health (61%), development of alternative energy sources (60%), and environmental protection (58%). Support for increased spending on scientific research (38%) is roughly comparable to that for spending on improving mass transportation (38%) but garners more support than parks and recreation (31%), national defense (24%), space exploration (22%), and assistance to foreign countries (7%) (figure
In other countries where similar, although not identical, questions have been asked, respondents also express strong support for government spending on scientific research. In 2010, 72% of EU residents agreed that “even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which adds to knowledge should be supported by government,” and only 9% disagreed (European Commission 2010a). In 2010, 77% of Chinese agreed to a similar statement regarding the need for support (CRISP 2010). Although the comparable U.S. percentages for agreement with the need for support are nominally higher (83%), the absence of a middle option (e.g., “neither agree nor disagree”) rather than a difference in underlying opinions may account for this difference. Levels of agreement in South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and Brazil have also been similar to the United States and Europe (NSB 2012). In 2010, 64% of Koreans said S&T “requires public support,” and 35% said they wanted to see more investment in S&T research (KOFAC 2011).
Few members of the public have the background knowledge or resources to fully evaluate scientific questions in the public sphere. People, therefore, often rely on how they perceive decision makers as a decision aid (Earle, Siegrist, and Gutscher 2007; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, and Braman 2011). Public confidence in leaders of the scientific community can therefore affect public acceptance of findings and conclusions based on scientific research. 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 2012, 41% of Americans expressed “a great deal of confidence” in leaders of the scientific community, nearly half (49%) expressed “some confidence,” and fewer than 1 in 10 (7%) expressed “hardly any confidence at all” (figure
These results suggest that leaders of the scientific community compare well to leaders of other institutions in America. Only military leaders generated greater public confidence in 2012, with 53% of Americans saying they had a “great deal of confidence” in them. The scientific community (41%) and the medical community (40%) shared about equal levels of confidence. Since at least the 1970s, a similar percentage of Americans have said they place a “great deal of confidence” in the scientific community, whereas the percentage saying this about the medical community has fallen from highs of 61% in the mid-1970s (appendix table
The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey also found that scientists were among the most positively viewed groups in both the United States and the 10 European countries surveyed. Teachers and engineers were also viewed positively. The survey used an 11-point scale in which “0” means the respondent believed “that [the] group does not contribute at all to the welfare and progress of society” and “10” means “it contributes a great deal.” Doctors scored 8.4 in the United States and 8.2 in Europe. Scientists scored 8.1 in the United States and 7.9 in Europe. Teachers were more positively viewed in the United States (8.5) than in the 10 countries surveyed in Europe (7.6), but they were still near the top for both locations. Engineers received scores of 7.9 in the United States and 7.6 in Europe (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
Levels of reported trust varied in two Asian surveys that used different questions. A 2010 Korean survey found that 32% “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “scientists can always be trusted” (KOFAC 2011). In contrast, a 2011 survey in Japan found that 69% of respondents said scientists could be “trusted” or “somewhat trusted.” Even more respondents (77%) said engineers could be trusted (NISTEP 2012).
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 therefore have a bearing on the degree to which S&E affects the nation’s well-being in the future. Perceptions of specific occupations may also provide a picture of the degree to which people have confidence in those involved in S&E. Past research shows that when people—especially children—are asked to “draw a scientist,” they often rely on relatively unflattering stereotypes (Losh, Wilke, and Pop 2008).
The 2012 GSS included questions aimed at assessing how people view scientists and engineers. Half of the respondents were asked questions about scientists, and half were asked identical questions about engineers. Many of the scientist-focused questions were also asked in 1983 and 2001. An analysis of these earlier surveys concluded that views about scientists were shaped by a range of factors; older respondents, women, and those who believe society relies too much on science had more negative views about scientists. In contrast, those with more education and more college courses in science were more positive about scientists (Losh 2010).
More Americans said they had an “excellent” or “good” understanding of what engineers (42%) than of what scientists (35%) do in their jobs. In contrast, more respondents said they had “considered working” in a science-related (33%) than in an engineering-related (26%) career. The percentage interested in a science career was down from 41% in 2001 and similar to the 34% who gave this response in 1983. There were few clear demographic patterns, although younger and older respondents were both less likely to say they understood S&E careers, and more education and knowledge were generally associated with more self-reported understanding (figure
Almost all Americans said they would be “happy” if their son or daughter were to become a scientist or engineer. In 2012, four out of five Americans (80%) said they would be happy if their son or daughter became a scientist, and even more would be happy to see their child become an engineer (84% for daughters and 85% for sons). The 2001 survey similarly found that 80% of Americans would be happy about a scientific career for their child, up from 67% for both sexes in 1983 (figure
In general, these patterns were consistent across demographic groups, although those who scored well on the test of science knowledge were somewhat more likely to be happy if their son or daughter were to become an engineer than those who scored relatively less well. For example, in 2012, 79% of respondents in the bottom quartile for science knowledge said they would be happy if their son became an engineer, whereas 88% of those in the top quartile gave this response. This pattern was not apparent in those asked about scientists (appendix table
Americans’ views about specific facets of S&E occupations are also quite positive. Americans generally believe that both scientists and engineers have a positive impact on society, and these beliefs appear to have remained stable over the past decade. Americans almost universally “strongly agree” or “agree” that scientists (95%) and engineers (91%) “are helping to solve challenging problems.” This is similar to the 96% who gave such responses in 2001 when asked only about scientists (NSB 2002). Americans also believe these groups are made up of “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.” Although both groups are seen positively, more respondents agreed that this description fits scientists (88%) than agreed that this description fits engineers (79%). The finding for scientists is also similar to that in 2001, when 86% of respondents gave this answer (NSB 2002). There is no meaningful difference in Americans’ belief that scientists (86%) and engineers (86%) “work on things that will make life better for the average person” (table
Americans’ views about S&E careers include several elements that could be perceived by some as negative. Respondents were more likely to provide such comments when asked about scientists rather than engineers. Specifically, 50% of respondents said they “strongly agree” or “agree” with the statement that “scientific work is dangerous,” but just 38% said they thought engineering work is dangerous. The percentage seeing scientific work as dangerous is essentially unchanged from 2001, when 53% of respondents gave this response. In 2012, more Americans saw scientists than saw engineers as not likely “to be very religious people” (33%, compared with 15% for engineers); as having “few other interests but their work” (28%, compared with 16% for engineers); and as likely to “earn less than other people with equally demanding jobs” (17%, compared with 9% for engineers). These numbers are also similar to those from 2001, when 30% said they thought scientists were unlikely to be religious and 29% said they believed scientists were too interested in work. About one-third of Americans saw scientists and engineers as “apt to be odd and peculiar people” (36% for scientists, compared with 28% for engineers). This percentage rose for scientists from 25% in 2001 (NSB 2002), but it is not far from the 31% response in 1983 (table
Americans saw few differences between scientists and engineers in 2012 for some of the less common negative ideas about which they were asked. Few Americans said they believe that scientists and engineers “don’t get as much fun out of life as other people do” (19% for scientists, compared with 16% for engineers); that scientists or engineers “usually work alone” (20% for scientists, compared with 23% for engineers); or that being a scientist or engineer “would be boring” (17% for scientists, compared with 14% for engineers) (table
It is also noteworthy that the Harris Poll (Harris Interactive 2009) asked about the prestige of a large number of occupations, including scientists and engineers, over a period of about 30 years. In 2009, the last year for which data are available, 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. In recent years, scientists’ ratings were comparable to those of nurses, doctors, firefighters, and teachers and ahead of those of military and police officers. Engineers’ standing was comparable to those of occupations clustered just below the top group of occupations rated, including clergy, military officers, farmers, and police officers (NSB 2012).
Elsewhere, S&E occupations are also highly regarded. The BBVA Foundation research in Europe and the United States found that both groups reject negative portrayals of scientists and embrace positive ones. The 2011 BBVA Foundation survey presented respondents with the idea that “films often use particular images to portray scientists” and then asked if the respondents believed these portrayals “reflect what scientists are like.” About 42% of Americans and 46% of residents of the 10 European countries surveyed said they thought that a depiction of scientists as “people doing research beyond the bounds of what is morally acceptable” would reflect scientists “fairly well” or “very well.” Fewer respondents—27% of Americans and 29% of Europeans—said that depictions of scientists as “people who lie about their research for personal gain” would be accurate. Even fewer—23% of Americans and 25% of Europeans—said they believed that depictions of scientists as “dangerous people” would be accurate. Americans and Europeans diverged on the degree to which residents said they believed that scientists were “people with a lot of power” or “absent-minded people.” About 53% of Americans and 45% of Europeans said that they thought depictions of scientists as powerful would accurately reflect scientists. Also, 22% of Americans said they thought an absent-minded depiction would be accurate, but 35% of Europeans held this view (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
The BBVA Foundation survey also found that more Americans had “considered the possibility of taking up a career related to science” than most other countries in the survey. One-third of Americans (33%) said they had considered such a career, but only 17% of those surveyed in the other 10 European countries said they had considered this option (BBVA Foundation 2012b).
Earlier data from other countries indicate that scientists are well regarded. Chinese respondents were asked in 2010 to choose up to three occupations that they thought were the most prestigious and three that they would like their child to choose. Scientist (44%) rated close to doctor (44%) as an occupation that was among the most “prestigious,” although both were behind teacher (55%). Engineering was seen as a prestigious career by 22% of Chinese respondents. When it came to careers, 36% said they would like their child to become a scientist. Teacher (51%) and doctor (49%) were the only occupations more preferred. About 17% said they would like their child to become an engineer (CRISP 2010). A 2010 Korean survey also included questions about scientists and found that 56% of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that scientists “serve the interests of humankind,” 38% agreed scientists are “neutral and objective,” and 32% agreed scientists are “unique and different people.” Overall, 24% said they would “strongly support” their children in pursuing an S&E career, although most (66%) indicated they would let their children choose their own path (KOFAC 2011). In 2006, the majority of Israelis said they would be pleased if their children became scientists (77%), engineers (78%), or physicians (78%) (Yaar 2006).
The 2012 GSS included a series of questions about the degree to which Americans see various fields of research and practical activities as scientific. Such questions are important because they can provide an indicator of the degree that Americans see a role for science in everyday life. Some of these questions were also asked in the 2006 GSS as well as in a 2005 EU survey. The new data include both the earlier list of fields as well as an additional list of activities, many of which require practical applications of S&T knowledge, such as farming, computer programming, and counseling. Engineering was included as both a field and an activity. The results clearly show that Americans differentiate between different fields and activities.
Many of the fields and activities that Americans saw as scientific are those where the S&T element is clear. Medicine (94%) and medical treatment (96%) were the most likely to be seen as “very” or “pretty scientific.” The percentage for medicine was down slightly from 97% in 2006. Many also saw the fields of physics (88%), biology (90%), and engineering (80%)—as well as the activities of engineering (90%) and architecture (75%)—as scientific. Biology was down slightly from 94% in 2006, and physics was down from 90%. Engineering (as a field) was about the same (77%) in 2006, whereas architecture was not included in the earlier survey. Respondents saw engineering as more scientific when grouped with other “activities” than when grouped with “fields.” The fact that “engineering” followed “medicine” in the list of fields on the underlying GSS survey but followed “law enforcement” in the list of activities, may have contributed to this difference in perceptions (table
Three fields were seen as marginally scientific. About half of Americans saw the social science fields of economics (45%) and sociology (45%) as “very scientific” or “pretty scientific.” These are down slightly from 2006 when economics had been at 51% and sociology at 49%. About one-third of respondents (31%) said they saw history as scientific in 2012, which is about the same as in 2006 (30%).
Americans also saw many activities as scientific and distinguished these from other activities that they saw as unscientific. Most respondents saw computer programming (85%) and farming (72%) as scientific, whereas about half of respondents saw firefighting (57%) and law enforcement (44%) as scientific.
In general, respondents with more education and more scientific knowledge were more likely to see almost all fields and activities as at least somewhat scientific. Patterns are also apparent in the percentage describing certain fields or activities as “pretty scientific.” For example, the percentage of respondents saying that economics is “pretty scientific” climbs from 20% for the lowest knowledge quartile to 44% for the highest knowledge quartile. No such pattern is apparent when looking at the “very scientific” percentage for economics. Similarly, 21% of those who had not completed high school said they thought law enforcement was “very scientific,” but only 4% of those with graduate degrees gave this opinion. In contrast, 18% of those with less than a high school diploma viewed law enforcement as “pretty scientific,” but 47% of those with bachelor’s degrees gave this response. Similar patterns are apparent for education and/or literacy measures applied to occupations such as farming, firefighting, marriage counseling, law enforcement, and financial counseling. These results suggest that Americans with more understanding of science may be more likely to recognize a partial natural- or social-scientific element to fields or activities in which S&T plays a supporting role.
The pattern of results in the 2012 GSS remains similar to those found in a 2005 survey of EU countries. This survey used a five-point scale anchored by “not at all scientific” and “very scientific.” Some 89% of Europeans chose one of the two highest categories for medicine (i.e., above the midpoint). About 83% gave such a score for physics, and 75% gave such a score for biology. About 40% indicated they believed economics was scientific, and 34% said they saw history as scientific (European Commission 2005).
The 2010 GSS included a battery of questions that focused on what role the public wants scientists and others to play in policy decision making. These questions were also asked in 2006. In 2010, the survey focused on four issues: global climate change, research using human embryonic stem cells, federal income taxes, and nuclear power. In 2006, the issues included GM foods but not nuclear power. 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 these groups over time.
The 2010 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. More said that scientists and engineers should have a “great deal” of influence about these issues than said the same about other groups when it comes to global warming, stem cell research, nuclear power, and GM foods. Americans also gave scientists relatively high marks for understanding each issue and for being relatively impartial. For all issues, compared with other leadership groups, S&E groups were more likely to be seen as supporting what is best for the country rather than their own narrow interests. Nonetheless, the 2010 GSS also assessed perceived consensus among scientists and found that the public thought that scientists disagreed among themselves on most issues. The public perceived the greatest consensus on stem cells and nuclear energy and the least consensus on taxes. Past research suggests that a lack of perceived consensus may limit the influence of the scientific community (Krosnick et al. 2006; NSB 2010). Americans with more education and more science knowledge tended to have more favorable perceptions of the knowledge, impartiality, and level of agreement among scientists.