Despite Esteem for Science, Public at Odds
with Scientists on Major Issues
by Lee Rainie
January 29, 2015
*The views expressed are those of the author and are not
necessarily those of Scientific American.
Scientists and their work have an important place
in every major aspect of American life
Many hope that advances in science will improve people’s lives and enhance the economy. They are anxious to understand what innovations will disrupt existing daily activities and business routines. Policy arguments about science-related issues have held center stage in the [President] Obama era, starting with the protracted arguments over medical care, insurance and the Affordable Care Act and extending into every cranny of energy and environmental concerns, policies around food, challenges created by digital technology disruptions, and whether educators are preparing today’s K-12 students for a future with greater requirements for science literacy and numeracy.
A report released today by the Pew Research Center, based on surveys of the general public and U.S scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), finds powerful crosscurrents of the views of the two groups. On one hand, there is esteem and wide support for investments in scientific research:
- 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment.
- 54% of adults consider U.S. scientific achievements either to be the best in the world or above average compared with other industrial countries; 92% of AAAS scientists hold similarly praiseworthy views.
- 61% of adults say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34% say private investment is enough to ensure scientific progress is made.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence that citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different lenses. For instance, there is a:
- 51-percentage point gap between scientists and the public about the safety of eating genetically-modified foods – 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while just 37% of the public believes that.
- 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research – 89% of scientists approve it, while 47% of the public backs the idea.
- 40-percentage point gap on the question of whether it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides – 68% of scientists say that, compared with 28% of citizens.
- 37-percentage point gap over whether climate change is mostly caused by human activity – 87% of scientists say it is, while 50% of the public does.
- 33-percentage point gap on the question about whether humans have evolved over time – 98% of scientists say this, compared with 65% of the public.
Moreover, both citizens and scientists are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise than they were five years ago. The share of citizens saying U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world or above average is down 11 points from 65% in 2009 to 54% today. Among scientists there is a 24-point drop from 2009 to 2014 in the proportion who say it is generally a good time for science and an 11-point falloff in those who think it is a good time for their particular science discipline.
Policy-making without the best science?
Scientists’ somewhat downcast outlook extends to the policy world. Most believe that policy choices, especially those about land use and clean air and water, are not often guided by the best scientific findings. Only 15% of scientists say they believe the best science guides policy choices about land use most of the time or always; 27% think the best science frequently guides regulations about clean air and water; 46% think the best science is frequently used in food safety regulations and 58% say the same when it comes to regulations about new drug and medical treatments.
One of the main points of agreement between scientists and citizens is that both are critical of the quality of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM subjects) in grades K-12. Only 16% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. STEM education for grades K -12 as above average or the best in the world. Fully 46% of scientists and 29% of the public rank K-12 STEM as below average. Additionally, 75% of scientists view too little STEM education for grades K-12 to be a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science and an overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem.
Why the Pew Research Center is studying these issues
The publication of this report begins a major new initiative for the center. It has explored science-related issues in the past. But today’s publication marks a more formal commitment to studying the intersection of science with all aspects of society from public opinion to politics and policymaking, religious and ethical considerations, and education and the economy.
There is considerable interest in the policy community, among scientists themselves, and among engaged citizens to understand how the fast-paced world of scientific inquiry and innovation is shaping America and the world. Pew Research Center hopes to explore that and to understand more fully how news and information about scientific activities make their way to citizens, how they understand it, and how, in some circumstances, they contribute to it.
In the coming months we will issue more findings related to the two surveys I have described in this post:
1 - One will provide a detailed analysis of the partisan and ideological differences that underlie some of the disputed policy areas.
2 - Another will pay particular attention to how people’s spiritual views and practices are tied to these issues.
3 - And yet another will look more directly at issues related to Americans’ general knowledge about science phenomena, updating previous research we have done about citizens’ science literacy.
We will examine these and other issues related to a wide range of science topics and disciplines. In addition to surveys of the public, we will survey and interview scientists for this work and we hope to add research projects built around data that is not necessarily survey data – some of it might be “big data” and some might be small.
We at Pew Research Center are excited to expand our research in these areas and are especially anticipating a deeper engagement with the scientific community and interested members of the public. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below and write to us here.
A version of this post of was originally published on the Pew Research Center’s website.
About the Author: Lee Rainie is the director of internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. He gives several dozen speeches a year to government officials, media leaders, scholars and students, technology executives, librarians, and non-profit groups about the changing media ecosystem. He is also regularly interviewed by major news organizations about technology trends. He is a co-author of Networked: The New Social Operating System and five books about the future of the internet that are drawn from the center’s research. Prior to joining Pew Research, he was managing editor of U.S. News & World Report. He is a graduate of Harvard University and has a master’s degree in political science from Long Island University. He blogs at http://networked.pewinternet.org/blog/. Follow on Twitter @lrainie.