Last month, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched a three year initiative to address the complex relationship between scientists and the public. The Public Face of Science project will explore the interactions of the general public with science, technology, medicine and related areas.
Throughout the 20th century, polls have consistently indicated strong public support for science and technology, especially during the Cold War decades following World War 2. But recent polling data, - and in particular, a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, - reveals a more complex relationship between the public and science. While scientific achievements are still recognized and valued, there is a large opinion gap between the general public and scientists on a number of scientific issues.
The Pew findings were released in a January, 2015 report based on two surveys of science-related issues conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The first survey is based on a representative sample of 2,002 general public adults and was conducted by landline and mobile phones. The second survey was conducted online, and is based on a representative sample of 3,748 US-based scientists who are members of AAAS.
In its Summary of Findings, the report highlights four major results. Three of them found broadly similar views between the public and scientists on the current, overall place of science in America:
- “Science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals. Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and… there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.”
- “[B]oth the public and scientists are critical of the quality of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM subjects) in grades K-12.”
- “Compared with five years ago, both citizens and scientists are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise.”
But, the fourth major result found substantial differences:
- “Despite broadly similar views about the overall place of science in America, citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes. There are large differences in their views across a host of issues.”
The survey found sizable opinion differences between the general public and scientists on all 13 issues where a direct comparison was possible, some rather large, others much smaller.
The largest difference concerned the safety of eating genetically modified foods. 88% of scientists said that they were generally safe, compared with 37% of the general public, - a gap of over 50 percentage points. Basically, two-thirds of the public believe that scientists don’t have a clear understanding of the health impact of genetically modified crops.
Here are the other issues where large gaps were found:
- Favor the use of animals in research: public 47%; scientists 89%.
- Safe to eat foods grown with pesticides: public 28%; scientists 68%.
- Climate change is mostly due to human activity: public 50%; scientists 87%.
- Humans have evolved over time: public 65%; scientists 98%.
- Growing world population will be a major problem: public 59%; scientists 82%.
- Favor building nuclear power plants: public 45%; scientists 65%.
- Favor more offshore drilling: public 52%; scientists 32%.
- Childhood vaccines should be required: public 68%; scientists 86%.
The gaps were significantly smaller for these four issues:
- Astronauts are essential for future space programs: public 59%; scientists 47%.
- Favor increased use of bioengineered fuels: public 68%; scientists 78%.
- Favor increased use of fracking: public 39%; scientists 31%.
- Space stations has been a good US investment: public 64%; scientists 68%.
Despite differences across a wide rage of topics, both the public and scientists are positive about US scientific achievements. 54% of Americans consider US scientific achievements to be among the best in the world or above average, compared to 92% of the AAAS scientists polled. Similarly, 51% consider US medical treatments in the top tier compared to other industrialized countries, while 64% of scientists do so. It’s thus not surprising that the majority of the public supports government investments in technology, engineering and basic science research, with over 70% saying that these investments benefit society, paying off in the long run.
But both the public and scientists are critical of the quality of K-12 STEM education.
- Above average: 29% public; 16% scientists.
- Average: 39% public; 38% scientists.
- Below average: 29% public; 46% scientists.
How well informed is the general public on science-related issues? 84% of scientists feel that the public’s limited knowledge is a major problem for science in general, and is the result of four main reasons:
- Not enough K-12 STEM education - 75%.
- Lack of public interest in science news - 57%.
- Lack of media interest in science - 43%.
- Too few scientists who communicate findings - 40%.
Which brings us back to The Public Face of Science. The project was launched in part to address the concerns and opinion gaps uncovered by the Pew survey findings. “Many factors inform Americans’ views on these issues, some more strongly than others, including political leanings, age, race, education, and religious beliefs. Any divergence between the views of scientists and the public could have implications for policy development and other public decision-making processes.”
The three-year study will examine a number of key activities regarding the trust and perception of science, including
- How individual beliefs and scientific comprehension influence confidence in the scientific process;
- How science impacts public policy;
- How the physical, social, and life sciences are portrayed in the media; and
- How journalistic practices could be refined to better convey the incremental and iterative nature of scientific research.
Science is more important than ever because of its increasing scope. Scientific revolutions are launched when new tools make possible all kinds of new observations and measurements. Our new digital tools, - the Internet, mobile devices, social media, analytics, data science,… - are ushering an information-based scientific revolution, helping us extract insights from all the data we’re now collecting by applying tried-and-true scientific methods, that is, empirical and measurable evidence subject to testable explanations and predictions.
We’ve long been applying scientific methods in the natural sciences and engineering. But given our newfound ability to gather valuable data on almost any area of interest, we can now bring out tried-and-true scientific methods to just about any domain of knowledge.
As the American Academy of Arts and Sciences succinctly observes about our 21st century digital age: “Scientific and technological innovations touch every corner of American life. By informing the economy, health and medicine, national resources and their use, scientific information deeply influences the choices made by Americans about how they live their lives and contribute to society.”