Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Public Attitudes and Understanding of Science and Technology

The National Science Foundation has an interesting report entitled Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 here.

I had a quick look at chapter 7 which concerns the American public's attitudes towards science and technology. It's a very interesting resource. Here is a sample of some of the findings:

-Americans’ factual knowledge about science is positively related to their formal education level, income level, the number of science and math courses they have taken, and their verbal ability.

-In 2008, 68% of Americans said that the benefits of scientific research have strongly outweighed the harmful results, and only 10% said harmful results slightly or strongly outweighed the benefits.

-Nearly 9 in 10 Americans agree with the statement “because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation.”

- Americans also express some reservations about science. Nearly half of Americans agree that “science makes our way of life change too fast.”

- In 2008, 84% of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research.

- More than one-third of Americans (38%) said in 2008 that the government spends too little on scientific research and 11% said the government spends too much. Other kinds of federal spending such as health care and education generate stronger public support.

The overview of the section on "Biotechnology and Its Medical Applications" suggests things are dire, especially in Canada:

Few Americans (about 1 in 10) consider themselves “very familiar” with biotechnology and Canadians report slightly less familiarity. Without a strong knowledge base to use in evaluating information, their assessment of the credibility of information sources is an important element in forming their judgments about information on this topic. In both the United States and Canada, scientific journals and government-funded scientists were the top-rated institutions that could provide information about biotechnology. Conversely, privately owned mass media, biotechnology company
executives, and religious and political leaders ranked near the bottom in both countries.

And a sample from the document's conclusion:

In assessing public knowledge and attitudes concerning S&T, two kinds of standards for judgment are possible. One standard involves comparing a country’s knowledge and attitudes with those recorded in the past or in other countries. The second standard involves assessing what a technologically advanced society requires (either today or in the future) to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to better take advantage of scientific progress in their own lives.

By the first standard, the survey data provide little or no evidence of declining knowledge or increasingly negative attitudes. Relative to Americans in the recent past, today’s Americans score as well on knowledge measures and tend to be more skeptical about scientific claims for pseudoscience, such as astrology. In addition, three decades of U.S. data consistently show that Americans endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T, are optimistic about new technologies, and are favorably predisposed to increasing government investment in science. When Americans compare science with other institutions, science’s relative ranking
is as or more favorable than in the past. In addition, the prestige of the engineering profession grew in the last year.

When the data are examined using other countries as a benchmark, the United States compares favorably. Compared with adult residents of other developed countries, Americans appear to know as much or more about science, and they express as much or more optimism about technology.

But when one invokes the second standard to assess public attitudes and understanding of science, it looks less rosy:

By the second standard, trend data show that significant minorities of Americans cannot answer relatively simple knowledge questions about S&T, they express basic misconceptions about emerging technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology... Sizable parts of the population express reservations about how the speed of technological change affects our way of life or the use of animals in medical research.