The US Population’s Perception of Science
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released a new report that sheds light on the public’s perception and understanding of science. The document highlights three main conclusions from their research: confidence in science in the US has remained stable over the last three decades; a person’s confidence in science is subject to a variety of factors, including race, age, education, political beliefs, and more; and there is no single population that is anti-science. The report also highlights the need for more research into the reasons behind some people’s distrust of scientific research.
By examining data gathered by NORC at the University of Chicago, the team behind this report were able to identify that the public confidence in scientific institutions has been relatively stable since the 1980s. Of the institutions they observed (the military, banks and financial institutions, the press, congress, and the scientific community), science has remained the most stable when regarding the percentage of adults with a ‘great deal’ of confidence. The largest percentage change in science over the last 30 years occurred between 2002 and 2004, when confidence increased slightly, potential in response to the high-profile work being conducted at the time, including the conclusion of the Human Genome Project.
At the same time, their research shows that in 2014, the majority of people believed that science was advancing too quickly for the first time since 1983. Nonetheless, the public doesn’t want to decrease federal spending that supports scientific research, with just under 50% in 2017 indicating that they believed funding should be increased. A further 38% believed that federal spending on science should be kept constant.
When asked to differentiate between different branches of science, there was significant support for disease research and public health.
This is positive news for the genomics community, a large majority of which works within these constraints.
The team also examined how different factors, such as age, gender, and race, affected the way people view science. They found that the overall confidence in scientific institutions was roughly the same regardless of these factors, but that the differentiation between a ‘great deal’ of confidence and ‘only some’ confidence increased across different demographics.
Political affiliation and education level in particular were identified as significant factors in a person’s trust in science, with liberals with college education or higher demonstrating consistently greater confidence in researchers. These factors also influenced what people believed to be the most urgent priorities in scientific research, with conservatives with high school education or less being the most supportive group for research into disease cures.
Observations of different demographics also revealed that more work is needed to understand why these factors influence a person’s perception of science. They focused on three controversial areas of science research (childhood vaccine safety, GM food safety, and global warming) and investigated how different factors changed the balance of perceptions. Their results demonstrated strong fluctuations in how a person’s beliefs or status can affect their opinion on various scientific topics. For example, having higher education or greater scientific knowledge was a strong factor in determining a person’s opinion on GM foods, but had little significance when considering childhood vaccine safety. To fully understand these differences, the team believe that more research is needed to identify what factors are at work when determining public science perception.
Overall, the report concludes that, in general, the US population thinks of science in a favourable light, with the majority of adults demonstrating either great or some confidence in scientific institutions. Recent developments in the political landscape, particularly regarding federal funding, have made the scientific community uncertain about how research will progress in the future. This study may help to allay some of these fears, as it demonstrates that the public’s confidence remains stable.