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Science, Engineering, and Technology

The Public Face of Science: an Examination of Current Data on Public Attitudes Toward Science

The Academy is currently conducting a study on public attitudes toward science and how the public encounters science in their daily lives. A forthcoming publication will draw on existing research and public opinion surveys to establish a baseline for identifying gaps in the current understanding of these issues. In advance of the publication, the Academy’s Data Forum will preview these data over the course of the next several months.

This study is part of the Public Face of Science initiative, a three-year project that the Academy launched in March 2016 to address various aspects of the complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. The Academy is grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Rita Allen Foundation for supporting the Public Face of Science project.

March 21, 2017

Factors Influencing Public Confidence in Science

posted By
Alison LeafAlison Leaf is a Hellman Fellow in Science, Engineering, and Technology Policy at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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The data presented above indicate that a majority of the public has confidence in the scientific community and believes science has a positive impact on society. While many scientists may be reassured by these data, others may wonder why a small fraction of the public expresses the opposite sentiment. But what factors contribute to whether or not an individual feels a sense of confidence in the scientific community?

Recent public polling surveys reveal that education level, income level, and political ideology all influence the degree of public confidence in science. The 2014 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center asked respondents about the degree of confidence they had in the people running several different institutions, including scientists. Of those with a bachelor’s degree, 55 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal of confidence” in the scientific community. In contrast, among those who ended their formal education with a high school diploma—a population that accounts for roughly 30 percent of all Americans–only 33 percent expressed a “great deal of confidence.” When responses to the same question were sorted by income level, lower household income was associated with less confidence in the scientific community.

Grouping responses by political ideology reveals similarly sized gaps in confidence. Data from the Pew Research Center in 2016 showed that about 21 percent of all U.S. adults expressed “a great deal” of confidence in the scientific community to act in the best interests of the public. When responses were categorized based on the political ideology of the respondent, researchers found that 34 percent of liberal Democrats expressed a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, while only 15 percent of conservative Republicans did the same.

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