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New Report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Examines Americans' Trust in Science

2/12/2018

Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, MA | February 12, 2018 — Amid increasing concern over the extent to which the public values scientific evidence, a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences offers an in-depth examination of the current state of trust in science among Americans.

The report – “Perceptions of Science in America" – is the first of a series of reports that will be issued by the Academy’s Public Face of Science project, which is a three-year initiative to understand and address various aspects of the evolving relationship between the public and scientists. “Perceptions of Science in America" draws on existing public opinion survey data to evaluate whether trust in science is changing, and to identify factors that may strengthen or diminish this trust. Data sources include NORC at the University of Chicago, the National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators, Pew Research Center, Research!America, and ScienceCounts.

“Sustaining public trust in science will require gaining a better understanding of how confidence and skepticism develop in the first place,” said Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the American Academy. “By calling attention to this question, the Public Face of Science project seeks to improve how science is communicated in an increasingly complex information landscape.”

A key finding of “Perceptions of Science in America" is that scientists continue to enjoy significant public trust, especially when measured against other professions. Yet the report also identifies potential vulnerabilities. For example, surveys demonstrate that perceptions of science can vary based on age, education, gender, political party, race, and region.

“Science is just one of many areas of society where evidence is increasingly subject to public debate,” said Geneva Overholser, co-chair of the Public Face of Science project and senior fellow at the Democracy Fund. “As scientists explore how to help citizens distinguish between fact and fiction, they will need to know how to communicate effectively with an incredibly diverse set of audiences.”

"Perceptions of Science in America" shows that despite widespread support for science in general, there are specific scientific matters that reveal significant shifts in trust. The report sets forth three examples – climate science, genetically modified foods, and vaccines – that highlight areas in which distrust of science has taken root. Surveys do not point toward a single anti-science population; rather, different subpopulations express skepticism over different issues. These findings suggest that more research is needed on how people assess, select, and - at times - reject scientific information.

“Overall, it is clear that Americans continue to recognize and value the significant benefits that scientific research brings to society,” said Richard Meserve, another co-chair of the American Academy project and President Emeritus of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “Where fractures have appeared, it is often due to misrepresentations of the scientific consensus. It is imperative that we understand how to counter such misinformation and restore trust in the evidence without making the problem worse.”

The report is available at www.publicfaceofscience.org, along with an interactive online quiz and a suite of downloadable infographics. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences will release additional reports from the Public Face of Science project in the year ahead.

The Public Face of Science project is supported in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

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