The Public Face of Science Across the World


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Matthew C. Nisbet and Erik C. Nisbet
The Public Face of Science

In recent years, scientists and civil society leaders have grown increasingly worried about a pervasive “antiscientific” culture in the United States. Despite such fears, several long-standing public opinion trends offer reassurance to those alarmed about the cultural status of science and technology today. Since the 1970s, polls have indicated that the great majority of Americans voice confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, believing optimistically that the societal benefits of their work outweigh any harms or potential moral trade-offs. In contrast, during the same period, public confidence in almost every other major institution has plummeted. Americans have expressed similarly strong support for government funding of scientific research, recognizing the value of scientific activity to society.1

Yet fissures in public sentiment have always existed, as various opinion studies over the past twenty years have revealed, with new points of contention emerging recently. Both religious and secular Americans, for example, express reservations about the perceived conflict between scientific advances such as gene editing and moral values.2 The Americans most optimistic about science and technology, according to other studies, come from wealthier and better educated backgrounds. For these optimists, scientific and technological innovation is likely to enhance their careers, fuel gains in their stock portfolios, and provide benefits that they can afford. In contrast, Americans of lower educational status and income levels tend to express greater reservations and ambivalence about science and technology. These Americans may be justifiably concerned that innovations may displace their jobs, negatively impact their way of life, or remain beyond their ability to afford. Similar disparities by socioeconomic status are reflected in public consumption of science news, viewing of documentaries, and attendance at science museums and festivals.3         

These fissures are by no means unique to the United States but are reflective of a rapidly changing world order in which scientific advances and technological innovations are intricately connected to debates over progress, inequality, democratic decision-making, authority, and respect for traditional values.4 Only by systematically exploring commonalities and differences across nations can we begin to understand the unique processes by which globalization, cultural modernization, secularization, and inequality may be combining to influence public attitudes about science, technology, and society.


  • 1John C. Besley, “The National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Survey and Support for Science Funding, 2006–2014,” Public Understanding of Science 27 (1) (2018): 94–109; National Science Board, “Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” in Science & Engineering Indicators 2018 (Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 2018), [LINK]; and Matthew C. Nisbet, Scientists in Civic Life: Facilitating Dialogue-Based Communication (Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2018), [LINK].
  • 2Cary Funk, Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Sciupac, U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2016); Matthew C. Nisbet, “The Gene-Editing Conversation,” American Scientist 106 (1) (2018): 15–19; and Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, et al., “U.S. Attitudes on Human Genome Editing,” Science 357 (6351) (2017): 553–554.
  • 3]John C. Besley, “Audiences for Science Communication in the United States,” Environmental Communication 12 (8) (2018): 1005–1022; Funk et al., Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities; Matthew Nisbet and Ezra M. Markowitz, “Understanding Public Opinion in Debates over Biomedical Research: Looking Beyond Political Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society,” PLOS One 9 (2) (2014): e88473; Kristin K. Runge, Dominique Brossard, and Michael A. Xenos, “Protective Progressives to Distrustful Traditionalists: A Post Hoc Segmentation Method for Science Communication,” Environmental Communication 12 (8) (2018): 1023–1045; Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, and Cary Funk, “Sciences News and Information Today,” Pew Research Center Journalism and Media, September 20, 2017, [LINK]; and Matthew Nisbet, “Ending the Crisis of Complacency in Science,” American Scientist 105 (1) (2017): 18–22.
  • 4Julia Metag, Michaela Maier, Tobias Füchslin, et al., “Between Active Seekers and Non-Users: Segments of Science-Related Media Usage in Switzerland and Germany,” Environmental Communication 12 (8) (2018): 1077–1094.

Summary of Main Findings

To address this gap in our current understanding, drawing on previously published research and survey findings, we reviewed the types of cross-national survey trends available for assessing beliefs about science and technology, including the major intellectual schools of thought about the factors that may account for differences between and within countries. Despite the attention that survey measures of science literacy receive, studies suggest that more consequential to opinion formation are individuals’ mental models about science and society. These include beliefs about the promise of science and technology to improve society (“scientific optimism”) and reservations about the impact of science and technology on traditional values and the speed of change (“scientific reservations”). Among the main observations put forward by scholars to explain differences in beliefs across countries is the “postindustrial paradox.” In contrast to less-developed countries, citizens in more-advanced economies may no longer idealize science and technology as necessary to economic growth. These populations are still likely to expect benefits from science, but they may also be more sensitized to the moral trade-offs and risks posed by research.

A second, related line of scholarship does not focus on science and technology attitudes specifically, but rather on how such opinions are embedded within a broader process of cultural modernization that is taking place at different rates and in different ways across the world. Countries tend to differ by secular versus traditional values. For those countries with more-traditional values, it is likely that populations will express stronger scientific reservations. Countries also differ in terms of survival versus self-expression values. In developing countries with less security, populations may view scientific advances and technological innovation as necessary to survival, well-being, and prosperity, therefore expressing more optimism and fewer reservations. Specific to self-expression, populations living in advanced democracies not only may feel more conflicted about the benefits and trade-offs of science and technology, but their personal freedoms may make them more likely to express their reservations.

Building on these past insights, we present results from our analysis of the 2010–2014 World Values Survey, which comprises the most recently available data for assessing global science and society beliefs.5 We evaluated the country-level and individual-level factors that shape public attitudes across fifty-four countries and eighty-one thousand survey respondents.

Consistent with the postindustrial paradox, our findings indicate that people living in post-Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries, Muslim-majority countries, and less-developed countries expressed comparatively greater levels of optimism and fewer reservations about science and technology. In contrast, those enjoying higher standards of living and greater political freedoms in more-developed countries tended to be less optimistic. Residents of wealthier countries also expressed greater reservations. But interestingly, after controlling for human, economic, and democratic development, people living in countries with greater scientific and technological development, as measured in terms of scientific publications, patents, and citations, tended to be more optimistic about science and technology. Whether such optimism creates a culture that drives scientific ambition and productivity or whether such outputs boost optimism is not a question we can answer with our data.

In terms of individual-level factors across countries, those who shared classical liberal values oriented toward the market, openness, free enterprise, free inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge, networks, and information expressed higher levels of scientific optimism and fewer reservations. These scientific optimists tended to believe in economic competition and the importance of democracy; they were more likely to use and seek out information and connections via digital media; and they were more likely to express economic satisfaction, along with confidence in universities, business, and civil society groups like environmental nonprofits. In contrast, those who had greater confidence in religious institutions and who were more religiously devout scored lower on scientific optimism and higher on reservations. A similar pattern appeared among those who were more distrustful of various forms of societal authority, such as the state, nation, or family, and who were morally relativistic.

There were, however, important caveats and contingencies to these relationships based on the country-context in which individuals lived. For example, the least educated living in the richest countries tended to express much higher levels of scientific reservations than the least educated living in poorer countries. The former respondents may justifiably believe that they cannot afford or do not have access to medical advances or technological innovations; or they may fear that such innovations in areas like robotics or automation will disrupt their jobs and weaken their communities. Similarly, the religiously devout living in richer countries tended to express stronger reservations than their counterparts living in poorer countries. In this case, the religiously devout lucky enough to reside in a country that has achieved a high material standard of living were more sensitive to the normative trade-offs relative to new scientific advances than were their religious counterparts living in countries where science may still be seen as an essential vehicle for escaping material deprivation.

In wealthier countries, those expressing greater skepticism of traditional forms of authority such as the family, nation, and state were also less optimistic and held stronger reservations about science and technology than their counterparts in poorer countries. In wealthy countries, individuals skeptical of traditional authority may be more prone to view the close association between scientific research, technological innovation, militarization, and surveillance as operating in the service of social control rather than economic growth, as their counterparts in developing countries might primarily view science.

To conclude, we discuss our main findings in the context of concerns voiced today by scientists and civil society leaders about the cultural status of scientific authority, informing decisions about communication initiatives and policies intended to address rising public anxiety in an era of startling advances and disruptive innovations.


  • 5Ronald Inglehart, Christian Haerpfer, Alejandro Moreno, et al., World Values Survey Wave 6 (2010–2014) (Madrid: JD Systems Institute, 2014).