The Public Face of Science Across the World


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

We began our analysis by assessing the significance of national and cultural context on public views of science and society. At first, we were somewhat surprised to see Muslim-majority and post-Soviet/Eastern Bloc countries stand out in terms of their optimism about science and technology and their comparatively fewer reservations. These findings, however, are consistent with a long-standing emphasis in former communist countries on science as a vehicle for progress and the admiration that Muslim publics have expressed when asked in polls about Western science, medicine, and technology. In both cases, as conflict persists between NATO countries and Russia or between Western and Muslim-majority countries, an emphasis on scientific collaboration and technological innovation to solve common problems may prove a valuable form of “soft power” and public diplomacy. Even when controlling for both human and democratic development, people living in countries with greater scientific and technological development as measured in terms of scientific publications, patents, and citations tend to be more optimistic about science and technology and to hold fewer reservations. Yet it remains unclear whether a national culture of scientific optimism that expresses fewer social reservations drives scientific ambition and productivity, or whether national ambition and productivity boosts public optimism and limits the expression of reservations.


Dialogue about Moral Reservations

Our findings are also consistent with past theorizing on the postindustrial paradox. People living in less-developed countries are generally more optimistic about science and technology, expressing fewer reservations. People living in economically advanced countries and more-democratic countries are generally less optimistic and more likely to express stronger reservations. Turning to how national context interacts with individual-level factors, we also found that religious individuals living in more-advanced countries with greater political freedom were more willing to express their reservations than their similarly devout counterparts living in countries that lacked such freedoms. Several related processes may account for these findings. First, as people living in more-advanced countries achieve greater personal and societal security, they appear to be no longer willing to overlook the potential risks, economic costs, or moral trade-offs associated with scientific advances and innovations. To the extent that individuals living in more-advanced countries also enjoy greater political freedom, they can also express these reservations without fear of political sanction. In contrast, for populations living in less-developed countries, they may not only view science and technology in terms of social progress and enhanced security, but also as a source of national pride and global competitiveness. To the extent that they live in a country with fewer political freedoms, even if they did hold reservations, they may not be willing to express them for fear of reprisal.

Such processes may help explain differing patterns in national policy in relation to emerging scientific and technological advances, such as gene editing. China, South Korea, and Singapore have far fewer restrictions on human embryo, stem cell, and gene editing research than do the United States or European countries. The more-permissive research culture in these nations—one that many Western experts argue poses serious ethical questions—is likely in part due to differences in religious tradition and political governance, but also likely enabled by Asian publics who have yet to express strong opinions about the need for limits to such research or demand public participation in policy decisions.

In contrast, U.S. polling, for example, shows that Americans hold fairly consistent opinions and judgments about gene editing, even as they currently possess very little information about the complex subject. To do so, individuals actively draw on their religious and cultural values, familiar narratives from popular culture, and similarities to past debates. In one 2016 survey, when asked about the moral acceptability of gene editing techniques intended to give healthy babies a reduced risk of disease, only 28 percent of Americans considered the application acceptable, compared with 30 percent who said it is unacceptable and 40 percent who were not sure. Notably, among the one-third of Americans who can be classified as highly religious, only 15 percent consider such applications morally acceptable. When asked separately if such an application meddled with nature and crossed a line that should not be crossed, 64 percent of highly religious Americans agreed.37

But as various survey findings indicate, it is not just strongly religious Americans who have moral reservations about gene editing. Even among nonreligious Americans, 17 percent responded that gene editing to give babies a much-reduced risk of disease is morally unacceptable, and 37 percent reported being unsure. In a follow-up question, more than one-quarter of nonreligious respondents indicated that they oppose gene editing to improve the health of a baby because it would be meddling with nature and cross a line that should not be crossed. When asked more specifically if saving a baby’s life required testing on human embryos or altering the genetic makeup of the whole population, about half of all Americans replied that such scenarios would make the application less acceptable to them.

What explains the reservations voiced by both religious and non­religious Americans, or similar reservations to be found in more-secular countries such as Germany, a nation that has comparatively stricter limits on embryo research than the United States? Bioethicists, for example, have used the term “yuck factor” to describe a “visceral repugnance” and “emotional opposition” felt by the public when they first hear about human genetic engineering. This repugnance, wrote University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass in an oft-cited 1997 article in The New Republic, is an “emotional feeling of deep wisdom” that leads an individual to “intuit and feel, immediately without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.”38  The yuck factor likely has its origins in Kantian and Christian philosophies of human dignity that permeate Western culture. These traditions, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama describes in his 2002 book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, emphasize that human life has a higher moral place than the rest of the natural world. Therefore, according to these philosophies, even at its earliest stages of development, human life should always be treated with a sacred respect.39

Such teachings have shaped Western culture to the extent that their principles are passed on even to those who have never set foot in a church. Across Western countries, the yuck factor is therefore a relatively intuitive response, a reaction formed below the level of conscious deliberation on the part of an individual, often in the absence of substantive information. When asked about emerging gene editing techniques that would involve altering human embryos or engineering babies to express desired physical or mental traits, most individuals living in Western countries probably have difficulty articulating why they believe it to be morally questionable; they just know it when they feel it.

In relation to gene editing and similarly morally fraught issues, major investments in public dialogue across advanced economies are needed. In 2017, for example, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that scientists invest in ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing, and that more research be conducted to better understand how to facilitate such a process. But to lead a national and global conversation about gene editing and other powerful scientific advances, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts, but also from journalists and philanthropists. Informed public discussion about gene editing is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. And, short of increased state investments, new initiatives designed to understand public attitudes, to facilitate public dialogue, and to report on the complexities of gene editing will not be possible without financial support from philanthropists.40



  • 37Nisbet, “The Gene-Editing Conversation,” 15–20.
  • 38

    Leon R. Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” The New Republic, June 2, 1997.

  • 39Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003).
  • 40National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2017); Scheufele et al., “U.S. Attitudes on Human Genome Editing,” 553–554; and Nisbet, “The Gene Editing Conversation.”

Addressing Inequality

Across countries, our findings indicate that those individuals who share classical liberal values oriented toward free enterprise, free inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge, networks, and information, and who have thrived in a globalized market economy tended to be among the most optimistic about science and technology and to express fewer reservations. There were, however, important caveats and contingencies to these relationships based on the country-context in which an individual lived. The least educated residing in the richest countries tended to express much higher levels of scientific reservations than the least educated living in poorer countries: they may justifiably believe that they cannot afford or do not have access to medical advances or technological innovations; they may also fear that such innovations in areas like robotics or automation will disrupt their jobs and communities.

There is no clear “communication fix” for the deep-seated reservations that many individuals have about science and technology, reservations that our data suggest are at least partially rooted in widening levels of inequality and the role that innovation plays as a main driver of such disparities. Across advanced economies, scientific innovations have generated vast wealth for those professionals at the top of the knowledge economy, just as those same innovations have eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and regions. Scientists and engineers, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization and automation, forces that their advances and innovations have helped set in motion. We need broader strategic thinking about the handful of policy goals and investments that scientists and engineers can join with others in pursuing that would help alleviate inequality, and the threats posed to the scientific enterprise if such policies are not pursued.41



  • 41Matthew Nisbet, “Ending the Crisis of Complacency in Science: To Survive the Trump Administration, Scientists Need to Invest in a Strategic Vision That Mobilizes Social Change,” American Scientist 105 (1) (2017): 18–22.

Rebuilding Trust in Institutions

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

For many in the U.S. science community, there persists a strong nostalgia for mid-twentieth-century America, a Cold War era marked by large-scale public-sector investment in scientific research and technological innovation. Scientific expertise, especially in fields like physics and engineering, was considered a vital strategic asset against the Soviet Union and a major source of national pride.42  Yet over the past few decades, as scientists and their partners have attempted to marshal stronger public sector actions to address problems like climate change, relying on technocratic expertise to justify the shift, multiple dimensions of American society have been moving in the opposite direction, becoming more diffuse, decentralized, and distrustful of technocrats.

The brief mid-twentieth-century moment was a period of unusually high institutional confidence and optimism about government specifically. When President John F. Kennedy in 1962 made his famous “we go to the moon” speech pledging to land astronauts on the moon within a decade, he infused the need for government spending and leadership on scientific research with a sense of patriotic urgency. His successful effort to mobilize federal spending came at time when nearly 80 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government “always” or “most of the time.” A similar level of trust in government existed in 1970 when President Richard Nixon, responding to expert warnings about pollution and environmental degradation, signed into law the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and established the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, during an era of perpetually divided party control of government, as experts once again call for government mobilization and spending to address looming problems, public trust in the federal government stands at just 18 percent.43

So although a healthy majority of Americans continue to say that they have confidence in the leaders of the scientific community, the ability of scientific expertise to be leveraged on behalf of public-sector solutions to problems like climate change is intricately connected to and limited by waning public trust in government and almost every other major institution, including the news media, business, the legal system, universities, elites generally, and even capitalism itself. Like in the case of economic inequality, there is no communication fix for this widespread erosion in trust. Rather, the scientific community must join with the leaders of other societal sectors to identify and pursue policies and investments for restoring the health of our civic culture.44


  • 42Matthew C. Nisbet and Dietram A. Scheufele, “What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions,” American Journal of Botany 96 (10) (2009): 1767–1778.
  • 43Matthew C. Nisbet, “Sciences, Publics, Politics: The Green New Dilemma,” Issues in Science and Technology 35 (3) (2019): 29–31.
  • 44The authors would like to thank John Besley of Michigan State University for commenting on an earlier version of this paper.