The report titled: Science and Engineering Indicators 2014; A broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and international science and engineering enterprise was released on Feb. 7, 2014 by the US National Science Foundation. Each chapter has been made available as a PDF and I’m choosing to focus on Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding which was discussed at a presentation by John Besley, the chapter’s lead author, at the 2014 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting (according to a Feb. 14, 2013 Michigan State University news release; also on EurekAlert),
While most Americans could be a bit more knowledgeable in the ways of science, a majority are interested in hearing about the latest scientific breakthroughs and think highly of scientists.
This is according to a survey of more than 2,200 people conducted by the National Science Foundation, one that is conducted every two years and is part of a report – Science and Engineering Indicators – that the National Science Board provides to the president and Congress.
A Michigan State University faculty member served as lead author for the chapter in the report that covers public perceptions of science. John Besley, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations, reviewed the data, as well as similar surveys from around the world, and highlighted key findings on Feb. 14  during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
According to the survey, more than 90 percent of Americans think scientists are “helping to solve challenging problems” and are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.”
“It’s important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists,” said Besley, who also is the Ellis N. Brandt Chair in Public Relations. “It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists.”
Initially, I didn’t find the score for answering science questions to be all that problematic until, that is, difficulties with specific concepts were revealed (from the news release),
Unfortunately, Americans still have a tough time answering some basic science questions. Out of a total of nine questions that covered the physical and biological sciences, the average score was 6.5 correct answers.
For example, only 74 percent of those queried knew that the Earth revolved around the sun, while fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.
The news release goes on to provide additional highlights from the report’s chapter,
- A majority of Americans – more than 90 percent – say they are “very interested” or “moderately interested” in learning about new medical discoveries.
- The United States appears to be relatively strong in the use of what’s known as “informal science education.” Nearly 60 percent of Americans have visited a zoo/aquarium, natural history museum or a science and technology museum.
- Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed think the benefits of science outweigh any potential dangers.
- About a third of the respondents think science and technology should get more funding.
The researchers have mined a number of survey instruments both nationally and internationally to produce this report. It’s impressive and thankfully they note at least some of the shortcomings of their data (from p. 6 of the PDF; p. 7-6 print version),
This chapter emphasizes trends over time, patterns of variation within the U.S. population, and international patterns. It reviews recent survey data from national samples with sound, representative sampling designs. The emphasis in the text is on the trends and patterns in the data.
Like all survey data, the data in this chapter are subject to numerous sources of error and random variation that should be kept in mind when interpreting the findings. Caution is especially warranted for data from surveys that omit significant portions of the target population, have low response rates, or have topics that are particularly sensitive to subtle differences in question wording (see sidebars “U.S. Survey Data Sources” and “International Survey Data Sources”). Also, although many of the international comparisons involve identical questions asked in different countries, these comparisons can be affected by language and cultural differences that cause survey respondents to interpret questions differently. International comparisons therefore require careful consideration.
Another important limitation is that recent, high-quality, relevant data are not always available. In some cases, there are large gaps between data collections or only a small number of questions on any given topic. This challenge is particularly acute when it comes to international data. There is a substantial amount of survey work on S&T in Europe, but these data are not collected as regularly as data from the GSS [General Social Survey]. Asian data are collected even less frequently. Data from Africa and South America are also limited. In general, the current chapter focuses on surveys that have become public after the preparation of the 2012 Indicators report. Earlier data can be found in past editions of Indicators. In addition, Bauer, Shukla, and Allum (2012) summarize survey data up to 2006 from a range of countries and regions.
I was particularly interested in how Americans access their science information (from p. 15 PDF; p. 7-15 print version),
For news specifically about S&T, Americans are now more likely to rely on the Internet than on television. In 2012, 42% of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of S&T information, up from 35% in 2010. The percentage citing the Internet as their primary source of S&T information has also grown steadily since 2001. Conversely, reliance on television has dropped; about 32% of Americans reported that television was their primary source of S&T news in 2012, down from 39% in 2008. Some 7% said they get their S&T information from newspapers, and another 8% said they get their S&T information from magazines (figure 7-5; appendix table 7-4).
This move to the Internet for science information has been taking place for years and is why I suggested in a Dec. 31, 2013 posting that there is an emergent science media environment where science bloggers and other online science observers, if not as important as the mainstream media such as newspapers, television, etc., should be included on conference and workshop panels devoted to science and media.
One argument I’ve heard many times is that science bloggers are not reliable sources of information and great concern is shown that members of the public relying on them could be led astray. Apparently readers are not quite as naïve as many print and television journalists fondly imagine (from p. ,17 PDF; p. 7-17 print version),
Another important aspect to understanding media use is to recognize that people make choices about what media to use based partially on the degree to which they trust that source. Both Pew Research and Gallup data suggest that Americans trust the media less than they did in previous years (Morales 2012; Pew Research Center 2011a, 2012b). [emphasis mine] Evidence about how Americans judge the credibility of S&T-specific media is, however, scant. A 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project study of how Americans acquire science information indicates that Internet users who seek science information online do not always assume that the information they find there is accurate. The vast majority reported that they checked information by comparing it to other information they found online, comparing it to offline sources (e.g., science journals, encyclopedia) or by looking up the original source of the information (Horrigan 2006; NSB 2008) [emphasis mine]
Interestingly, while Americans may not know the earth circles the sun, they do seem to have a good understanding of probability,
Data on three general topics—probability, experimental design, and the scientific method—show trends in Americans’ understanding of the process of scientific inquiry. One set of questions tests how well respondents apply the principles of probabilistic reasoning to a series of questions about a couple whose children have a 1 in 4 chance of suffering from an inherited disease. A second set of questions deals with the logic of experimental design, asking respondents about the best way to design a test of a new drug for high blood pressure. A third, open-ended question probes what respondents think it means to “study something scientifically.” Because probability, experimental design, and the scientific method are all central to scientific research, these questions are relevant to how respondents evaluate scientific evidence. These measures are reviewed separately and then as a combined indicator of public understanding about scientific inquiry.
With regard to probability, 82% of Americans in 2012 correctly indicated that the fact that a couple’s first child has the illness has no relationship to whether three future children will have the illness. About 72% of Americans correctly responded that the odds of a genetic illness are equal for all of a couple’s children. Overall, 65% got both probability questions correct. Understanding of probability has been fairly stable over time, with the percentage giving both correct responses ranging from 64% to 69% since 1999 and going no lower than 61% dating back to 1990 (table 7-9; appendix tables 7-11 and 7-12).
The report also mentions attitudes towards nanotechnology (from p. 44 PDF; p. 7-44 print version),
Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at unprecedentedly small scales to create new or improved products that can be used in a wide variety of ways. Nanotechnology has been the focus of relatively large public and private investments for more than a decade, and innovations based on nanotechnology are increasingly common. More than 1,000 nanotechnology products—more than 5 times the number available in 2006—were on the market by 2011 (Pew Project on Emerging Technologies 2011). [Note: The Pew Nanotechnology Inventory received no oversight so any manufacturer could claim a ‘nano’ product until 2013, I believe, when the situation changed as per my Oct. 28, 2013 posting.] However, relative to other new technologies, the public generally reports relatively low levels of understanding (Ladwig et al. 2012).
The 2010 GSS found that 24% of U.S. respondents said they had heard “a lot” or “some” about nanotechnology, up 4 percentage points from both 2006 and 2008. A plurality (44%) of Americans in the 2010 GSS reported having heard “nothing at all” about nanotechnology (NSB 2010). About 37% of 2010 GSS respondents also said the benefits would outweigh the harms, 9% said the benefits and harms would be about equal, and 11% expected the harms to predominate. The remaining 43% held no opinion (NSB 2010). The balance of opinion was similar in 2006 and 2008. As with GM food, attitudes toward nanotechnology vary depending on the context in which it is applied, with energy applications viewed much more positively than those in health and human enhancements (Pidgeon et al. 2009).
More Europeans than Americans appear to have heard about nanotechnology. About 45% of EU residents said that they had heard of nanotechnology in 2010. Overall, 44% of EU residents agreed that nanotechnology should be encouraged, 35% disagreed, and 22% had no opinion about this issue (Gaskell et al. 2010). One recent study of UK residents found that providing balanced information resulted in more positive views about nanotechnology for those who started out positive about nanotechnology, while those who started out negative became more negative. Such individuals were also less likely to be “ambivalent” after receiving balanced information. Those who started out with a neutral attitude, however, became more ambivalent about nanotechnology after receiving balanced information (Fischer et al. 2012)
Despite the fact that Canada is next door, I don’t believe we can draw too many inferences from this data. Sadly, I don’t know of a similar report, i.e. Science and Engineering Indicators for the Canadian scene, certainly, nothing as comprehensive as this US report which includes (from the NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 webpage) ,
Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Mathematics and Science Education
Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering
Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Labor Force
Chapter 4: Research and Development: National Trends and International Comparisons
Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development
Chapter 6: Industry, Technology, and the Global Marketplace
Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding
Chapter 8: State Indicators
If anyone should know of a similar report or reports about Canada, please do let me know in the Comments section. Otherwise, I will wait for the soon-to-be-published (2014) Council of Canadian Academies, The State of Canada’s Science Culture assessment which ,I hope, will draw together at least some similar data.