January 29, 2015

5 key findings on what Americans and scientists think about science

Scientific innovation and discovery touches all aspects of American life, from medical care to the food we eat and the technologies we rely on in our daily activities.

A report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center allows us to compare views on a range of specific topics between the American public and U.S. scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The study marks the center’s new initiative to study the intersection of public opinion, science and all aspects of society.

Here are five key takeaways:

1There are large differences between the public and scientists on a wide range of science-related topics, but the largest one is genetically modified foods.

Views of GMOsPew Research asked both a representative sample of the public and AAAS scientists about a range of science-related topics, from climate change to childhood vaccinations.

GMOs and HealthMore than any other issue, the public and scientists had very different views about the safety of eating genetically modified (GM) foods. A majority of the general public (57%) says that GM foods are generally unsafe to eat, while 37% say such foods are safe; by contrast, 88% of AAAS scientists say GM foods are generally safe.

One possible reason for the gap: Two-thirds of the public (67%) say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM crops.

We also saw sizable differences between the two groups in their views about the use of animals in research; whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella should be required; and which energy technologies to use. The only one of the 13 issues compared where differences between the public and scientists are particularly modest is the International Space Station. Fully 64% of the public and 68% of AAAS scientists say that the space station has been a good investment for the country.

2Both the public and scientists see the U.S. behind other nations on K-12 STEM education.

Views on STEM EducationWhile both scientists and the public tend to see U.S. scientific achievements as high among other industrial countries, both groups are markedly more critical of the quality of American science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in grades K-12. Only 16% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. STEM education for grades K-12 as above average or the best in the world. Fully 46% of scientists and 29% of the public rank K-12 STEM as below average.

A majority of scientists see a connection between the country’s education system and its understanding of science. Three-quarters of scientists (75%) view too little STEM education for grades K-12 to be a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science. An overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited knowledge about these topics as a problem.

3Fewer scientists see good times today.

Scientists’ overall assessments of the sciences, while still mostly positive, are less upbeat than they were in 2009, the last time that Pew Research conducted a survey of AAAS members. About half of AAAS scientists (52%) say this is generally a good time for science as a whole, down 24 percentage points from 76% in 2009. Similarly, the share of scientists who say this is generally a good time for their scientific specialty is down from 73% in 2009 to 62% today. The drop in positive assessments of the state of science since 2009 occurred among scientists of all disciplines, those with a basic and applied research focus, as well as those working in academia and those working in industry.

4Americans’ views about U.S. scientific achievements are still largely positive, but a little less rosy today.

A 54% majority of adults consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world (15%) or above average (39%) compared with other industrial countries. Of the seven aspects of American society rated, only one was seen more favorably: the U.S. military. Compared with 2009, however, the share saying that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world or above average is down 11 points, from 65% in 2009 to 54% today. More now see U.S. scientific achievements as “average” in the global context (up from 26% in 2009 to 34% today) or “below average” (up slightly from 5% in 2009 to 9% today).

5Views about science topics only sometimes divide along political lines.

While there has been increased political debate in recent years about some science topics, especially climate and environmental issues, not all public views about science, or even about climate and environmental topics, are divided along political lines.

Views on Climate ChangeFor example, two-thirds (66%) of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) say the effect of science on the quality of the environment in the U.S. has been mostly positive, as do 61% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic.

But there are stark differences between political groups when it comes to whether climate change is occurring and the primary factors driving climate change. Asked to choose which of three alternatives describes their views about the earth’s temperature, 71% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say the earth is warming primarily due to human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. By contrast, just 27% of Republicans and leaning Republicans hold this view; 30% of this group says climate change is mostly due to natural patterns in the earth’s environment and 41% say there is no solid evidence the earth is warming.

The Pew Research Center survey also asked half the sample of adults about climate change using an alternative, two-question approach. Survey respondents were first asked whether there is evidence the earth is warming, and second for their reasons behind that viewpoint. Here, too, there are large differences between political groups. Fully 87% of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic say there is solid evidence the earth is warming, while just 10% say there is no solid evidence of this. By contrast, 53% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican say the earth is warming and 43% say there is no solid evidence of warming over the past few decades.

Topics: Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of Cary Funk

    is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Hoda Megahed2 years ago

    Are you a center of statistics only ?
    Thanks for your answer .

  2. Mike Czysh2 years ago

    If eleven scientists believe eating GMOs unsafe, we NEED state by state labeling!

  3. Gaac Bet2 years ago

    Ok, it does not worth even give a thought about these lies.
    It is simple like 1+1.
    1, 88% is payed through some kind of funds, sponsorship, scholarship, or work directly for BIG FOOD,PHARMA, UNIVERSITY. 12% not so they can afford honesty.
    2, All the GMO fed test animals died of cancer (not a single 1 survived) within 6 month of cancer. (France, Russia, Hungary, Ireland)
    3, Who is paying for this research and article?

    So eat if you want, pull the trigger if you want. (be careful you are not aiming others)
    But LET ME DECIDE: LET ME KNOW, what sht you gonna sell me!

    1. Kevin Mitchell2 years ago

      I participated in this study and it was confidential; “Your answers will be kept completely confidential and used only as summaries in which no individual answers can be identified. “

    2. Jared2 years ago

      You haven’t been reading real research then.

  4. Ben2 years ago

    Many sources say GMOs are unsafe, or at least the burden is on industry. Not sure about the agenda of this particular group. Questionable approach to say the least to do a “poll.”

  5. calamagrostis882 years ago

    It is amazing the gymnastics that the human brain can go through to support its own biases. For example many people will look at what scientists are saying about global warming and believe that they are totally correct, but then the same people will look at what scientists are saying about GMOs and their brain will do a somersault and they will conclude that the scientists are totally wrong. This is because most people don’t understand critical thinking and often can only recognize findings that reinforce their world view. Science is not perfect, and some scientists can be corrupted, but when you have a split like 88% to 11% we can be reasonably certain that the 88% is the correct side of the argument.

  6. Robert Coe2 years ago

    It seems that too many people tend to try to lump selective breeding in with actual genetically modified (gene spliced) crops.
    Mankind has used “Selective breeding” for any centuries, without which we would not have corn (maize) now a major food crop. Using nature to enhance development of a crop to improve yields is not something new.
    Gene splicing is a very dangerous things to do given our current lack of full understanding of genetic coding. Several GMO’s have been created to increase plants insect resistance, some have escaped the labs, and the result may be responsible for Honey bee hives collapsing. Once again it is what we don’t know about gene splicing that could get us into big trouble, by disrupting natures pollination scheme, especially if the insect resistance shows up in the plants pollen.

  7. Harrison Eiteljorg2 years ago

    It seems that the survey of AAAS members simply asked all scientists, regardless of their fields to answer the questions. If that is correct, I take these results to be meaningless. What difference does a geneticist’s take on global warming or a climatologist’s views of GM food make? Just being scientists gives them no relevant expertise.

  8. Leif Fearn2 years ago

    The key to science is not knowing miscellaneous “facts”; rather, it is knowing the difference between answers and questions, where the former ends scientific thinking and the former initiates and controls it. There are no “steps,” as in some sort of “scientific” method. Mostly it is the falling in love with an aspect of nature that makes science work. It is knowing the difference between questions and work, on one hand, and tenth grade term papers on the other. Science is not doing something when you know the outcome. It occurs when you know only half of what you need to know about the question, and half of what you know is wrong, and you don’t know which is which nor anything about what you don’t know, and that is usually where the best questions lead. We cannot test for that until after the fact. That is why the measure of the effectiveness of science in the schools rests in who does the hard work that others merely replicate. Anyone want to speculate on where that hard work is done?

  9. Rob3 years ago

    Food safety is a major area of disagreement in our trade negotiations with the EU. Europeans (especially Germans) are very concerned about how food is grown and processed. Yet often when I am there, I hear about tainted food coming from within the EU and even within Germany. They also put a great deal of emphasis (more than we do) on organic food. The Pew study seems to indicate that at least the genetically modified food issue is more a popular attitude than a science-based one. So where does this come from? Is it simply local farmers protecting their markets? On the other hand, I suspect most Americans would buy home grown food over food from China or India. As to the quality of American science generally, Packer’s book suggests that this is real and the result of a taxpayer revolt and the decline of public schools generally. I see that only 4% of the Dallas Independent School System (which I attended) is white and Houston’s % is 8%. (I admit these observations are a bit random. There is too much discouraging information in the report to address it all.) BTW, I found this while looking for the report on measles. Amazing that Mississippi and West Virginia have the safest (most thoroughly inoculated) publics. And our politicians are making this a matter of freedom. Sounds like the Indian parents’ preventing their children from being inoculated against polio because it would be thwarting God’s will.

  10. Richard Harrod3 years ago

    A very interesting study! But what if the questions on pesticides and GMOs were phrased differently?
    Is the current level of pesticide use on foods safe for the environment?
    Do the benefits of GMO foods outweigh the overall risks?

    I believe, phrased this way, the views of the public and scientists would correspond more. For instance, Neonicotinoids are fine to eat but have been implicated in Bee colony collapse disorder and there is some evidence that it is a low level hormone disrupter having deleterious effects on frogs and other amphibians. With GMO foods there is the problem of corporate control over large swaths of the food supply, the problem of decreasing food diversity and the over-reliance on companion pesticides like Round-up.

    If the questions artificially limit the scope of the issues involved then it is hard to get accurate answers.

    “Safe to eat foods grown with pesticides?” For me in that instance? – Yes.
    For the environment as a whole? – Probably not.
    Short hand answer? – No but…

  11. Bradley Sommerfeld3 years ago

    lol. Pew. lol.

  12. E. K. Carico3 years ago

    Where is this data collected? Who are the public respondents? How come I’m never asked for my two cents? If my next door neighbor were to participate, how skewed! She told me last night that she has no idea what an element, atom, a molecule, or cell are! She’s thirty two years old! She is trying hard not to fail an elementary A&P course. I’m not a scientist, just a lay-person, but, I’m not ignorant either.

  13. Daniel3 years ago

    Ha! How silly. So the media does a poll that demonstrates how well their methods of selling out to big business is in dumbing down the greater population? Uh..Last time I checked the media, whose job it is to bring us the facts, doesn’t care about doing so because it is far more profitable to create a “opposition orientation” among the viewers and readers. Ever watched the history channel? It really just a gun show. Ever wondered why Faux News reliably broadcasts misinformation about he effects of global warming? It wouldn’t be because the second largest shareholder of News Corp is the Saudi royal family would it?

    Not only is the media purposefully cursory in relaying facts to the citizenry, they absolve themselves of any responsibility of how misinformed society is at large.

    Americans, for their part, cling to the dichotomies fed them by the payola main stream media. In a world of nuance and complexity is it far simpler to report the facts as a choice between A or B. Left or right, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

    Americans mustn’t burden themselves with knowledge of their own complicity in the subverting of truth for profit. We take solace in our right to be ignorant and those that profit from deceit take solace in our desire to be so.

    Propaganda begets cynicism and cynicism begets sensationalism, sensationalism sells ad space. The media loves the “opposition orientation”. What happens when two kids start fighting at a school? Everyone comes to watch it, and scream, “Fight” at the top of their lungs. This is the mentality that the MSM generally embraces.

    The facts of our reality that science can empirically demonstrate fall to the wayside.

    I thank the heavens everyday for the internet. It is my savior and my confidence that the facts are just a rabbit hole away. I don’t need the mainstream media anymore and in fact, my ability to reason and comprehend is better for it. With the truth comes the responsibility to act, and that is a responsibility I am eager to embrace.

  14. Randy Harris3 years ago

    This report of findings of how Americans view the Sciences dovetails very nicely with a book I am now reading – “The Merchants of Doubt” by Orestes and Conway. If you are not familiar it covers the several major controversies over the last 50 years between the scientific findings about the ills of cigarette smoking, acid rain, ozone depletion and global warming and the consistency of characters who keep popping up (representing the nay sayers), sowing the seeds of doubt about the preponderance of scientific evidence that continues to be presented.

  15. Gordon L. Bailey3 years ago

    The earth is actually been cooling. I think a lot of people are brain washed by the media looking for an emotional headline. The term ‘scientist’ has been over used. Not everybody that wears a white coat has anymore knowledge of the meteorological trends than the man on the street. There are quite a bit of scientific research published by professional meteorologist around the world that indicates there is no evidence that ‘global warming’ is ‘manmade’ or that it is even happening. ‘The sky is not falling’

  16. kmh727563 years ago

    why is anyone surprised?

    this is what we get from a fatally under-educated public whose primary source for ‘news’ and ‘information’ is the monstrosity that calls itself Fox.