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Optical Design & Engineering

Survey of Americans reveals conflicting views on science achievement

Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run.

And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society's well-being. However, the public has a far less positive view of the global standing of U.S. science than do scientists themselves. Just 17% of the public thinks that U.S. scientific achievements rate as the best in the world.

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public's knowledge and expectations. Fully 85% see the public's lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.

A majority of the public (60%) says that government investment in research is essential for scientific progress; only about half that percentage (29%) is of the view that private investment will ensure that enough scientific progress is made even without government intervention. Moreover, large percentages think that government investments in basic scientific research (73%) and engineering and technology (74%) pay off in the long run. Notably, the partisan differences in these views are fairly modest, with 80% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans saying that government investments in basic science pay off in the long run. Comparable percentages of Democrats and Republicans say the same about government investments in engineering and technology.

The survey of opinions about the state of science and its impact on society was conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In a commentary included with the report, AAAS CEO Alan Leshner acknowledged the communications gap that often exists between researchers and the public, a partial result of "the increasing intersection of science with issues that involve personal values and beliefs." Leshner called on scientists to engage with the public "rather than lecturing to them," saying it's important to find "new ways to leverage popular culture, new media, journalism, and civic channels to facilitate dialogue opportunities."

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media from Pew Research Center

Link to full survey (PDF)