January 29, 2015

Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society

Chapter 1: Pew Research Center Initiative on Science and Society

About the General Public and AAAS Scientist Surveys

The general public survey was conducted August 15-25, 2014, by landline and cellular telephone, among a nationally representative sample of 2,002 adults. The survey tracks public attitudes about science in society and maps the contours of opinion on a wide range of issues within the domain of science and technology. The margin of error for results based on the full sample is +/- 3.1 percentage points. See Appendix A for more details on the survey methodology.

The survey of AAAS scientists was conducted online with a random sample of 3,748 U.S.-based members of AAAS from Sept. 11 to Oct 13, 2014. The margin of sampling error for estimates about the full U.S.-based membership of AAAS is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points See Appendix B for details about the survey methodology.

Where possible, comparisons are made to a similar pair of surveys conducted in 2009. The general public survey was conducted April 28-May 12, 2009 by landline and cellular telephone with 2,001 adults nationwide. The survey of AAAS members was conducted online May 1 to June 14, 2009 with a random sample of 2,533 U.S.-based members of AAAS. See “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media,” July 9, 2009.

Science is a big, sprawling cluster of subjects that has drawn regular attention from the Pew Research Center since its founding. Public attitudes about science-related policy matters from pollution to space exploration to medical practices have been part of Pew Research’s values questions since the late 1980s. The relative priority that citizens assign to science-related policy issues has been a standard query since the mid-1990s as the center asked people to rank the issues that mattered most to them. Questions about the intersection of people’s spiritual and moral beliefs on such matters as evolution, cloning, or end-of-life treatment issues have been subjects of study by the Pew Research Center’s since the 1990s. The particular place of digital technology in people’s lives has been an ongoing subject for study at Pew Research since 2000.

With this report, the Pew Research Center marks a more deliberate and formal commitment to study the intersection of science with all aspects of society from public opinion, to politics and policy-making, to religious and ethical considerations, to education and the economy. In the coming years, Pew Research plans a sustained effort to understand what citizens and scientists think about science-related matters, how scientific information is disseminated and understood in the new media ecology, where Americans stand in terms of their knowledge about science, how amateurs are contributing to scientific endeavors, where “big data” is making an impact on scientific inquiry, and where people’s moral and spiritual issues connect with scientific innovations and shape policies around them.

Pew Research is doing this because scientific advances and challenges are influencing an ever-greater share of American and global life. The pace of innovation and the urgency of scientific issues have captured a growing share of policy energy and at times generated more and more dispute.

Studying science-related topics comes with some inherent challenges. The breadth and complexity of the issues can be daunting. Translating complicated scientific ideas into research questions that can be addressed by the general public can be particularly hard to do. Even understanding who engages in the scientific enterprise has long been a subject where reasonable minds hold differences of opinion. Thus, we offer this work with some caveats.

Caveats about the survey questionnaires

This pair of surveys is designed to cover a broad spectrum of science, engineering and technology attitudes, but the collection of topics is by no means comprehensive. In the end, the set of topics reflects Pew Research editorial judgment about issues of wide enough public attention to feasibly include in a survey as well as practical time and space limits inherent to the research method.

Most of the survey questions ask for relatively simple judgments about potentially complex issues. For example, questions about the appropriate use of medical advances ask for respondents’ summary judgments about what can be difficult ethical issues. Similarly, asking about whether one favors or opposes the increased use of hydraulic fracturing is but one of many questions one could ask about “fracking.” It does not capture related judgments about the issue, such as perceived risks or benefits of “fracking” or the relative value of “fracking” compared with other forms of energy development.

In future research, we expect to explore specific topics related to science and technology in more depth. The trade-off in this pair of surveys was to cover a wider range of topics with just one, two or sometimes three questions about each.

Caveats about surveying scientists

Our survey of AAAS scientists canvasses the views of a broad-ranging group of professionally-engaged scientists.8 They come from a variety of disciplines, employment sectors, and stages of career, from student to retiree. Unlike the broader labor force working in science and engineering occupations, most respondents to the survey hold one or more doctorate degrees. All belong to the AAAS, the largest multidisciplinary scientific professional society in the world. While not intended to be representative of all scientists in the U.S., the survey of AAAS scientists provides a relatively rare window into the views of the scientific community.

There are a number of other possible approaches to identifying U.S. scientists.9 Some consider only a narrow set of fields to be “science” or “science and engineering” careers. Others, such as the National Science Foundation’s National Center of Science and Engineering Statistics program, canvass a broad set of disciplines when tracking science and engineering indicators which include: agricultural, physical, earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences, engineering, biological sciences, computer sciences, medical and health sciences, psychology, mathematics and statistics and social sciences. When identifying the science and engineering workforce, the National Science Foundation uses a similarly broad definition: Those who either hold a degree in a science and engineering-related field at the bachelor’s level or above or work in a science and engineering-related field.10 This is an important distinction since about half of those with a degree in science and engineering are working in field-related occupations while roughly half of those with such training at the bachelor’s level or above are working in other occupations.

Help Navigating These and Other Pitfalls

We have tried to be conscious of these issues and to obtain the advice of the scientific community and other stakeholders to help inform this research. We are grateful to a number of outside advisors who shared their expertise with us during the development of the questionnaires and/or in reviewing a draft version of this report. These include: John Besley, associate professor and the Ellis N. Brand chair in public relations at Michigan State University; Bill Colglazier, visiting scientist at the Center for Science Diplomacy; Banning Garrett, independent consultant on global trends; Frank Macrina, vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University; and Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University. Senior staff at AAAS also generously shared their expertise. These include: Alan Leshner, chief executive officer; Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science; Joanne Carney, director of government relations; Edward Derrick, chief program director of the Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs; Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs; Vaughan Turekian, chief international officer and editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy; Jennifer Wiseman, director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion; Ginger Pinholster, director of the office of public programs; Jeanne Braha, public engagement manager and Tiffany Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement. Pew Research Center retains sole responsibility for any errors.

  1. While the label of “scientist” is used throughout this report, note that the survey includes engineers who belong to the AAAS.
  2. A different approach was taken in a survey directed by sociologist Elaine Ecklund at Rice University to identify employed scientists in the general public. The survey used a GfK Knowledge Panel sample and analyzed those who a) identify themselves as working in a science-related occupation b) hold at least a four-year college degree and c) report working in the following occupational groups: computer and mathematics, architecture and engineering, life, physical and social sciences, medical doctor, other health care practitioner, health technologist or technician. Preliminary findings were presented at the AAAS meetings in Chicago, IL, Feb. 16, 2014. A number of others have focused on identifying scientists in particular specialty areas, such as climate science. For example, Stenhouse and colleagues conducted a survey of members of the American Meteorological Society. See “Meteorologists’ Views About Global Warming,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, July 2014. Keane and Martinez built a database of more than 10,000 earth scientists from lists of geoscience faculty at academic institutions and researchers associated with state geological surveys and U.S. federal research facilities which was used to survey geoscientists. See Doran and Zimmerman, 2009, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos, vol. 90 (3).
  3. The National Science Foundation’s Scientists and Engineers Data System (SESTAT) combines data collected on the National Survey of College Graduates, the National Survey of Recent College Graduates, and the Survey of Doctorate Recipients to track scientists and engineers in the U.S. under age 76 who either hold a college degree in a relevant field or are employed in a science and engineering-related occupation.