Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society
Chapter 4: AAAS Scientists’ Views on the Scientific Enterprise
As scientists size up the culture and their place in it, a majority think it is a good time for science and their own specialty. However, they are notably less upbeat than they were five years ago and express serious concerns about public knowledge of science and the way scientific findings are covered by journalists. Moreover, most scientists believe that policy regulations related to land use and clean water and air are not often guided by the best scientific findings. Notable numbers also say they do not think the best scientific information is often used in crafting policies around food safety and new drug and medical treatments. Additionally, scientists are worried about the prospects for future funding of science and about attracting talent to their fields. This chapter sorts through those issues.
Evaluating Science Today
AAAS scientists are generally less sanguine about the state of science today than they were five years ago at a time when the Great Recession was taking hold.26 About half of scientists (52%) say this is generally a good time for science, down 24 percentage points from 76% in 2009. Similarly, the share of scientists who say this is generally good time for their scientific specialty is down from 73% in 2009 to 62% today. The drop in positive assessments about 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.
When it comes to their own scientific specialty, 59% of AAAS scientists in the Pew Research survey say that this is a good or very good time to begin a career in their field, down from 67% in 2009. Positive assessments about the state of their specialty for new entrants is about the same as in 2009 for those focused on applied research where scientific discoveries are aimed toward a practical purpose. But they are down 15 percentage points among those doing basic research about the scientific foundations of things. Among basic science researchers views have fallen from 63% who felt it was a good time in 2009 for their discipline to 48% today. Scientists working in a university setting are more downbeat about entering their specialty today than they were in 2009: 49% say it is a good or very good time to begin a career, down 14 points from 63% in 2009. Some 71% of AAAS scientists working in industry say it is a good or very good time to begin a career in their specialty, about the same as said this in 2009 (70%).
U.S. Science Compared with Other Industrialized Countries
AAAS scientists largely agree that U.S. achievements in science are a cut above other industrialized countries. Roughly nine-in-ten (92%) say that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world or above average compared with other industrialized countries and there are similarly high assessments when it comes to doctoral training (87%), and cutting-edge basic research (87%). About eight-in-ten scientists (81%) also say that industry research and development (R&D) innovation is above average in a global comparison. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say that U.S. medical treatment is above average.
But when it comes to K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in America, just 16% of AAAS scientists say that the U.S. is above average or the best in the world compared with other industrialized countries. Some 38% of these AAAS scientists say K-12 STEM education in the U.S. is average, and 46% consider it below average.
The esteem shown for the scientific enterprise in the U.S. is about the same as in 2009. In that survey, 94% of AAAS scientists said that U.S. scientific achievements were the best in the world or above average compared with other industrialized countries. (This is the only question where a comparison over time is available.)
Evidence-Based Government Regulations?
Scientists’ views about the frequency with which the best science is implemented in government regulations tend to vary by domain. Some 58% of AAAS scientists say that the best science “always” (4%) or “most of the time” (54%) guides regulations when it comes to new drug and medical treatments while 41% say some of the time (40%) or never (1%).
Nearly half of AAAS scientists (46%) say the best science guides regulations related to food safety at least most of the time.
Views about the use of scientific information in clean air and water regulations are less favorable. Fully 72% of scientists say the best science guides such regulations no more than some of the time. Similarly, when it comes to land use regulations, 84% of AAAS scientists think the best scientific information guides regulations no more than some of the time.
Scientists’ Views about the Effect of the Public and Media on Science
The predominant view among scientists is that limited public knowledge about science, and journalism about science, pose problems for science. Fully 84% of AAAS scientists call the limited public knowledge about science a major problem and 14% say it is a minor problem for science.
About eight-in-ten AAAS scientists (79%) say news reports that don’t distinguish between well-founded and not well-founded scientific findings are a major problem. About half of scientists (52%) say that oversimplification of science findings by the media and public expectations for a quick solution (49%) are major problems, Opinions on these questions are about the same as in 2009. There has been a modest uptick in the share saying news media not distinguishing between well-founded and not well-founded results is a major problem for science (79% today and 76% in 2009) A slight rise also occurred in the share saying that media oversimplifying research findings is a major problem (52% today and 48% in 2009).
Perceived Reasons for Limited Public Science Knowledge
The Pew Research survey asked AAAS scientists to consider the degree to which each of four possible reasons contribute to the public’s limited knowledge about science. Three-quarters of scientists consider too little STEM education in grades K through 12 a major reason the public has a limited knowledge about science, another 22% say this is a minor reason.
A majority of scientists also fault public interest levels in science: 57% say the lack of interest in science news contributes to limited public knowledge. By comparison, fewer fault the media or scientists themselves. About four-in-ten (43%) say a major reason for limited public knowledge about science is a lack of media attention to scientific developments while 40% say that too few scientists communicating their findings through the media and online (40%) is a major reason for limited public knowledge about science. (These questions were not asked in 2009.)
Perceived Problems in the Research World Today
The survey of AAAS scientists included a series of questions to identify how the rules and regulations governing the scientific community and the research they conduct are working today and how they are affecting scientific research.27
Funding concerns dominate responses to this list of seven potential issues facing researchers: 88% of AAAS scientists say that lack of funding for basic research is a serious problem. Concerns about adequate funding are widely shared among scientists of all disciplines and employment sectors.
While a majority of AAAS scientists (56%) say they have received some kind of research funding within the past five years, the problem of lack of funding is cited by both those who have recently received funding (91%) and those who have not (83%) as a serious problem. As noted in Chapter 2, 83% of AAAS scientists consider the federal funding environment to be harder today than it was five years ago and a sizable minority view funding from industry (45%) and private sources (45%) to be harder today.
Another question focused on scientists’ concern about the degree to which foundational research studies are replicated by independent researchers. About half of scientists (48%) say that “not enough data replication of previous research studies” is a serious problem for conducting high quality scientific research. One reason for concern about this issue stems from the building-block nature of scientific progress that may start, for example, with animal research and move to clinical trials and eventually to new medical treatments.28 If important studies are not replicated, it is harder to know how valid they are and how much to base other research on those findings.
Another challenge cited by a sizeable share of scientists was difficulty that foreign scientists face in gaining entrance to the U.S. More than a quarter of the science and engineering workforce is foreign-born, with many in the U.S. on the H1B visas for highly-skilled workers, and more than a third of doctorate recipients in science and engineering fields are international students in the U.S. on temporary visas.29 Some 32% of AAAS scientists say that visa issues facing foreign scientists wanting to study or work in the U.S. are a problem for conducting quality research. Fully 55% of AAAS scientists who are themselves foreign born and not U.S. citizens cite visa and immigration problems as a serious problem. U.S. citizens, whether foreign-born or U.S.-born, are less inclined to say this is a problem (32% and 30% do so, respectively).
Further down the list of problems cited by scientists as serious problems for research: regulations governing animal research (13% of AAAS scientists say it is a serious problem); the way Institutional Review Boards30 (IRBs) implement rules to protect human research subjects (12% say it is a serious problem); conflict of interest rules used by publications (8% say it is a serious problem); International Traffic in Arms (ITAR) regulations that limit the way American technology can be used overseas (6% say it is a serious problem).
When it comes to funding, most scientists say that funders in their field emphasize lower-risk, lower-reward projects over higher-risk projects that have the potential for scientific breakthroughs. A majority of AAAS scientists (56%) say that, overall, funding in their specialty places greater emphasis on projects expected to make incremental progress with lower risk of failure over those with potential for scientific breakthroughs but with a higher risk of failure. In 2009, 59% said funding decisions emphasized projects expected to make incremental progress with a lower risk of failure.
Some 74% of AAAS scientists say the incentive to do research where funding is readily available has too much influence on the direction of research, while 23% disagree, saying such incentives do not have too much influence. Concerns about an undue influence of funding availability on the research process are roughly the same as in 2009.
A 69% majority also say that a focus on projects expected to yield quick results has too much influence on the direction of research while 29% disagree. In 2009, 66% of the scientists in this sample said emphasis on quick results had too much influence on the direction of research in their specialty.
There has been a modest uptick in concerns about two other possible influences on research. A majority (55%) of scientists say that political groups or officials have too much influence on the direction of research in their specialty, up 5 points from 50% in 2009 who said the same.
Additionally, 47% of scientists say the emphasis on developing marketable products has too much influence on research directions, while 51% say it does not. Concerns about market influences are up from 2009 when 40% said this had too much influence and 56% said it did not.
Entering a Career in Science Today
While a majority of AAAS scientists consider this a good or very good time to begin a career in their specialty areas, scientists are more downbeat about entering the profession today than they were five years ago. Some 59% of scientists surveyed say this is a good time to enter their specialty area, down 8 percentage points since 2009. The more pessimistic assessments are primarily among scientists working in basic research as compared with applied research, and among those working in university settings as compared with business or industry.
Among scientists whose research is focused on basic knowledge questions 48% say it is a good or very good time to start a career, down 15 points from 63% in 2009. Some 69% of those in applied research say this is a good time to enter their specialty area, roughly the same share as said this in 2009 (71%). Similarly, among all those working in a university setting, 49% say this is a good or very good time to enter their specialty, down 14 points from 2009. Views among those working in industry have held steady: 71% today and 70% in 2009.
Fully 58% of AAAS scientists consider it harder to attract the best people to the profession today than it was five years ago, 32% say it is about the same and just 9% say it is easier today. Basic researchers (62%) are more likely than applied researchers (55%) to say attracting talent is harder today.
Scientists see a number of hurdles facing new career entrants today. Fully 85% of AAAS scientists say the lack of adequate funding for research is a serious problem for new entrants. They also cite the limited number of tenure-track jobs (73% of AAAS scientists say it is a serious problem) in university settings and too few R&D jobs in industry (54% say it is a serious problem). Half of scientists (50%) consider salary levels to be a serious problem for new career entrants and 46% say the long hours needed to succeed in a research career is a serious problem. By comparison, fewer fault the graduate training being offered today. About three-in-ten (31%) say training that doesn’t meet todays’ needs is a serious problem.
Looking across a wide range of survey responses, there are relatively few differences in views by age among those responding. To the extent there are differences, they are modest.31 Larger differences by age among scientists emerge when it comes to perceptions of the hurdles facing new career entrants. Younger scientists (ages 18 to 49) are more likely to see four of the six possible problems asked about in the survey as a serious problems for new career entrants, (too few tenure-track openings, salaries below market competition, long hours needed to succeed and graduate training that doesn’t meet today’s needs). Scientists under age 50 and those ages 50 to 64 are about equally likely to see the lack of adequate research funding as a serious problem for new entrants (90% and 87%, respectively) while those ages 65 and older are less likely to cite this as a serious problem (78%). There are no differences by age in the perception that the number of job openings in industry R&D is a problem for people entering science research careers.
Motivations for Their Own Careers in Science
The survey also asked AAAS scientists to mention the one or two most significant experiences in their own path towards science.32 Open-ended responses to this question were wide-ranging with some thinking back to childhood experiences and even lifelong expectations of being a scientist and others mentioning adult life events or the serendipity of life experiences.
In all, 30% of AAAS scientists mentioned an intellectual curiosity or desire for intellectual challenge, often saying this was present from their earliest memories. Another 8% talked about wanting to make a difference or contribute society. Some 4% simply offered that they were good at it.
Many talked about the influence of mentors and teachers (24%), courses and schools (6%) or other course-related experiences (6%) that influenced their choices.
Another 8% mentioned childhood experiences that set them on a science path, including extensive time in nature, visiting science museums, or experimenting with a chemistry set; 13% mentioned science fairs or specific lab, fieldwork or internship experiences; and, 8% mentioned some kind of job experience that helped shape their path towards science, and sometimes away from other directions.
One in eight (12%) mentioned the importance of encouragement or inspiration from their family. Others talked about the influence of books, movies and TV shows –either non-fiction or fiction—that were influential in their lives (7%) and some talked about the influence of the space race era (4%) or more practical concerns such as the availability of research funding or job opportunities (4%).
Profile of AAAS scientists surveyed
AAAS is the largest multidisciplinary scientific society in the world. Those eligible to participate in this survey reflect a broad definition of the professionally-engaged scientific community in the U.S. They come from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, with about half identifying their primary specialty area in the biomedical disciplines and the remainder from a range of other disciplines. They are about evenly divided between those who consider their primary focus to be basic knowledge and applied research.
As a group, they differ from the general public in a number of ways. AAAS scientists are lopsidedly male (71%) and older than the general public as whole (median age 59 years). Both a gender skew favoring men and a relatively older age are also characteristic of the total U.S. workforce in science and engineering.33
AAAS scientists are a highly educated group. An overwhelming majority has some post-graduate education, including 72% who have at least one doctoral level degree. Those in science and engineering occupations typically have more schooling than the general public. But, AAAS scientists as a whole stand out for their high levels of education even in comparison to the broader science and engineering workforce.34
Compared with the total science and engineering workforce, AAAS scientists are also distinctive for the high share with a background in the biological and medical sciences and for their employment in the educational sector.35
More than eight-in-ten (82%) AAAS scientists consider their specialty “interdisciplinary” and many have taken part in some kind of activity that draws from more than one discipline. For example, 57% of AAAS scientists say they published a research study with a multidisciplinary team and nearly all (92%) report reading a journal article outside of their primary specialty area in the past year.
A majority (56%) of AAAS scientists have received research funding within the past five years. Seven-in-ten scientists currently working full-time have received funding within the past five years as have 76% of those working in an academic setting.
Those with recent funding are most likely to have received federal grant funds for research (78%); 46% received direct research support from a university or college and about a third received funding from a private foundation. Smaller shares report funding from industry sources (25%), state government (15%) or from a scientific professional association (6%).
- There are, of course, a number of differences in the economic and political context over these time points. While the 2009 survey was conducted during the Great Recession, there was also a promise of scientific funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 around the same time. ↩
- In 2009, AAAS scientists were asked to rate a similar list of potential problems on a four-point scale from very serious to not serious at all. ↩
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced an initiative to enhance the reproducibility of biomedical research in 2013 in response to growing concern about this issue in the scientific community. ↩
- The Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 finds 36% of science and engineering doctorates have been awarded to students with temporary resident visas (Chapter 2, page 33). And, “compared with the entire college-educated workforce, college graduates working in science and engineering occupations are disproportionately foreign born” (Chapter 3, page 52). The share of international students receiving doctorates in science and engineering fields has grown since 2000 as has the share of foreign-born workers in science and engineering occupations. ↩
- IRBs are committees that perform an ethical review of possible risks and safeguards to protect people who participate in research studies such as medical, social and survey research. Most IRB’s are affiliated with institutions that conduct research with the financial support of the federal government, such as universities; their role is to implement the policies laid out in the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services 45 CFR 46. ↩
- Responses among AAAS scientists by student, employment and retirement status show a similar pattern. ↩
- The 2009 survey of AAAS scientists conducted by Pew Research in collaboration with AAAS asked respondents to rate each of four possible motivations for becoming a scientist. An overwhelming majority (86%) said that “an interest in solving intellectually challenging problems” was a very important in their decision to become a scientist. Forty-one percent (41%) said that “a desire to work for the public good” was very important. 30% said the same about “a desire to make an important discovery” and just 4% said “a desire for a financially rewarding career” was very important in their decision. See “Public Praises Science: Scientists Fault Public, Media,” July 9, 2009. ↩
- Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 reports 28% of the science and engineering workforce are women although that share varies widely by field and has been growing over the past decade, particularly in the life sciences, engineering and the physical sciences. (Chapter 3 page 43-44).The median age of the science and engineering workforce was 44 years as of 2010, a figure that has been growing since the 1990s. (Chapter 3 page 40-41). ↩
- Only 31% of those working in science and engineering occupations hold a relevant degree above the bachelor’s level although, a doctorate degree is the norm among those working in post-secondary education. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Chapter 3 page 14. ↩
- Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Chapter 3, Figure 3-2 and Appendix table 3-4. ↩