Are Americans smitten with science?

Medill File Photo
Medill File Photo

Americans don’t think science is too nerdy after all.

That was the general consensus of scientists in a lively discussion of “What Do People Think about Science and Technology? U.S. and International Public Opinion.” The American Association for the Advancement of Science featured the panel as thousands of scientists gathered in Chicago for the organization’s annual meeting.

Panelists presented findings from the 2014 release of Science and Engineering Indicators—a biennial report providing data about Americans affection for science and technology in relation to previous years and other countries. This report was presented to President Obama and the U.S. Congress last week.

John C. Besley, an associate professor at Michigan State University, said this extensive report is “meant to be a unique summary of attitudes and understanding.”

“My favorite section is really this attitude section,” he said. “You find here that the scientific community and the medical community do pretty well.”

Americans perceptions about these two communities are consistent: 41 percent have extensive confidence in the scientific community compared to 40 percent in the medical community.

However, this level of consistency is not universal, especially when it comes to specific areas of science.

Lydia Saad, senior editor for the Gallup Poll, shared the perspective of Americans and their knowledge on global warming.

The latest study from March 2013 found that 81 percent of Americans think the effects of global warming are real and happening. This attitude has shifted over time based on knowledge level.

In general, education levels are a major factor for understanding science and technology.

“Education is a very strong correlate of knowledge about more recent science topics in the news and more textbook science topics,” said Carey Funk, senior researcher of the Pew Research Center.

When Americans were asked, however, which subjects K-12 schools should emphasize more than they do now, science fell to the middle of the pack:

Math, 30 percent

English, 19 percent

Science, 11 percent

History, 10 percent

Art/Music, 6 percent

“People don’t cut science a lot but they also don’t ramp it up,” Besley said.

What Do Americans Think?
Findings from the 2014 “Science and Engineering Indicators” report were presented to panel attendees Friday.