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Public and scientists express strikingly different views about science-related issues

Despite similar views about the overall place of science in America, the general public and scientists often see science-related issues through a different lens, according to a new pair of surveys by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The report finds significant differences in views on 13 science-related issues asked about in the surveys. For instance, there is a:

  • 51-percentage point gap between scientists and the public about the safety of eating genetically modified foods - 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while 37% of the public believes that.
  • 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research - 89% of scientists favor it, while 47% of the public backs the idea.
  • 40-percentage point gap on the question of whether it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides - 68% of scientists say that it is, compared with 28% of citizens.
  • 37-percentage point gap over whether climate change is mostly caused by human activity - 87% of AAAS scientists say it is, while 50% of the public does.
  • 33-percentage point gap on the question about whether humans have evolved over time - 98% of scientists say we have, compared with 65% of the public.

There is no single direction of differences between scientists and the public. By a 20-percentage point margin, citizens are more likely than scientists to favor offshore oil drilling. And by a 12-point margin, the public is more likely to say that astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program.

"Science is a huge, sprawling cluster of subjects. We knew from the 2009 Pew Research Center study that there could be differences between the public and scientists on at least some issues. But we were surprised by the size of those differences and how often they occur," said Cary Funk, lead author of the report and associate director of science research at Pew Research Center.

There is agreement between the public and scientists on one core issue: Both groups believe that science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) in America's elementary and secondary schools is not performing well. Only 16% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. K-12 STEM education as above average or the best in the world. And three-quarters of AAAS scientists say too little STEM education is a major factor in the public's limited knowledge about science--which an overwhelming majority of scientists see as a problem for science in general.

"Whatever their disagreements, most in the public and science community see STEM education as a concern," said Lee Rainie, co-author and Pew Research Center director of internet, science and technology research. "When both groups basically speak in the same voice about an issue, it is worth paying attention."

These surveys find that science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals, but both groups are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise than they were in 2009 when the Pew Research Center conducted similar surveys.

  • While a majority of the public sees scientific achievements in positive terms, the share saying U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world or above average is down 11 points, from 65% in 2009 to 54% today.
  • A majority of adults say science has made life easier for most people (79%) and has had a positive effect on the quality of U.S. health care (79%), food (62%) and the environment (62%). At the same time, the share seeing a negative contribution of science has ticked up across each of these measures compared with 2009.
  • 52% of AAAS scientists 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 a good time for their scientific specialty is down from 73% in 2009 to 62% today. The drop since 2009 in views about the state of science occurred among AAAS scientists of all disciplines, those with a basic and applied research focus, and those working in industry and in academia.

"While the public is still broadly positive about the contributions of science to society, there has been a slight rise in negative views across a number of measures, suggesting some softening in the perceived value of science to society. These patterns will be important to watch over time," Funk said.

Some other key findings:

  • Most scientists believe that policy choices about land use and clean air and water are not often guided by the best scientific findings. Only 15% of AAAS scientists say they believe the best science guides policy regulations about land use most of the time or more often; 27% think the best science frequently guides decisions about clean air and water; 46% think the best science is frequently used in food safety policies and 58% say the same when it comes to regulations about new drug and medical treatments.
  • Americans rate military, science and medical treatment among the best in the world.Fully 77% of the public say the U.S. military is the best in the world or above average, while many say the same about U.S. scientific achievements (54%) and U.S. medical treatment (51%).
  • There is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.Seven-in-ten adults say that government investments in engineering and technology and in basic scientific research usually pay off in the long run. Some 61% say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34% say that private investment is enough to ensure that scientific progress is made.
  • Americans hold mixed views about the degree of scientific consensus on key topics.About four-in-ten adults (42%) say that scientists generally believe the universe was created in a single violent event, often called the "the Big Bang," while 52% say scientists are generally divided on this issue. A majority of adults see scientists as generally in agreement that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity (57%) or that humans have evolved over time (66%), though a sizeable minority see scientists as divided over each of these issues.

These are some of the findings from a new pair of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the AAAS. The survey of the general public was conducted using a probability-based sample of the adult population by landline and cellular telephone Aug. 15-25, 2014, with a representative sample of 2,002 adults nationwide. The margin of sampling error for results based on all adults is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey of scientists is based on a representative sample of 3,748 U.S.-based members of AAAS; the survey was conducted online from Sept. 11 to Oct. 13, 2014. This report is the beginning of Pew Research Center's increased focus on science and society research. Several more reports on this topic will be released in the coming year.

"The publication of this report begins a major new initiative for the Pew Research Center," said Michael Dimock, president of the center. "The center has covered science-related issues in the past, but this marks our more formal commitment to studying the intersection of science with public life. There is considerable interest in the policy community, among scientists themselves, and among engaged citizens to understand how the fast-paced world of scientific inquiry and innovation is shaping our world. We hope to explore that and to understand more fully how news and information about scientific activities makes their way to citizens, how they understand it, and how, in some circumstances, they contribute to it."

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