Pew Surveys: U.S. Public Has High Opinion of Science, But Differs with Scientists on Key Issues

A majority of AAAS scientists and the general public thinks U.S. scientific achievements are among the best in the world, according to new surveys. However, both groups' views of U.S. education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are less rosy; only 16% of those scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. K-12 STEM education as above average or the best in the world.

The Pew Research Center report, released on 29 January and conducted in collaboration with AAAS, offers several insights about the views of scientists and the public on science and science-related issues. To facilitate the survey of scientists, AAAS provided access to a representative sample of its U.S.-based members. AAAS also works to support improved communication between scientists and the public through activities of its Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

Among the differences, the study reveals that 50% of the public believes climate change is due to human activity, compared to 87% of AAAS scientists (a 37-percentage point gap). Other areas with significant differences in opinion include:

  • 37% of the public believes that genetically modified (GM) foods are safe, compared to 88% of AAAS scientists (a 51-point gap);
  • 47% of the public is in favor of using animals in research, compared to 89% of AAAS scientists (a 42-point gap);
  • 28% of the public believes that food grown with pesticides is safe, while 68% of AAAS scientists do (a 40-point gap);
  • 65% of the public believes humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 98% of AAAS scientists (a 33-point gap).

While the report found broad public approval of science and investment in science, AAAS CEO and Executive Publisher of Science Alan I. Leshner expressed concern about these differences between scientists and the public on contentious societal issues. He suggested that this disparity "ultimately affects both science policy and scientific progress" in a 30 January editorial in Science, and recommended that the scientific community should engage in genuine, respectful dialogue with the public on these issues.

Lee Rainie, a co-author of the report and Pew Research Center director of Internet, science and technology research, agreed. "Science issues are increasingly civic issues," he said. "They are at the center of what defines culture and society and how people live their lives."

The Pew researchers found that the majority of AAAS scientists is concerned about funding for science, particularly for basic research, and believes the public's lack of understanding about science is a serious issue. Many AAAS scientists also do not think that science sufficiently informs policy decisions in specific areas: only 15% of AAAS scientists think land-use policy is guided by the best science most or all of the time; 27% felt this was true for clean air and water regulations; 46% for food safety regulations; and 58% for new drug and medical treatments.

In a 28 January teleconference with reporters, Leshner described the desired role of science in policymaking: "We understand that there are many factors that go into the development of policy, but the best science should be included and considered in the discussion."

The surveys were conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, on behalf of Pew Research Center, of 2,002 members of the general public (by phone) and 3,748 U.S.-based AAAS members (online) between August and October 2014. The study is part of Pew Research Center's increased focus on issues at the intersection of science and society, which will include additional data analyses from these surveys. The report also compares data to a similar pair of surveys conducted in 2009.