AAAS Questionnaire: Most Scientists Feel Duty to Society, but Priorities Vary

Most scientists feel that they have a responsibility to society that goes beyond their duties to their profession, but they don't always agree on which types of responsibilities are most important, a new pilot study by AAAS suggests.

Taken together, the 2,153 responses from scientists, engineers, and health professionals around the world revealed a 13 percentage-point range in which types of social responsibilities scientists prioritized most widely: Taking steps to minimize anticipated risks associated with their work was considered important by 96 percent of the respondents, while 83 percent felt it was important to engage in public service activities.

AAAS developed the questionnaire because serving society is part of the mandate for many professional societies and funding programs, and its importance is often cited in public statements and international conventions — but few agree on what those social responsibilities are or ought to be, said Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law program, which conducted the study along with the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition.

"Because of the changing nature of the relationship between science and society, there are increasing calls for scientists to become more engaged and to realize responsibilities beyond what they do in the lab," Frankel said. "But, we have virtually no education courses, no teaching materials, no consensus in the United States, let alone globally, about what this really means."

The questionnaire presented scientists, engineers, and health professionals with a battery of possible responsibilities to society. It then asked them to categorize each type of responsibility, from "critically important" to "not at all important."

More than 80 percent of the respondents considered all of the proposed responsibilities important, but "they did suggest some differences we should be looking into, relating to age group, discipline, and geographical region. There didn't appear to be differences by gender, which was interesting," said Jessica Wyndham, the program's associate director. "These are very preliminary outcomes that we want to explore further."

Frankel and Wyndham both stressed that this was a pilot study that reflects the views of a relatively small group of respondents who were already associated with the various channels that AAAS used to disseminate the questionnaire. They now plan a large-scale survey that will reach a broader, more international audience and probe some of the findings from the questionnaire more deeply.

Highlights from the pilot study's findings:

  • Younger respondents were more likely to prioritize explaining their work to the public: 36 percent of respondents under 35 considered this "critically important" compared with 28 percent of those over 50. Meanwhile, older the respondents tended to place more emphasis on reporting suspected misconduct: 42 percent of those under 35 considered this critically important, as did 48 percent of those over 50.

  • Between 40 and 57 percent of respondents in the health and social/behavioral sciences designated four of the proposed responsibilities as "critically important," making this group the most likely to select this answer.

  • Overall, engineers were the least likely to consider a responsibility as important, very important, or critically important.

  • Fewer than 10 percent of respondents in the government and healthcare sectors ranked any of the proposed responsibilities as "not very important," while more than 10 percent of scientists who were retired, self-employed, or not currently employed answered at least half of the questions this way.

  • Respondents from Europe, North America, and the Pacific tended to respond in similar ways, with seeming agreement on which responsibilities were most and least important. The same was true for respondents from Africa, Arab States, Asia and Latin America, and the Caribbean. For example, the first group was more likely to place importance on considering the risks of adverse consequences associated with their work, while the second group was more likely to prioritize considering the potential of each research or development project to contribute to societal well-being.