Wednesday, February 04, 2015

New Insights on U.S. Opinions on Science

New Pew Research Center surveys of citizens and a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) show powerful crosscurrents that both recognize the achievements of scientists and expose stark fissures between scientists and citizens on a range of science, engineering and technology issues. 
A new Pew Research Center report highlights these major findings from its surveys of Americans:

  • 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment.
  • 54% of adults consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world (15%) or above average (39%) compared with other industrial countries.
  • 92% of AAAS scientists say scientific achievements in the U.S. are the best in the world (45%) or above average (47%).
  • About seven-in-ten adults say that government investments in engineering and technology (72%) and in basic scientific research (71%) usually pay off in the long run. Some 61% say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34% say private investment is enough to ensure scientific progress is made.

  • Only 16% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the general public rank U.S. STEM education for grades K-12 as above average or the best in the world. Fully 46% of AAAS scientists and 29% of the public rank K-12 STEM as “below average.”
  • 75% of AAAS scientists say too little STEM education for grades K-12 is a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science. An overwhelming majority of scientists see the public’s limited scientific knowledge as a problem for science.

The public's general support for science is reassuring, but the differences between public views and those of the scientific community (shown in the figure above) are sometimes of concern. 
  • I have spent time looking at biotechnology, and I know from experience that the scientific community is very careful to assure the safety of foods that are produced from genetically modified crops. The public is I fear unaware of the dangers of traditional breeding, and too fearful of biotechnology. Of course, we need to continue to assure careful vetting of GM research and releases of GM crops, but the public fear is excessive.
  • Similarly, while I worked for many years to assure that animals involve in the research programs I managed were treated ethically, I also recognize that their use was necessary. There is no question that ethical use of animals in research is justified by the benefits such research yields for mankind.
  • Evolution is central to modern biological science, and the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. I don't mind what people believe, but I do mind when people insist that children's science classes not teach scientific consensus.
  • The fear of vaccines is unjustified, and as the current measles epidemic shows, that fear leads to very serious consequences. While the  MMR vaccine is very safe and very effective, the most recent data from the World Health Organization indicated that there were 145,000 deaths from measles in 2013. While measles was eradicated from the USA years ago, if Americans don't immunize their children, the disease can be reintroduced from Africa and Asia, where it is endemic in many poor countries.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of scientists are convinced that humans are driving global warming through activities that cause increase in the release of greenhouse gases. I fear that the public has bought a false story from those who profit from businesses releasing those greenhouse gases (and the folk that they fund). Prudence demands that we act globally and quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It is not having more people in the world that is a problem per se, it is that more people with higher expectations for their lives put more stress on the environment. That makes is harder and harder to feed the billions of people and provide them all with decent lives. Global warming, pollution of land, air and water, deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity are only the most worrisome of the problems likely to arrive with the population increases we still expect.

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