It sounds like Obama’s new $215 million Precision Medicine Initiative could be well received by the public, as, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans value investment in scientific research. A new study from the Pew Research Center, published in the journal Science, found that more than 70% of adults said that government investments in engineering and technology and in basic scientific research usually pay off in the long run, while 61% believe government investment is essential for scientific progress. But unfortunately, it seems like Americans don’t really understand scientific research.
Pew’s survey shows that scientists and the general public hold different opinions about big scientific issues, like evolution, global warming, and genetically modified food. “There is a disconnect between the way in which the public perceives the state of science and science’s position on a variety of issues,” said Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), in a press conference.
Responding to questions about 13 science issues, citizens and scientists differed in opinion by more than a 20-percentage-point gap on eight of the issues. “These are big and notable gaps,” Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s internet, science, and technology research, said via The Seattle Times. Rainie said the survey results are “pretty powerful indicators of the public and the scientific community seeing the world differently.”
Americans continue to deny climate change and evolution
The American public and scientists are divided on some of the biggest political issues, like climate change. Pew’s numbers from 2014 show that 87% of scientists believe human activity is causing global warming, while only half the American public agrees. Almost half of adults said there wasn’t good evidence for global warming or that it was due to natural climate variability, rather than human actions, like burning fossil fuels. And only 33% of citizens find climate change to be a very serious problem, while 77% of scientists say it is.
Leshner suggested in an editorial for the journal Science that there’s an issue with how scientists communicate with the public, and scientists shouldn’t stop talking about these politically polarizing topics with the public. “And the way to do that is not to have big town hall meetings where everybody’s lecturing but rather to meet in smaller groups and have sessions that go through this,” Leshner said in a press conference.
Pew’s survey found that 31% of the American respondents believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning — i.e. they don’t believe in evolution. Even beyond that, 24% of the public said that humans had evolved under the guiding hand of a supreme being. Scientists on the other hand almost wholly support evolution; only 2% of AAAS scientists said humans had not evolved in their time on Earth. “In the case of an issue like evolution, the conflict is with people’s core values and their core religious beliefs,” said Leshner, per the Christian Science Monitor, “and unfortunately we have known for decades that ideology and core beliefs trump science frequently.”
Another issue that the public differs quite a bit from scientists on is genetically modified food. While 88% of scientists say genetically modified foods are safe to eat, only 37% of the public think so. On top of that, 68% of scientists say it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, and only 28% of the general public do.
Scientists less happy with progress
In 2009, 76% of AAAS scientists felt it was a good time for science, but that’s fallen to 52% now. And the public agrees. Citizens’ positive opinions about scientific achievements in the U.S. fell from 65% in 2009 to 54% today. Even in their own specialities, scientists are less optimistic than five years ago: The percentage of scientists who say this is generally a good time for their scientific specialty is down from 73% in 2009 to 62% today. Similarly, the amount of scientists who believe it’s a good or very good time to begin a career in their field now is 59%, compared to 67% in 2009.
While it still remains that a majority of scientists believe it’s a good time to be in their career or their specialty and that it’s a good time for scientific achievements overall, it’s possible that the drop is reflective of scientists’ opinions about policy and how their work translates to the rest of the world. The Pew study shows that only 15% of scientists believe policy choices about land use are based on the best science, and only 27% think the best science frequently is used to regulate clean air and water. Meanwhile, less than half of scientists say the best science is guides food safety regulations, and 58% think the best science is consulted for regulating new drug and medical treatments.
Despite a lack of understanding, the vast majority of Americans believe have a lot of respect for scientists and the work they do, with 79% of adults saying that science has made life easier for most people, and 54% of adults considering U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world or above average. Scientists are even more confident in their own work: 92% of members of the AAAS say scientific achievements in the U.S. are the best in the world or above average.