If you think science should inform policy decisions or you just want to ensure that there is continued government support for scientific research, you should be alarmed by a new report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the short version: the U.S. public is markedly less supportive of federal science funding than it was five years ago, and is less likely to be swayed by science on policy issues. This should be a wake-up call to the science community: science communication is more important than ever, and the overarching science community needs to figure out how to reach the public in a meaningful way.
On Jan. 29, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” The report outlines the findings of two polls conducted in 2014. One poll was a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, which interviewed 2,002 individuals across all 50 states. The second poll was of 3,748 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
[Before I go on, I want to throw out a couple qualifiers. First, it is worth noting that anyone can join AAAS. You don’t have to be a scientist, or even be scientifically literate. You just have to pay the membership fee. This is an important point, because Pew’s report doesn’t state that it interviewed only scientists. Instead it appears to equate AAAS members who aren’t teachers with “scientists,” which ain’t necessarily so. Second, some scholars have raised concerns about Pew’s sampling methodology for a similar 2009 survey. So, as always when reading about polls/surveys, caveat emptor.]
The public poll found that most folks still support science funding and think of science as a social good – but that support is waning. Quickly.
The Pew report compares the 2014 survey results to the results of a similar survey that Pew conducted in 2009 (the same study I mentioned above). So, how much has popular sentiment changed?
In 2009, 74 percent of respondents thought government investment in engineering and technology “pays off in the long run.” That number slid to 72 percent in 2014. Similarly, public support for government funding of basic science slid two points, from 73 percent to 71 percent.
“So what?” you ask. “It’s a paltry TWO percentage points! Why does that matter?”
Well, it matters because the needle is moving in the wrong direction. And it matters because that’s not all the survey showed.
The number of people who said federal support of engineering and technology research was “not worth it” jumped by five percentage points, from 17 percent to 22 percent. And those who opposed funding for basic science jumped even more, from 18 percent to 24 percent.
In addition, the number of people who think federal funding is not necessary to ensure scientific progress – that private investment alone will do the trick – jumped from 29 percent to 34 percent. Most of that shift comes from previously undecided respondents, since the number of folks who say government investment is essential has only dropped one percent.
Does this truly represent an opposition to science? Or is science simply being lumped in with an overarching dissatisfaction with government? I don’t know.
But support for government funding of science is flagging, while opposition to government funding has grown fairly quickly over the course of only five years. That combination is troubling.
Is Science a Social Good?
The trend is also reflected on the portions of the survey that evaluate public views of how science affects society.
In 2009, 83 percent of people said science has made life easier. By 2014, that number had dipped to 79 percent. Similarly, while only 10 percent said science had made their lives more difficult in 2009, the number had grown to 15 percent in 2014 – a five percent jump.
Results were even more pronounced when survey respondents were asked about specific areas of research. There was an eight percent jump in the number of people who said science has had a mostly negative effect on health care (from 10 to 18 percent) and the environment (from 23 to 31 percent) – and a 10 percent jump in regard to food (from 24 to 34 percent).
Meanwhile, the number of people who felt science had a mostly positive effect on health care fell from 85 to 79 percent, with slightly smaller drops in the areas of food (66 to 62 percent) and the environment (also 66 to 62 percent).
Again, a troubling combination: more people are viewing science as a negative force in society and fewer people are viewing it as a positive force.
And if the public’s perception of science is moving in the wrong direction, the disconnect between AAAS members and the public is especially pronounced on scientific issues that are relevant to public policy.
There is a 51 percent gap between AAAS members and the public on whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods (88 percent of AAAS members think it’s safe). There a 42 percent gap on animal research (89 percent of AAAS members are in favor), a 37 point gap on whether humanity has played a key role in climate change (87 percent of AAAS members say it has), and an 18 point gap on whether childhood vaccines should be mandatory (86 percent of AAAS members support this – as do 68 percent of the public).
Even on issues that many people consider to be well-established, and where AAAS members are almost unanimous, there’s a significant disconnect with the public. For example, whether humans have evolved over time. 98 percent of AAAS members say yes (who are the other 2 percent?) – but only 65 percent of the public agrees.
In other words, the science community is clearly not doing a good job of communicating with the public when it comes to evidence-based decision-making. And that’s scary stuff.
Politicians craft the legislation that drives public policy. And politicians, theoretically at least, make decisions based on public opinion. The numbers in the Pew public opinion poll matter.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: to protect public funding for research at the state and federal level – much less increase that funding – you need to have broad public support. And the keys to building that public support lie, in part, in science communication.
Now, do I have the answers? No.
We know that the deficit model – the longstanding idea that folks would support science-based decision-making if they just knew more about science – isn’t all that effective. But we haven’t come up with anything to replace it. Yet.
I think a lot of folks agree that we need to incorporate cultural mores and beliefs into our science communication efforts, and that science communication shouldn’t be confrontational. We shouldn’t start out by saying “What you believe is wrong, and here’s why.”
But how do we do those things? I have no idea.
I wrote recently about a list of needs and best practices for science communication. But that list was often vague in terms of offering tools or advice that people can actually implement in a practical way.
I don’t know what those practical tools and advice will ultimately look like, but the recent Pew report makes it clear that we need to figure that out or face both increasing opposition to science funding and public policies that ignore relevant facts.