State of Science

The National Science Foundation releases a rather extensive analysis of science and technology in the US every two years. This is a nonpartisan report that the National Science Board (NSB) uses to advise the government (both the president and Congress). Since the NSB holds such an important advisory role, it is worth seeing what sort of information they are basing their advice on. This year’s report, Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 was just released and we focused our attention on Chapter 7, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding.

The splash that this report has made is based on some compiled survey data, although the public views toward science are worth noting as well.

For those of you interested in just a short summary of polling data which starts on page 21:

    • 26% of Americans think that the sun orbits the Earth (technically stellar objects orbit around a point based on the mass of all nearby gravitational forces, but that’s not the point being made here).
    • 47% think that lasers are made from sound waves (they are made from light).
    • 51% think that antibiotics will kill viruses (they work on bacteria).
    • 53% know that electrons are smaller than atoms (electrons are subatomic particles).

Apart from the health risks associated with half of respondents not knowing what antibiotics are used for, there is a lot of work left to be done to ensure that we have a scientifically literate populace.

As for the public opinion portion of the report, it is worth reading the highlights provided on pages 4 and 5. There are a lot of comparisons made between various countries and regions, although today we focused on the results for the opinions in the United States. Things we noted from this section were that:

    • The public feels there is not enough funding for health, energy alternatives and the environment.
    • The only field in which leaders are trusted more than in science or medicine was the military.
    • Most people don’t know what scientists do.
    • Most people think that scientists work “for the good of humanity.”
    • Most Americans are concerned about climate change.
    • ~60% of Americans are ok with using embryonic stem cells for medical research.
    • ~80% are interested in “new scientific discoveries.”

Despite some shortcomings in people’s scientific knowledge, there is a general interest in science and broad trust of scientific leaders. A lack of knowledge may make it difficult to discern a leader in a field from someone who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, but we are hopeful that most people can make that distinction.

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