Pew Survey of Scientists & the Public: Implications for Public Engagement and Communication

[UPDATE: See this follow up on media reaction to the report.]

The Pew Research Center released today a major new survey report documenting Americans' views of science and technology and comparing these lay perceptions to a representative sample of U.S. scientists who are members of AAAS.

As part of a panel of experts, I had the chance to contribute input and ideas on the survey earlier this year. I have been eagerly looking forward to the findings ever since. Below I have jotted down a few key implications that come to mind on my first scan.

I will have more to say next week and probably for several months to come: There is literally that much in this data to ponder, evaluate, and think about. No doubt, as I get a chance to sink more carefully into the data, some of my initial reactions may change.

At first read, the Pew findings back up several of the central themes from past research that I emphasize with my colleague Dietram Scheufele in a forthcoming article at the American Journal of Botany ("What's Next for Science Communication?") and that I join with several colleagues in describing in a recent article at Nature Biotechnology ("Science Communication Reconsidered")(PDF, news release). I reviewed in detail these themes in a recent lecture at the University of Wisconsin (video).

Specifically, here are are my first quick reactions and take-aways from the survey:

1. In the U.S., scientists and their organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, admiration, and cultural authority. Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists, support scientific funding, and believe in the promise of research and technology. Among institutions, only the military enjoys greater admiration and deference.

Consider that according to the Pew survey, 84% of Americans agree that science is having a mostly positive effect on society, and that this belief holds strong across every major demographic category, including 88% of Republicans and 83% of Evangelicals.

When asked to evaluate various professions, roughly 70% of Americans answer that scientists "contribute a lot" to society compared to 38% for journalists, 23% for lawyers, 40% for clergy, and 21% for business executives. Only members of the military (84%) and teachers (77%) rate higher in public admiration and esteem.

More Americans rate advances related to science, medicine, and technology as the country's greatest achievement over the past 50 years than any other topic. Specifically, 27% named science, technology and medicine compared to 17% for advances related to civil and equal rights, and 7% for advances relative to war and peace.

(Not surprisingly, this 27% figure is down from 47% in 1999. I wouldn't characterize this as a "slip" as the Pew press release does, but rather as a matter of timing. The difference is mostly due to the high news salience at the time of the IT bubble, the Human Genome Project, and the lingering generational memory of the media spectacle of the Space Race.)

2. These survey findings show that relative to authority, deference, and respect, scientists and their organizations enjoy a rich bounty of communication capital. The challenge is to understand how to employ this capital wisely and effectively.

Only on a few issues such as stem cell research, evolution, or climate change, where other societal leaders effectively re-define an area of science as in conflict with something else the public deeply cares about, do perceptual gaps based on values and identity appear among the general public.

When these types of controversies occur, the challenge is for scientists to understand how to use their strong communication capital to sponsor dialogue, invite differing perspectives, facilitate public participation, reach consensus when appropriate, learn from disagreement, and avoid common mistakes that undermine these goals.

Unfortunately, the Pew survey reveals that scientists still tend to overlook these important dimensions of the public communication process, instead pointing blame at the public or the media. According to the survey, when asked "how much of a problem do you think each of the following are for science in general," 80% of scientists said that the public does not know enough about science and 76% blamed the media for not distinguishing between well-founded findings and those that are not. (These assumptions are in line with what science communication scholars call the "Deficit Model," which we discuss at Nature Biotech.)

Yet consider that Pew's survey of the public finds that 91% of Americans correctly know that Aspirin can prevent heart attacks, 82% that GPS is reliant on satellites, 77% that earthquakes cause tsunamis, 65% that carbon dioxide is linked to rising temperatures, 61% that water was recently discovered on Mars, and 60% that Pluto is no longer classified as a planet.

These findings suggest that for the most part, strong majorities of Americans remain informed about those areas of science that receive media attention and/or that are personally relevant such as health. The findings also suggest that journalists are doing a pretty good job in reporting on and conveying this information, despite what scientists might assume.

Unfortunately, according to the Pew results, few scientists are familiar with what many researchers have pointed to as more effective mechanisms for public engagement and outreach. As we describe at Nature Biotechnology, the most important innovation in public communication over the past decade has been a focus on sponsoring town meeting and public forum type formats that facilitate two-way conversations and dialogue with different members of the public and stakeholders. There are obvious limits to these initiatives, as we describe, but published evaluations find a range of important and beneficial outcomes including enhanced learning, trust, and understanding among both lay participants and experts.

Yet, as Pew finds, less than a quarter of American scientists have heard of these types of deliberative forum and town meeting type initiatives. Still, among the minority of scientists who are familiar with these efforts, strong majorities believe that they are useful for the public, policymakers, the news media, and scientists.

3. Another all too common communication mistake on the part of some scientists and self-described "science activists" is to make it easy for the public to reinterpret areas of science in terms of conflict, mostly around dimensions of either partisanship or religion.

The Pew survey indicates that 56% of Americans have heard "nothing at all" about the claims that the Bush administration had kept scientists from reporting on findings that conflicted with the Administration's preferred policy positions. In sharp contrast, 55% of scientists report "hearing a lot" about the topic.

Consider also that the Pew survey of scientists finds that compared to the public, scientists tend to affiliate strongly Democrat (55% are Dems compared to 35% of the public) and are far more likely to describe themselves as "liberal" (52% of scientists vs. 20% of the public).

Given their strong ideological leanings and their professional connection to the issue of politicization, at an emotional and heuristic level, it is perhaps easy for many scientists to continue to respond to "war on science" rallying cries and to openly affiliate with Democratic leaders, causes, and advocates who play on these themes.

Yet for the majority of Americans who are unaware of the politicization debates of the last eight years, to continue to focus on "war on science" claims as a focus of public communication makes it all too easy for many Republican members of the public to interpret an issue such as climate change through a narrow partisan lens. For other members of the public, they are likely to ignore such claims as just more elite bickering. (For more, see this recent paper at the journal Environment.)

A similar situation is true when considering the growing New Atheist movement which argues that science undermines the legitimacy of religious belief and even respect for the religious. Among New Atheists, it is often accepted as an article of faith that scientists as a group are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic.

Yet in contrast to New Atheist claims, the Pew survey of scientists finds that 51% indicate that they either believe in God (33%) or a higher power (18%).

Not only do New Atheist claims risk alienating many moderately religious Americans who otherwise trust and admire science, but when these scientist pundits argue that their personal views on religion are overwhelmingly shared by other scientists, they in fact misrepresent and distort the beliefs of their colleagues.

4. The greatest potential threat to the science-society relationship is not politicization or religion, but rather the increasing privatization of science, especially at the university level.

The Pew survey of the public does not ask specific questions about perceived conflicts of interest, concerns over privatization, and/or the "hyping" of market applications, but as we note at Nature Biotechnology, scholars point to these trends as having the greatest potential to generate public distrust of science, perceptions that are likely to span ideological and demographic segments.

While the increasing privatization and marketing orientation of science may be a still latent challenge to public trust, it is a trend that scientists are already deeply concerned about, especially those scientists working in private industry. In the Pew survey, close to half of all American scientists and 68% of those working in private industry agreed that the possibility of making a lot of money "was leading many scientists in their field to pursue marketable projects that do little to advance science."

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