July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 2: Scientists Assess the State of Their Field

Scientists hold overwhelmingly positive views about the current state of science in the United States. More than three-quarters (76%) say that this is generally a “good time” for science, and about as many (73%) say the same about their scientific specialty. That optimism extends to their views about careers in their specialty field; two-thirds (67%) believe this is a very good or good time to begin a career in their discipline.

American achievements in science are also seen in a very positive light. Nearly all (94%) scientists characterize the country’s scientific achievements as either “best in the world” (49%) or above average (45%) compared with other industrialized nations. And scientists’ assessments of the nation’s achievements in their scientific specialties are also quite positive (88% best in the world or above average).

At the same time, scientists say communication and education of the public are significant challenges for science today. Majorities rate television (83%) and newspaper (63%) coverage of science as only fair or poor, while fully 85% identify the public’s low level of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science.

In terms of public outreach, nearly eight-in-ten scientists (77%) say they often or occasionally talk with non-scientists about science or research findings. However, only about a quarter (24%) have heard or read about town halls or other public meetings where scientists and the public discuss controversial research issues. Among those who are aware of the town halls, overwhelming majorities say they have been at least fairly useful for the public (88%) and scientists (83%).

Good Times for Science

Views about the current state of science are consistently positive across groups of scientists. Large majorities of those in physics and astronomy, chemistry, geosciences and biological and medical sciences say it is generally a good time for science generally as well as for their own disciplines.

Rating U.S. Scientific Achievements

About half (49%) of scientists characterize the scientific achievements of the United States as best in the world, and another 45% say the country’s achievements are above average when compared with those of other industrialized nations.

This stands in clear contrast to the views of the general public; only 17% say the country is best in the world in this area while another 47% say the country’s scientific acheivements are above average. Nearly a third of the public (31%) rates the scientific achievements of the U.S. as average or below average. Only 6% of scientists say the same.

Scientists hold American achievements in their specialty in similarly high regard. Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) scientists – and no fewer than 85% in any particular field – rate the scientific achievements of the United States in their disciplines as above average or best in the world.

Greatest Achievement: Human Genome Project

More scientists name the Human Genome Project or other advances in genetics as the greatest U.S. scientific discovery or achievement of the past 20 years than mention any other breakthrough. Fully 39% cite the Human Genome Project, which identified all human genes and the complete sequence of DNA bases, or other progress in genetic research as the greatest U.S. scientific achievement or discovery of the last two decades.

Overall, more than half of scientists (55%) cite a biomedical or health accomplishment as the greatest scientific discovery of the past 20 years. Aside from the Human Genome Project, 9% cite a discovery in medicine and public health, and 4% mention stem cell research.

One-in-ten scientists (10%) cite an accomplishment in computers or technology and as many name achievements or discoveries involving space as the greatest of the past two decades. These include mentions of the Hubble Space Telescope (3%), the discoveries of dark energy and dark matter (1%), the expansion of the universe (1%) and discoveries on Mars (1%).

Older scientists are more likely than their younger counterparts to point to accomplishments relating to space as the greatest of the last 20 years: 17% of those 65 and older mention space, compared with 10% of 50-to-64 year-olds and just 5% of those younger than 50.

Generally, scientists are more likely to cite discoveries in their own or related fields than other specialties as the greatest U.S. scientific accomplishments of the last 20 years. Fully 63% of those in the biological and medical sciences and 57% of chemists name a biological or medical achievement; by comparison, just 43% of geoscientists and 33% of physicists or astronomers do so.

About a third (34%) of physicists and astronomers and 17% of geoscientists single out a space-related achievement, compared with just 5% of biological and medical scientists and 7% of chemists. And while 14% of geoscientists identify work related to climate change as the greatest U.S. scientific achievement, this is mentioned by only 2% or less of those in other scientific disciplines.

No Consensus on Greatest Failure

There is much less consensus among scientists about the country’s greatest scientific failure of the last 20 years. While 37% mention lack of progress on a particular scientific issue or problem, no single issue dominates. Just over one-in-ten (12%) name the lack of progress in alternative energy and sustainability as the country’s greatest scientific failure, while 7% cite a related failure to address climate change or environmental issues and 7% mention the lack of progress in stem cell research.

Additionally, 21% of scientists point to failures of the scientific community to communicate with and educate the public or American youth about science. Significant numbers of scientists also mention insufficient funding (14%) and the influence of politics on science (13%).

As with views of U.S. achievements, opinions about the country’s greatest scientific failure vary by field. Geoscientists are about twice as likely as those in other fields to mention lack of progress on climate change (14% vs. 7% or less). And fully 17% of physicists and astronomers specifically point to the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider; just 1% of those in other disciplines mention this.

Poor Marks for Science News Coverage

Scientists hold generally negative views of the quality of news coverage of scientific issues. A large majority (83%) of scientists characterize television news coverage of science as only fair or poor. Newspaper coverage earns somewhat less negative marks, but a majority (63%) also rates newspaper science coverage as only fair or poor.

About three-quarters (76%) of scientists say it is a major problem for science that news reports do not effectively distinguish between well-founded scientific findings and those that are less well-founded. This view is widely shared among scientists in all fields, employment sectors and age groups. The issue of oversimplifying scientific findings in news media reports is of less concern, although nearly half of scientists (48%) also identify this as a major problem.

While scientists find fault with media coverage, an even greater percentage (85%) identifies limited public knowledge about science as a major problem for science in general, and this opinion is widely held across most groups of scientists.

About half of scientists (49%) say public expectations of quick solutions to problems is a major problem for science. In particular, scientists in the biological and medical sciences (52%) and chemists (50%) are likely to see this as a major problem for science, while somewhat fewer geoscientists (42%) and physicists or astronomers (41%) note this concern.

Importance of Media Coverage

Nearly four-in-ten scientists (37%) say it is very important (8%) or important (29%) for career advancement in their specialty areas to get their research covered by the news media. However, a majority of scientists (62%) say this is either not too important (48%) or not at all important (14%).

Scientists who are not U.S. citizens are more likely than others to view news coverage of research findings as important for career advancement. A majority of non-citizens (62%) express this view, compared with 43% of foreign-born U.S. citizens, and 34% of those born in the United States. There are virtually no differences across scientific disciplines about the importance of getting news coverage for research findings.

Scientists’ Public Outreach

Most scientists say they at least occasionally talk with non-scientists about new research findings. Nearly four-in-ten (39%) say they do this often, while 48% say they occasionally discuss research findings with non-scientists. Just 13% say they rarely or never do this.

Nearly a quarter of scientists (23%) say they often (3%) or occasionally (20%) talk with reporters about new research findings. And while a large majority of scientists (82%) say they never write for science blogs, many read blogs. More than four-in-ten (42%) say they often (14%) or occasionally (28%) read blogs about science.

About half of geoscientists (51%) say they often talk with non-scientists about research, as do 46% of physicists and astronomers, 37% of biological and medical scientists, and 28% of chemists. A greater proportion of geoscientists talk to reporters about science, at least occasionally: 40% say they do so, compared with 27% of physicists and astronomers, 22% of biological and medical scientists and 14% of chemists.

As is the case with the public, blog-reading among scientists varies by age. More than half of scientists younger than 35 (54%) read science blogs at least occasionally. That compares with 46% of those 35 to 49 and 36% of those 50 and older.

Few Aware of Science “Town Halls”

Town hall or other public meetings designed for scientists to discuss controversial issues related to scientific research with the public are not well-known within the scientific community. Just 24% of scientists say they have heard a lot (2%) or some (22%) about town hall meetings; 44% say they have not heard too much about these sessions while about a third (32%) says they have heard nothing at all. These levels of awareness vary only modestly across the scientific community.

Among the 24% of scientists who have heard about the town hall meetings, most see them as useful for all groups involved. Overwhelming majorities say they are at least fairly useful for the public (88%), the news media (88%), policy makers (87%) and scientists (83%).

Nearly half of scientists who are aware of these town hall meetings (49%) say they often talk with non-scientists about science research. That compares with 35% of those who are not familiar with these meetings.