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Survey Shows Scientists and Public at Odds Over Climate, GMOs and More

This computer-generated image shows expected changes in seasonal mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century (1971-2000 average) to the middle 21st century (2051-2060), as projected for the June-July time frame based on a "middle of the road" estimate of future emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Red and orange colors indicate temperature increases, while blue indicates a temperature decrease. NOAA

A newly published survey shows a significant opinion gap between professional scientists and the wider American public on issues in science ranging from climate change to genetically modified foods. But the results match up on at least one score: Each side has a slightly more negative view of the other.

"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, and the way in which the scientific community ... looks at the state of science," Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told reporters in advance of the survey's release on Thursday. "That's a cause of concern."

The survey was conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the AAAS last year — and draws upon a telephone survey of 2,002 American adults as well as an online survey of 3,748 U.S.-based members of the science association. It's part of a years-long series of Pew reports on attitudes toward scientific issues.

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The biggest disconnect had to do with genetically modified foods, where there was a gap of 51 percentage points. Eighty-eight percent of the scientists said it's safe to eat such foods, compared with 37 percent of the wider-ranging sample.

Other opinion gaps focused on these hot-button issues:

  • Should animals be used in research? 89 percent of the scientists said yes, as opposed to 47 percent of the public.
  • Is it safe to eat foods grown with pesticides? 68 percent of the scientists agreed, compared with 28 percent of the public.
  • Is climate change caused mostly by human activity? 87 percent yes from the scientists, 50 percent yes from the public.
  • Have humans evolved over time? 98 percent yes from the scientists, 65 percent yes from the public.
  • Should more offshore oil drilling be allowed? 32 percent yes from the scientists, 52 percent yes from the public.
  • Should more nuclear power plants be built? 65 percent yes from the scientists, 45 percent yes from the public.
  • Should parents be allowed to decide not to have their children vaccinated? 13 percent yes from the scientists, 30 percent yes from the public.

The gaps haven't changed dramatically since 2009, the last time a similar survey was conducted, said Cary Funk, the lead author of this week's report and associate director of science research at Pew Research Center. What has changed is how scientists as well as the wider sampling of Americans think about those gaps, and about the future outlook for science in society.

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Slightly more negative

Funk noted "a slightly more negative take of the American public about scientific achievements, as well as a slight rise in negative views, but still a majority saying positive things about the contribution of science to society."

Seventy-nine percent of the public sampling said science has made life easier for most people, but that figure is down four points from what it was in 2009. There were similar downturns in the assessment of science's effect on the quality of food, health care and the environment.

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When it came to science, technology, engineering and math education — also known as STEM — U.S. elementary and secondary schools received an above-average rating from 29 percent of the public and only 16 percent of the scientists. Fifty-four percent of the public survey respondents said U.S. scientific achievements were the best in the world, which is down from the 65 percent rating in 2009.

On average, the scientists were a bit gloomier as well: In 2009, 76 percent of the scientists surveyed said it was a good time for science, but that figure dropped to 52 percent in the latest survey. The way the scientists saw it, one of the biggest problems is that the public doesn't know very much about science — closely followed by media misrepresentations of scientific findings.

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What to do, and why

So what's to be done? The scientists who were sampled said there should be more STEM education built into elementary and secondary school curricula, but Leshner said scientists themselves had a responsibility as well.

"What's necessary is for the scientific community to go out to the American public and have a genuine dialogue about these issues, so that the public can understand that science is not unable to see their point of view, first of all," he told reporters. "And secondly, that scientists will in fact work toward finding some kind of common ground."

Lee Rainie, the Pew Research Center's director of Internet, science and technology research, said the disconnect over science policy issues isn't merely an academic concern.

"Science issues are increasingly civic issues, and they're not distinct. They're not off to the side," he said. "They're at the center of what defines the culture and the society and how people live their lives."

Image: Opinion gaps
The opinion gaps between a sample of scientists and a sample of the wider American public varied, depending on the issue. Pew Research Center

Pew's survey of the general public was conducted using a probability-based sample of the U.S. adult population by land-line and cellular telephone Aug. 15-25, 2014, with a representative sample of 2,002 adults nationwide. Margin of sampling error for results based on all adults is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. The survey of scientists was based on a representative sample of 3,748 U.S. based members of AAAS. That survey was conducted online Sept. 11-Oct. 13, 2014. Margin of sampling error for results based on all AAAS respondents is plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.