The share of Americans who see science as the nation's greatest achievement is down sharply, even as the public continues to hold scientists in high regard.
A new Pew Research Center poll indicates that 27 percent of Americans say the nation's greatest achievements are in science, medicine and technology, more than any category other than don't know.
But that's down from 47 percent in a similar study a decade ago, the center reported Thursday.
The decline comes even as technology reaches out to connect people worldwide via the Internet.
But the era of "Big Science," like the moon landings, has receded into history, while one-time wonders such as organ transplants seem increasingly routine and the battle against cancer drags on.
Probably reflecting last fall's historic election of Barack Obama as president, the poll found that people rating equal rights as the nation's top achievement jumped to 17 percent, compared with just 5 percent 10 years earlier.
Most Americans — 64 percent — see this country's science as "above average," but with advances by other countries getting increasing attention, just 17 percent say it's the best in the world. Indeed, the European Union currently published more scientific papers than the United States.
There is the danger, over time, that the United States could lose its pre-eminence in science and efforts to interest more young people in research are under way, said Alan I. Leshner, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Well thought of
Overall, the new study found that science remains well thought of by Americans, with 84 percent of respondents saying it has a mostly positive effect on society. Only 6 percent rated science as largely negative for society.
There was no exact earlier comparison for those numbers, but Scott Keeter, director of the survey, said other studies over the years have shown consistently positive views of science and medicine.
"The U.S. public recognizes research and development, perhaps especially to drive medical advances, as an investment in the future. Yet, researchers and the public too often are separated by a communications gap," said Leshner. He said his group is conducting seminars teaching scientists how to better communicate with the public.
Even when they disagreed with some findings, people showed an overall positive outlook for science.
For example, 63 percent of respondents who believe in creationism and 64 percent of those contending there is no evidence of global warming still said science does much to contribute to the well-being of society.
The new report is based on a series of three polls. The first was a telephone survey of 2,001 members of the general public April 28-May 12, asking their opinions of science. The second, testing the public's scientific knowledge, was a sample of 1,005 adults June 18-21. For comparison, the Pew researchers also conducted an online random sample of 2,533 members of the AAAS from May 1 to June 14. AAAS is an international organization of scientists and those interested in science.
Among the findings:
- About 91 percent of the general public knew that aspirin is recommended to prevent heart attacks, 82 percent knew that global positioning systems rely on satellites and 65 percent correctly linked carbon dioxide gas to rising temperatures.
- On the other hand, just 54 percent understood that antibiotics do not kill viruses and fewer than half — 46 percent — knew that electrons are smaller than atoms.
- Men have a more favorable outlook about science than women, 86 percent saying it has a mostly positive effect, compared with 81 percent.
- Science got an 87 percent favorable rating from whites, compared with 76 percent among blacks and 75 percent for Hispanics.
- The public and the science association members did not always see eye-to-eye. For example 87 percent of AAAS scientists believed that humans and other living things evolved naturally, compared with 32 percent of the general public. And while 84 percent of the association members say the Earth is getting warmer because of human activities, just 49 percent of the public agreed.
- A majority of the public — 58 percent — favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but that is well short of the 93 percent of scientists who feel that way.
- And 69 percent of Americans say all parents should be required to vaccinate their children, compared with 82 percent of scientists.