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New survey of our attitudes about science yields some big surprises

The ‘State of Science Index Survey’ shows we’re excited by science but also a bit skeptical.
Image: Bill Gates and Taylor Swift
A new survey found that more Americans would rather dine with Bill Gates over Taylor Swift.Getty Images

Would you rather grab a meal with Taylor Swift — or Bill Gates? How about Elon Musk or LeBron James?

When those questions were posed as part of a new survey examining attitudes about science in the U.S. and around the world, Americans showed their preference for science over pop culture and sports. Seventy-two percent of Americans who participated in the survey picked Bill over Taylor, and 59 percent went with Elon over LeBron.

More broadly, the 3M State of Science Index survey — commissioned by Minnesota-based manufacturer 3M and released on Tuesday — shows that while Americans are fascinated by science and generally optimistic about what it will bring, we’re also a bit skeptical.

The poll found that 93 percent of Americans believe the world is a better place because of science, with significant majorities of us convinced that science will help solve some of the biggest challenges facing us, including finding new ways to prevent and treat disease.

But 27 percent of Americans surveyed said they were skeptical of science, with 41 percent indicating that science causes just as many problems as it solves. And 46 percent of us indicated that we believe the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in scientific innovation, with 33 percent attributing the lag to inadequate funding for scientific research.

The poll found that Americans believe machines are on the rise, with 62 percent expecting robots to be in every office within their lifetimes and 48 percent predicting they will be in every home. About half envision a “Back to the Future”-style world with flying cars soon becoming reality.

We’re a bit less sanguine about spaceflight, with only 32 percent of Americans indicating that they believe they would live to see the colonization of Mars.

And while 89 percent of Americans indicated that they would encourage their children to pursue a career in science, only 38 percent indicated that they wish they themselves had chosen a science career — possibly because they think they’re not smart enough. Nineteen percent of us think only geniuses can have a career in science, according to the survey.

Retired astronaut Scott Kelly thinks that attitude needs to change.

"We need to stop thinking about science as something only people who are 'science minded' can achieve,” Kelly told NBC News MACH in an email. "There is no science gene. It might come easier to some people than others, but the field is open to anyone who is willing to put in the hard work.”

Kelly, a spokesman for 3M, added that he believes students need to know more about career opportunities in science. "We as parents, mentors, and relatives need to help draw a connection between a student’s passion point and a science field,” he said. "The more we can help students understand the they can improve lives through science, the more — I think — they’ll be engaged in the field."

More than 14,000 people in 14 countries participated in the survey, including approximately 1,000 Americans. Participants — picked to give a representative sample of the population based on age, gender, region, and ethnicity — answered questions either online or via written questionnaire.