Monday, 17 March 2014

Public attitudes to science and technology

The 2014 Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) survey has just been published in the UK. This annual survey is conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and shows that the UK public’s views on science and scientists are becoming ever more positive as science and technology play an ever growing role in our daily lives. 

The 2014 PAS generally shows a more positive perception compared to two years ago with the majority seeing science as beneficial to their own life, society, and economy, and agreeing with public funding for research.

A large majority (81%) of the UK public think that on the whole, science will make our lives easier, with 55% agreeing that the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects (up from 43% in 2000).  Those feeling that science makes our way of life change too fast have dropped from half (52%) in 1996 to just a third (34%) today. This change is driven by the younger generations, rather than a shift in overall perceptions across all generations, with 34% of both Generation X (born 1966-1979) and Generation Y (born since 1980) agreeing science makes our way of life change too fast, compared to 71% of the Pre-War Generation (born before 1945).  Similarly Generation X and Y are also more likely than their predecessors to say that it is important to know about science in their daily lives

Positive role
People are also more positive about the role science has to play in the economy, with almost all (91%) agreeing that young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity (up from 85% in 2008) and 38% strongly agreeing that the UK needs to develop its science and technology sector in order to enhance its international competitiveness (up from 25% in 2008).

Almost eight in ten (79%) agree that even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances knowledge should be funded by the Government, and 65% disagree that government funding for science should be cut because the money can be better spent elsewhere.

The public’s perceptions of scientists are strongly positive, with 46% strongly agreeing that they make a valuable contribution to society, and 27% strongly agreeing that in general, scientists want to make life better for the average person.  Scientists are now third on Ipsos MORI’s veracity index of professions, behind doctors and teachers, with 83% of the public saying that they would generally trust them to tell the truth.  This shows a significant continuing increase and now places scientists ahead of priests and the clergy in terms of trust.

The survey also shows that the public have a desire to know more about science and scientific research. The proportion who currently feels informed about science has increased from 40% in 2005 to 45% in now. However, half (51%) still feel that they receive too little information. There is also a desire for the public to play more of a role. However, while 69% think that scientists should listen more to ordinary people, and 75% think that the Government should act in accordance with public concerns about science and technology, there is also a growing recognition of the need for expert advice on some aspects.  Seven in ten (70%) say that experts and not the public should advise the Government about the implications of scientific development, up from 61% in 2008.

Science and media
The following nuggets of information were teased out of the survey details by Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre in London.

People still use traditional media. 59% say TV is one of their most regular sources of information on science, 23% say print newspapers are one of their most regular sources, while only 15% say online newspapers or news websites are one of their two most regular sources.
However 40% think scientists are poor at communicating and 50% think scientists are secretive. 90% trust scientists working at universities compared to 60% who trust private company scientists and there is concern over independence of scientists.

Of the specific science and social science topics explored in the survey, people feel relatively well informed about climate change, vaccination, renewable energy, economics, and animal research, but most do not feel informed about nuclear power, genetically modified (GM) crops, clinical trials, stem cell research, nanotechnology or synthetic biology (see Figure below).

GM and energy questions
72% feel that ensuring the world has enough food to go around is a very big issue today. 36% of those who have heard of GM crops before say the benefits of GM crops are greater than the risks, while 28% say that the risks are greater than the benefits. 80% feel that no agricultural technologies should be ruled out to help increase world food production, and less than only one-in-ten (9%) reject this notion. 58% agree that GM crops are necessary to increase world food production, but one-in-five (20%) are neutral and 15% disagree.

Interestingly support for carbon capture and storage is lower than for fracking for shale gas in questions about emerging energy technologies (see Figure below).

More information
For more details see the Ipsos MORI PAS 2014 website. The survey was conducted through 1 749 interviews with UK adults aged 16+ and a booster survey of 315 16-24 year-olds. Interviews were carried out face to face between 15 July and 18 November 2013.

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