Science vs. The People

Washington University in St. Louis’ Dean of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Barbara Schaal, was recently announced as the President-Elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), beginning her term Feb. 17. The AAAS’ mission is to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” As AAAS’s president, Schaal said she is “particularly interested in communicating the value of the basic research enterprise for our nation’s economic future and the well-being of citizens.” [Editor’s note: See also Susan Gelman’s post on this same topic, “Science’s Three-Way Split.”]

It’s good to know groups are promoting scientific advancement to a broader audience. Often research about new technologies remains confined to lab reports and mundane journal articles. And I doubt that a large percentage of the population subscribes to the “Journal of the Electrochemical Society” or other technical journals in order to keep up to date on advances in new battery chemistry. It’s important for broader scientific groups like AAAS to include items like “increase[ing] public engagement with science and technology” and “provid[ing] a voice for science on societal issues” as part of their mission. But is the rest of the country listening to what scientists and the AAAS have to say?

AAAS’ academic journal Science recently published a survey (conducted by Pew Research Center) that compared the views of the general population with those of AAAS member scientists on a range of scientific and societal questions. Questions ranged from the straightforward: “Are foods grown with pesticides safe to eat?” to the more ambiguous. Such as, “Are astronauts essential for the future of the U.S. space program? On most topics there was a significant gap between the two group’s opinions.”

The largest gaps appeared to occur not on the questions that were more ethics based or had a more subjective topic. For example, when asked “Was the space station a good investment for the U.S.?” 64 percent of U.S. adults and 68 percent of AAAS scientists answered “yes” (a 4 percent difference). This question goes beyond technology to the more general question of the economic value of certain scientific ventures, such as living in space.

The questions with the widest gaps appeared in areas where science provided a clear consensus, but the public didn’t always agree. When asked if humans had evolved over time, 98 percent of scientists answered “yes,” while only 65 percent of U.S. adult agreed (a 33 percent difference). Maybe that means more of the general population has been watching, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and agreeing with Mac that “Science is a Liar, Sometimes. But it more likely means that, while evolution is regarded as fact by scientists, it has clearly not been communicated to the public in the same manner.

Two other areas that showed wide gaps are climate change and GMO safety. Even though scientific research points overwhelming towards anthropogenic sources (humans) being the main cause of climate change, only 50 percent of U.S. adults believe climate change is due mostly to human activity. GMO safety continues to be a contentious topic of debate around the country, but science’s consensus is clear on this issue. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists agree that it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37 percent of the general population agreed. Why hasn’t the general population come to the same conclusion as the scientists? Do U.S. adults not trust scientists’ results?

That doesn’t seem to be the case, because the same survey also showed that 79 percent of U.S. adults believe that science has made life easier for most people. These adults also stated that science had mostly positive effects on health care (79 percent), food (62 percent), and the environment (62 percent). As an interesting side-note: these percentages have all fallen since a similar survey was taken in 2009, possibly showing that faith in science has slipped in the last 5 years.

Instead, it appears that scientists are doing a poor job communicating to the public about issues. Scientists seem to know that their communication is a problem, with 84 percent of AAAS members surveyed saying it’s a major problem that the “public doesn’t know much about science.” Whether or not the scientists are doing anything about it remains to be seen. Educational outreach is often talked about as important at academic institutions, but can be difficult to implement effectively. As Dr. Schaal takes her new post, hopefully she can help close the gaps shown by this Pew Survey, and make science more mainstream.