AAAS and public opinion about science around the world

by Patrick Sturgis

Next week the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convenes in Austin Texas for its annual jamboree, showcasing new science for an audience comprising policymakers, journalists, and scientists. AAAS is the largest multi-disciplinary scientific meeting in the world, with this year’s programme covering topics as diverse as gene editing, space exploration, driverless cars, neuroscience, and quantum computing.


Despite the name, AAAS is not focused solely on American research, with contributors coming from all over the world. UK science will be well represented at the 2018 meeting, including presentations from the head of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Sir Mark Walport. I will be participating in a session on what citizens think about science, a topic that has become increasingly central in the AAAS calendar, as science funders have come to understand the importance of public assent for potentially controversial research programmes.

The field of ‘Public Understanding of Science’ – as this area of research has rather paternalistically come to be known – has provided policymakers with important insights into public perceptions of and responses to science and technology. For instance, knowledge of scientific ‘facts’ is far less important in shaping public responses to science and technology than many, particularly scientists, have assumed. While ‘science literacy’ clearly contributes to how people understand and evaluate new technologies, the idea that public resistance to controversial research programmes is about ignorance of the underlying science has been comprehensively debunked.

Research into public understanding of science has shown that the ‘framing’ of emerging science and technology in media coverage and public debate is considerably more important than knowledge of the underlying science. Take genetically modified organisms, for example. In the United States, GM was framed primarily as a technology which capitalised on America’s leading scientific research base, giving the country a competitive edge in the agri-business sector (a powerful lobby group in US politics). In Europe, on the other hand, early debate framed GM as an ‘unnatural’ technology, presenting unquantifiable risks to population health, and offering few obvious benefits to consumers. These framings and the accompanying opinion dynamics were fundamental in shaping policy responses in both contexts; GM crops are now widespread in the US but rare and subject to very stringent regulation in the European Union.

Another important factor in public understanding of science research is trust; the extent to which citizens have confidence in researchers and institutions to be honest and to work in society’s, rather than their own, interests. High levels of expressed trust in science are consistently accompanied by higher levels of support for and optimism about the ability of science to improve our health and well-being. And, despite the recent advent of ‘fake news’, attacks on experts, and the ‘credibility crisis’ of science, attitude surveys around the world have shown that people uniformly express high levels of trust in science and scientists.

In the UK, for example, Ipsos-MORI found in 2017 that eight in ten Britons trusted scientists to tell the truth (compared to two in ten for Government Ministers). The 2014 Public Attitudes to Science Survey found that three quarters of the public believe scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth in the UK and the 2015 Wellcome Trust Monitor survey found that 94% of the public think that medical research will lead to improvements in our quality of life over the next 20 years.

What we know considerably less about is the extent to which these regularities of public opinion generalise to less frequently surveyed countries. The vast majority of survey research on public attitudes to science has been undertaken in a fairly narrow range of western democracies. That will change later this year when the Wellcome Trust launches an ambitious new survey of public attitudes to science covering 140,000 respondents across 140 countries. The survey will cover topics such as how relevant people feel science is to their lives, who benefits from science, and how much people trust science and scientists. Carrying out a survey of attitudes to science across such a diverse set of countries and cultures poses many conceptual and methodological challenges. I look forward to discussing how we will be addressing some of these challenges at AAAS.

Patrick SturgesPatrick Sturgis is Professor of Research Methodology in the Department of Social Statistics and Demography at the University of Southampton and Director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). He is past-President of the European Survey Research Association (2011-2015), chairs the Methodological Advisory Board of the European Social Survey. He chaired the British Polling Council Inquiry into the failure of the 2015 UK election polls and is Specialist Advisor to the House of Lords Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media. He serves as academic advisor to the Wellcome Trust on its portfolio of research into public attitudes to medical science.

You can follow @patsturgis on Twitter.

Patrick will be a discussant at the AAAS event ‘What citizens think about science: Survey data and implications for communicators‘ on 16 February. You can follow #UKatAAAS on Twitter throughout the conference or find out more on the UKRI website.

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