Executive Summary

Key takeaways:

  • Most Americans continue to have positive attitudes about the benefits of science. For example, nearly three-quarters of Americans in 2018 saw more benefits than harms from science, and more than 90% of Americans agreed that science and technology (S&T) will offer more opportunities for the next generation. These positive attitudes have remained stable for several decades.
  • Americans have supported federally funded basic research (84% in 2018) for several decades, and in 2018, approximately half (43%) thought federal spending was too low.
  • Despite the public support for the scientific community and the benefits of science, about half (49%) of the U.S. public is concerned that S&T may be making “life change too fast.” This share has been generally stable over the last decade but was relatively lower in earlier decades.
  • The U.S. public has become more concerned about the potential danger of several S&T issues, including environmental issues and technological issues, such as nuclear energy and genetic modification.
  • Americans increasingly rely on the Internet, rather than newspaper and television, for S&T news and information. 
  • Americans with higher levels of education consistently report the most positive attitudes about science and scientists and have the most interest in S&T.

This thematic report presents indicators about people’s attitudes toward issues related to S&T, awareness of basic S&T facts, and how people interact with science. As in past editions of Science and Engineering Indicators, this 2020 thematic report shows that most Americans hold positive beliefs about the benefits of S&T, have relatively high confidence in the scientific community compared with other groups, and believe that scientists are seeking to improve society. Most Americans also see value in federal funding of scientific research, and an increasing percentage of Americans indicate that current spending on science, health, and other issues is too low. These positive perceptions are, however, accompanied by some concern that S&T may be making “life change too fast.” Compared with previous years, there are also relatively high levels of concern about specific environmental issues, such as water pollution and climate change, and technologies, such as genetically engineered food and nuclear energy.

Americans report high levels of interest in new medical discoveries and the environment. However, interest in both topics has declined over time. Americans report relatively moderate but stable levels of interest in other S&T issues, such as new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies. Americans’ use of the Internet for science and general news has grown steadily over most of the last 20 years, and the Internet has become the most widely used source. Reliance on television and traditional newspapers has dropped in the same period for science and general news. Zoos and aquariums continue to be the most popular types of informal science institutions, with the share of Americans visiting these venues remaining fairly stable.

Education is the most important demographic variable associated with positive views about science. Highly educated Americans—whether measured by highest year of education completed, number of science and mathematics courses taken, or knowledge of basic scientific facts—are more likely to report the most optimistic views about science and positive views about scientists. More highly educated people typically report the most concerns about environmental threats. Women and younger respondents are also more concerned about the environment. International data exhibit similar trends. They suggest that, in most cases, Americans remain relatively positive about S&T when compared with people in other countries, with the exception of Chinese citizens, who are often equally or somewhat more positive.