Interest, Information Sources, and Involvement
The final section of this report addresses the degree to which Americans pay attention to S&T-related content in their lives and where they are most likely to encounter this information. This includes measures of interest, preferred media, and visits to places where scientific ideas or research may be encountered.
Public Interest in S&T
Interest in S&T as an issue “in the news” has remained relatively moderate compared with other issues and has been stable over the last decade or more. In 2018, 41% of respondents were “very interested” in “new scientific discoveries” (Figure 7-12; Table S7-33 and Table S7-34), and a similar share (40%) were “very interested” in “the use of new inventions and technologies.” Of the 10 science and nonscience issues included in the survey, “new medical discoveries” drew the highest level of interest (56%). Americans have expressed relatively lower interest in two other science topics—“space exploration” (25% “very interested”) and “agricultural and farm issues” (20% “very interested”).
Public interest in selected science-related issues: 1979–2018
Data are not available for all years. Responses are to the following: There are a lot of issues in the news, and it is hard to keep up with every area. I'm going to read you a short list of issues and, for each one, I would like you to tell me if you are very interested, moderately interested, or not at all interested. This figure shows only "very interested" responses. See Table S7-34.
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1979–2001); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2008–18).
Science and Engineering Indicators
Interest in science topics—as with most other topics in the survey—is positively associated with education. Women tended to be more interested in new medical discoveries (59% compared with 52% for men), whereas men tended to be more interested in other S&T topics. For example, 45% of men were “very interested” in new scientific discoveries, compared with 38% of women (Table S7-34).
An extensive survey about science media use by Pew Research Center reported somewhat lower levels of interest (Funk, Gottfried, and Mitchell 2017). This survey reported that just 25% of Americans were “very interested” in “science news,” with another 46% saying they were “somewhat interested.” Overall, 10% of Americans said that “nearly every day” they “read, watch, or listen to news about science.” About a quarter of Americans saw news about science “a few times a week,” and almost a third of Americans saw such news “a few times a month.” One reason that interest may have been relatively low in the Pew Research Center survey is that it included questions about a broader range of nonscience issues than the GSS.
Outside the United States, interest in health issues has also generally been relatively high in comparison with interest in S&T and most other issues. A 2018 survey in China found that 93% of respondents said they were interested in “life and health,” compared with 77% who were interested in “new scientific discoveries.” Nearly three-quarters of people in China were interested in “new advances in medicine.” The “school and education” category also did very well in China, ranking the second highest (88%) behind “life and health” (CRISP 2018). The Wellcome Trust (2019) survey of 140 countries also found that people around the world were more likely to say that they had sought out health information “in the past 30 days” than science information. The likelihood of seeking out both types of information also tended to increase as countries became more economically developed. Overall, North Americans were the most likely to say they had recently sought out both types of information, with 72% saying they had sought health information and 56% saying they had sought science information.
S&T Information Sources
Americans continue to increase their reliance on the Internet for S&T-related news. In 2018, 57% of Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of S&T information; this has risen steadily from 9% in 2001 (Figure 7-13; Table S7-35 through Table S7-37). During the same period, reliance on television and traditional newspapers as primary sources of S&T news has declined. Pew Research Center (Mitchell et al. 2019; Shearer and Gottfried 2017) has found a similar pattern of increasing reliance on online news sources over the last decade.
Primary source respondents used to learn about current news events, science and technology, and specific scientific issues: 2001–18
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2006–18).
Science and Engineering Indicators
The Internet has also been the most common resource that Americans say they would use to seek information about specific scientific issues. In 2018, 70% said they would go online to find information about a specific S&T issue, up from 44% in 2001 (Figure 7-13; Table S7-37). Generally, higher levels of education and income are associated with relatively higher levels of Internet use; respondents with lower levels of education and income are more likely to rely on television as a news source for scientific issues.
Outside the United States, the Internet has also become increasingly popular in recent surveys, although television remains quite popular. For example, in China, 69% said they saw S&T information on television every day, and 65% said they saw S&T information online every day. Just 10% said they saw such information in newspapers. About 38% said they get daily information about science from friends, relatives, or colleagues, making this channel the third most cited source (CRISP 2018). In Germany, 37% of respondents said they often watch television programs about science, whereas a similar share said they often get information about science and research from the Internet. The “friends” category was the third most cited source (31%), closely followed by newspapers (Wissenschaft im Dialog 2018).
Involvement in S&T Activities
In 2018, zoos and aquariums remained the most popular type of informal science institutions, with half of Americans saying they had visited at least one such location in the previous year (Figure 7-14; Table S7-38). This percentage was similar in recent years and in much of the 1980s and 1990s. Beyond zoos and aquariums, 30% of Americans said they had visited a “natural history museum” in the previous year, and 30% said they had visited a “science or technology museum.” These percentages have remained stable over recent decades. Visitors at all types of institutions tend to be in the younger or middle-age categories and have relatively higher education and income. This pattern is particularly evident when it comes to museums (Table S7-38). Relative to the GSS, Pew Research Center data suggest that somewhat lower numbers of Americans have visited a zoo or aquarium, a museum, or a science or technology center. Differences between the surveys may be a result of question wording and mode of administration (online). Pew Research Center also asked about attending a “lecture or talk about science” in the previous year and found that 10% of Americans said they had participated in this type of event (Funk, Gottfried, and Mitchell 2017).
Visitors to informal science institutions: 1981–2018
Responses are to the following: I am going to read you a short list of places and ask you to tell me how many times you visited each type of place during the last year, that is, the last 12 months. Data represent respondents who visited an institution at least once. Percentages are based on total in the sample, including those who responded "don't know" or refused to respond. See Table S7-38.
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1981–2001); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2008–18).
Science and Engineering Indicators
Data from China suggest that 58% of respondents in 2018 said that they had visited a zoo, aquarium, or botanical garden in the previous year; 32% said they had visited a science or technology museum; and 30% said they had visited a natural history museum (CRISP 2018). More importantly, rates of participation in a range of these types of activities had increased between the 2015 and 2018 surveys. The Chinese report notes that the 2018 data are now very similar to those from the United States, although the response options are slightly different.