Introduction

This report provides a portrait of public attitudes and understanding of science and technology (S&T) in the United States. The primary data for the report come from the General Social Survey (GSS), a long-standing, face-to-face national survey sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with comprehensive sociological and attitudinal trend data.Americans is sometimes used in the report to refer to GSS respondents, but some respondents may not be American citizens." id="notebd8c1994-2e48-48d0-b420-886fb8095649" role="button" tabindex="0" data-trigger="focus" data-placement="bottom" data-bs-trigger="focus" data-bs-placement="bottom" data-html="true" data-toggle="popover" data-bs-toggle="popover" data-sequenceNumber="1" data-section-sequence-number="1" data-content="The report relies largely on data on the U.S. public’s attitudes about S&T and awareness of basic science facts that have been collected through the GSS since 2006 and by a standalone S&T survey managed by NSF in prior years. Data from other high-quality American surveys are also noted for context. Where possible, U.S. attitudes are placed in an international context using data from high-quality surveys in other countries. For 2018, 1,175 respondents to the GSS answered questions about science. This provides a sampling margin of error of approximately plus or minus 3%, 19 times out of 20, when looking at the full sample (sampling error is smaller when looking at subgroups). Sample sizes are similar for recent years, although some previous surveys were larger. The term Americans is sometimes used in the report to refer to GSS respondents, but some respondents may not be American citizens." data-bs-content="The report relies largely on data on the U.S. public’s attitudes about S&T and awareness of basic science facts that have been collected through the GSS since 2006 and by a standalone S&T survey managed by NSF in prior years. Data from other high-quality American surveys are also noted for context. Where possible, U.S. attitudes are placed in an international context using data from high-quality surveys in other countries. For 2018, 1,175 respondents to the GSS answered questions about science. This provides a sampling margin of error of approximately plus or minus 3%, 19 times out of 20, when looking at the full sample (sampling error is smaller when looking at subgroups). Sample sizes are similar for recent years, although some previous surveys were larger. The term Americans is sometimes used in the report to refer to GSS respondents, but some respondents may not be American citizens." data-endnote-uuid="bd8c1994-2e48-48d0-b420-886fb8095649">​ The Technical Appendix provides more information on the GSS and the other data sources used in this report. All differences or patterns specifically reported in the text are statistically significant. Other public sources, including Pew Research Center and Gallup, are also noted when appropriate, as well as data from other countries. Question wording and order, as well as other factors, such as survey mode and sampling frame, generally vary across sources; comparisons across surveys should, therefore, be done with caution.

The report focuses on overall patterns in S&T attitudes and interest in science. It emphasizes over-time comparisons and comparisons between related questions. It also discusses variations by respondents’ demographic characteristics. Race is not included in the analysis because the GSS does not include an adequate number of responses from any single nonwhite group to allow for valid comparisons (see, however, Allum et al. ; Plutzer ). Detailed data on the demographic characteristics of respondents are included in the report’s supplemental tables and the Technical Appendix.

This report contains four main sections. The first presents Americans’ overall views about science, including the degree to which Americans see promise in S&T, whether they report reservations about S&T, and what views they hold about scientists and federal funding of scientific research. The second section addresses public attitudes about specific S&T issues, such as various environmental issues, including climate change, genetically modified food, and nuclear energy. The third section examines understanding of S&T-related facts and processes. The final section explores the American public’s interest in and source of S&T-related news and public involvement in S&T-related activities, such as visits to science or technology museums.

Although the survey questions examined throughout the report focus on views about science or technology, rather than engineering, limited available evidence suggests that most Americans may not substantially distinguish between these subjects when it comes to public opinion. Specifically, the 2014 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators included an analysis of an experiment in which half of the respondents were asked their perceptions about scientists and half were asked about engineers (National Science Board [NSB] 2014). The results showed few substantive differences between the two groups of respondents. Further, many of the specific technological issues discussed in the report (e.g., genetic modification, nuclear energy) could be understood as engineering focused. Engineering, in this regard, can be understood as a key driver of technology. Nevertheless, readers should be cautious in extrapolating views about science or technology to views about engineering.