Public perceptions of science and technology (S&T) in the United States affect many aspects of civic life. They predict citizen engagement with formal science education (Vincent-Ruz and Schunn 2018), support for investment in S&T (Besley 2018; Muñoz, Moreno, and Luján 2012), and the ways in which the public talks about scientific discoveries (Southwell and Torres 2006). Public encounters with, and understanding of, science can also help predict behavior toward scientific organizations and future patterns of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) training (VanMeter-Adams et al. 2014).
Given the potential consequences of public perceptions on the S&T enterprise in the United States, researchers have been studying public understanding of science for decades (Durant, Evans, and Thomas 1989; Hilgartner 1990; Leshner 2003; Allum et al. 2008; Funk et al. 2019). The National Science Board has published numerous iterations of the Science and Technology: Public Attitudes, Knowledge, and Interest report that include data on trends in opinions, attitudes, and behaviors related to S&T. (For information on the most recent previous version of this report, see NSB Indicators 2020 report "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes, Knowledge, and Interest.")
Although measuring public perceptions of S&T has been a long-standing project for social science research, measurement itself has evolved as researchers have come to recognize the complexity of those perceptions. Earlier researchers tended to focus on deficits in science knowledge as a key criterion for evaluating public understanding of S&T, such as testing factual knowledge about antibiotics. More recently, however, researchers have turned to measuring public perceptions of science practice and scientific institutions. That understanding includes a range of ideas and beliefs that may not always align neatly with knowledge of scientific facts (Miller 2004; Allum et al. 2008). Patterns of public perception also evolve over time, suggesting that both cross-sectional and longitudinal data (meaning data captured at one point in time and data generated over time) are sometimes necessary to accurately track and evaluate public beliefs about S&T.
Some researchers view science as operating within larger social and cultural contexts—such as public discourse about values, the roles of institutions, and specific threats to health and well-being—that must be acknowledged in thinking about how people perceive scientific research (see Bauer 2009; Brossard and Lewenstein 2010; Lewenstein 1992). These changing considerations of science as an endeavor and of the roles of scientific institutions intersect with long-standing national measurement efforts that use stable indicators to track public understanding of science over time. As a result, any effort to summarize public perceptions of science must address the tension between established measurement efforts that have not changed substantially over time and evolving conversations about what measures of public understanding of S&T are possible and appropriate.
This report draws on relevant peer-reviewed research and offers indicators and data on three important dimensions of public understanding: (1) Americans’ perceptions of S&T issues; (2) how well they understand scientific logic and research processes; and (3) where they encounter science and get scientific information. When possible, the discussion includes both aggregate U.S. data on public perceptions and data broken down by demographic characteristics. The report also includes some information comparing Americans’ public perceptions of S&T to those of their counterparts in other countries with high levels of spending on S&T research and development (R&D).