The public wants what the public gets/But I don’t get what this society wants
-The Jam, “Going Underground”
Earlier this year, the National Science Board released the 2014 version of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report, detailing trends within the STEM community. In addition to data about STEM degrees, patents, and research budgets, the Indicators include a chapter on public attitudes and understanding of science and technology, providing an intriguing look at how the scientific community and its efforts are viewed by the general public.
First, the good news: people generally have positive views of scientists. 41 percent of Americans surveyed expressed “a great deal of confidence” in scientific leaders, ranking them second only to military leadership, ahead of members of the Supreme Court and (not surprisingly) politicians. Four of five of those surveyed would be happy if their child became a scientist, and over 80 percent indicated some level of interest in science.
Less encouraging are the statistics showing what the public understands about science. Fewer than half of those surveyed feel that they have a solid understanding of what scientists actually do, and 50 percent of respondents “strongly agree” or “agree” with the idea that scientific work is dangerous. Furthermore, in spite of the increase in both formal and informal efforts focusing on enhancing science education, knowledge about scientific concepts seems not to have increased very much over the past few decades, with respondents answering fewer than six out of nine questions about science correctly.
These data echo an oft-heard complaint from those within the scientific community that the public doesn’t “get” science. Countless hours have been spent, and volumes of words have been spilled, pondering what can be done to increase public understanding of science. Perhaps a better question for the scientific community to ask instead is, what does the public actually want from scientists? Should we assume that they want to hear what scientists have to say, or that they want to know more about science?
Maybe, instead of dogmatically telling the public what they should know, the scientific community should spend some time figuring what the public wants to know. As several recent discussions have emphasized, effective science communication, on which successful outreach relies, necessarily requires a two-way dialogue. Maybe, instead of trying to make sure that everyone everywhere knows everything about science, we should listen to those who have argued that instead of striving for universal public scientific literacy, science outreach efforts should focus their energy on generating public appreciation for, and awareness of, science.
Maybe then, the next version of the Science and Engineering Indicators will provoke less angst about what the numbers say, and more introspection about what people actually say.