Comments provided for GENeS on the launch of the Pew Research Center attitudes survey on Americans, Politics and Science Issues (July 1 2015)

Political leanings are frequently associated with attitudes toward science and technology in the U.S.  Yet as the most recent poll from the Pew Research Center on Americans, Politics and Science Issues shows, public attitudes toward science and technology depend on a far more diverse and complex set of factors.

This latest survey uses tried and tested statistical approaches to assess the degree to which different factors predict attitudes toward science, technology and engineering related issues amongst American adults.  As well as investigating attitudes as a function of ideology and political party, the survey also looks at the influence of age, education and science knowledge, gender, race and ethnicity, and religion or religious activities.

These factors are mapped onto 22 areas covering climate and energy, government funding of science and technology, evolution, biomedical research and applications, food safety, animal testing, and space research and exploration.  For each area, the analysis assesses how strongly or weakly each factor predicts public attitudes.

As with all statistical analyses, there are some uncertainties surrounding the results.  However, the approach used enables different influences to be disentangled from one another, allowing a clear picture to emerge of how different factors influence attitudes.  Within the caveats that apply to any such assessment, the survey paints a nuanced overview of factors influencing American attitudes toward the development and applications of science, technology and engineering.

As might be expected, the survey shows attitudes toward climate change and fossil fuel use to be strongly associated with political affiliation and ideology.  In contrast, acceptance of evolution due to natural processes is not strongly associated with political allegiances; rather, age and religion are stronger predictors of whether someone accepts evolution or not.  And on childhood vaccines, only age and race are medium to strong predictors of whether someone considers them safe or not (83% of U.S. adults agree that vaccines are generally safe for children).

These findings challenge often-used narratives that attitudes toward science in the U.S. is divided down political lines.  Of the 22 areas explored in the survey, attitudes were strongly predicted by political party or ideology in only 6 of them. Age, on the other hand, emerged as a strong predictor of attitudes in 10 areas, including genetic modification of babies to reduce disease risks and early access to new drug-based treatments.  Level of education and/or scientific knowledge was a strong predictor of attitudes in three areas (building more nuclear power plants, safety of genetically modified foods and the use of animals in research), and a medium predictor in a further ten areas.

Getting a better read on factors that influence public attitudes toward science and technology is critical to ensuring an informed public discourse around emerging issues – especially when the data are contrary to assumptions.

For example, data on attitudes toward the safety of childhood vaccines (collected in February 2015) show a high degree of consensus across different groups, with the majority of survey participants in each category agreeing that vaccines are generally safe – a finding which some may find surprising, given recent media coverage over the MMR vaccine in the U.S.

While there was evidence of some variation in attitudes between political ideologies (83% of liberals agreed that vaccines are generally safe, compared to 84% of conservatives and 91% of moderates), there was no statistical difference between party affiliations.  In contrast, there was a marked difference between the number of adults 65 years old and above agreeing vaccines are generally safe (91%) and adults between 18 – 29 (77% agreeing vaccines are generally safe).

Politics played an even smaller role in predicting attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) food.  According to the poll, 57% of U.S. adults – largely irrespective of party affiliation or political ideology – think it is generally unsafe to eat GM crops.  On the other hand, gender was an important factor, with 65% of women as opposed to 49% of men considering GM food unsafe, and science knowledge also strongly influenced attitudes – 66% of adults with less science knowledge considered GM foods unsafe, compared to 47% of adults with a greater general knowledge of science.

Interestingly, 50% of U.S. adults responded that they sometimes or always look for GM labeling when shopping, suggesting that food labels are an important source of information when consumers make purchasing choices.

These data illustrate the dangers of assuming all science issues are politicized in the U.S., and provide valuable insights into factors that influence attitudes.  They also highlight that, sometimes, it isn’t the science and technology so much as the decisions around them, that matter.  For example, while most Americans agree that childhood vaccines are generally safe, only 68% agree that they should be required.  This drops to 59% amongst adults between 18 – 29.

The issue here is not the science so much as who gets to decide how the science is used.  Vaccines are a stand-out example of this distinction between attitudes toward knowledge and use in the survey.  The survey as a whole though paints a picture of a complex society where multiple values and outlooks color how people think about the application of science and technology.

Overall, the survey counters simplistic narratives around politics and science, and lays a strong foundation for public engagement and dialogue around science and technology.  By understanding better the factors that affect people’s attitudes toward science and technology, it becomes easier to engage them in meaningful dialogue around how they are developed and used within society.

This is crucial for ensuring science policies that are supported by the American public.  But it is also critical for developing technologies that have the potential for great good, and yet may be derailed by naïve assumptions over public opinions, and what influences them.  In areas like the use of gene editing in human embryos, bioengineered transplants and genetically modified foods, misunderstanding who is concerned and why, may be equally or more damaging to progress than the concerns themselves.

The current survey makes a substantial contribution to developing more informed approaches to the responsible and societally relevant development and use of science and technology.

You can access the complete survey “Americans, Politics and Science Issues” here.

Feature image: US Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington DC.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Congress_02.jpg

Andrew Maynard