March 30, 2015

Survey shows opinions differ between scientists and the public

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By Michael Azain, ASAS Public Policy Committee

The Pew Research Center in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a survey that highlights the difference of opinions on science-related topics between the general public and scientists. The survey was conducted by phone interviews of the general public (2,002 U.S. adults) and an online survey of members of AAAS (3,478 U.S. scientists). The participants in the general public group were a representative sample of the age, gender, race, and education level distribution of adults in the country. The survey of scientists included members from all scientific fields, with about half of the respondents being in the biomedical sciences.

There were several areas where the opinions of the general public and scientists differed greatly, with the largest gaps related to biological science. A majority of scientists (88%) felt that eating genetically modified foods was safe, compared to 57% of the respondents in the public who felt they were unsafe. There were differences between genders, with 47% of males feeling GM foods are safe, compared to only 28% of females. Two-thirds (67%) of the adults felt that scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM foods.

For pesticide use, 28% of the adults said it was safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared to 68% of the scientists. Forty-seven percent of the adults were in favor of using animals for research, compared to 89% of the scientists.

While the majority in both groups agreed that humans have evolved over time, only 65% of the public felt this was true, compared to 98% of the scientists.

The other main part of the survey related to climate, energy policy and space exploration. Of note in this section were the differences in opinion on climate change. One-third of the general participants felt climate change was a “very serious problem” as compared to 77% of the scientists. Only 50% of the adults agreed that human activity was responsible for climate change as compared to 87% of the scientists.

The survey did indicate that both the public and the scientists recognize the accomplishments made in science, and the resulting contributions to their daily lives, and both groups support government investment in scientific research. However, the support from the public survey was less favorable than reported in a similar survey conducted in 2009.

Both scientists and the public were critical of the quality of STEM education in K-12 in the US. A majority (76%) of the scientists felt that lack of STEM training in K-12 was a major contributing factor to the public’s lack of scientific knowledge and that very likely a contributing factor to the large disconnect of the public on important science-related issues such as those related to GM food safety.

This survey illustrates the need for agricultural scientists to continue to communicate with the public and overcome these differences in the understanding of the science behind modern food production.