News Release 

Science and scientists held in high esteem across global publics

Yet there is ambivalence in many publics over developments in AI, workplace automation, food science

Pew Research Center

Research News

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 29, 2020) - As publics around the world look to scientists and the research and development process to bring new treatments and preventive strategies for the novel coronavirus, a new Pew Research Center international survey finds scientists and their research are widely viewed in a positive light across global publics, and large majorities believe government investments in scientific research yield benefits for society.

Scientists as a group are highly regarded, compared with other prominent groups and institutions in society. In all publics, majorities have at least some trust in scientists to do what is right. A median of 36% have "a lot" of trust in scientists, the same share who say this about the military, and much higher than the shares who say this about business leaders, the national government and the news media.

Still, the wide-ranging survey, conducted in 20 different publics around the world before the COVID-19 outbreak reached pandemic proportions, reveals ambivalence over certain scientific developments - in areas such as artificial intelligence and genetically modified foods - often exist alongside high trust for scientists generally and positive views in other areas such as space exploration.

The survey - conducted in Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States - is the Center's first in-depth examination of international public attitudes toward scientists and scientific topics.

Public concerns around climate change and environmental degradation remain widespread. In most publics, majorities view climate change as a very serious problem, say their government is not doing enough to address it and point to a host of environmental concerns at home including air and water pollution, overburdened landfills, deforestation and the loss of plant and animal species.

With renewed attention to the importance of public acceptance of vaccines, the new survey finds majorities in most publics tend to view childhood vaccines, such as that for measles, mumps and rubella, as relatively safe and effective, though sizable minorities across global publics hold doubts about this keystone tool of modern medicine.

"As the global landscape for scientific research continues to shift, these findings showcase the generally positive views that publics around the world hold for scientists and their work, as well as ideological fault lines in many places over how much to trust scientists," noted Cary Funk, director of science and society research. "This survey gives a portrait of global opinion on the place of science in society as challenges from the coronavirus outbreak were taking hold, and it sheds light on divisions over key civic issues ahead including vaccines, climate change and developments in AI," Funk said.

A median of 82% consider government investment in scientific research worthwhile, and majorities across the places surveyed view it as important to be a leader in scientific achievements. However, publics' assessments of their own achievements in science do not always measure up to their aspirations: A median of 42% say their scientific achievements are above average or the best in the world. However, the shares holding this view ranges from 8% in Brazil to 61% each in the U.S. and UK.

And in many places, publics see room for improvement when it comes to STEM education at the university and primary and secondary school levels. A median of 42% rate university education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in their survey public as above average or the best in the world, while a smaller median of 30% give high marks to their STEM education at the primary and secondary school level.

Other key findings include:

  • Public trust in scientists is often higher for those on the left than the right of the political spectrum. Such differences are especially pronounced in the U.S., where 62% of those on the left have a lot of trust in scientists, compared with two-in-ten of those on the right. In Canada, 74% of those who place themselves on the left say they have a lot of trust in scientists to do what is right, compared with 35% of Canadians with right-leaning political views. In the UK, there's a 27-point difference between the shares of those on the left and right who have a lot of trust in scientists. Germany (17 points), Sweden (15 points) and Spain (10 points) are some of the other places where those on the left are more trusting of scientists than those on the right.

  • Most see at least some impact from climate change where they live and say their government is doing too little to address it. A median of seven-in-ten across the set of 20 publics say climate change is having at least some effect on their local community. And in some places - Italy, Spain and Brazil - about half or more see a great deal of impact from climate change in their community. Government action on climate change is widely seen as lacking: Majorities across most of surveyed publics believe their government is doing too little to address climate change (20-public median of 58%). Consistent with environmental worries, majorities across all 20 publics say the more important energy priority should be increasing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power rather than increasing fossil fuel energy production (median of 86% vs. 10%).

  • People's views about climate change are strongly linked to political ideology. Ideological divides in the U.S. are larger than in any other public surveyed, but other publics also have wide ideological divides over climate matters as well. Australians on the left are more than twice as likely as Australians on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem (79% vs. 36%). Similarly, Canadians on the left are 38 percentage points more likely than Canadians on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem (82% vs. 44%). And in five European countries (Sweden, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Poland), those on the left are 20 or more points more likely than those on the right to say climate change is a very serious problem.

  • There is little consensus across regions in views of artificial intelligence and automation in the workplace. A median of two-thirds in the Asia-Pacific region say AI has been a good thing for society, while a median of 20% say it has been a bad thing. Elsewhere, public views are mixed. In Europe, a median of 47% say the development of AI has been good for society. Roughly half view AI positively in Brazil (53%), Russia (52%), the U.S. (47%) and Canada (46%). Opinions about the impact of robotics to automate jobs also are also mixed. A median of 48% say such automation has mostly been a good thing, while 42% say it has been a bad thing.

  • Most are skeptical about relying on experts, generally, to solve important problems. While scientists are among the most trusted groups in society to do what is right for the public, many value practical experience over expertise when it comes to solving pressing problems in society. A median of 66% think it's better to rely on people with practical experience, while a median of 28% say it's better to rely on people who are considered experts about the problems, even if they don't have much practical experience. There is broad agreement about this issue among people across the ideological spectrum and across most of the publics surveyed.

  • Majorities say the media do a good job covering science but say the public often doesn't know enough to understand news on scientific research. Around two-thirds or more say the news media do a very or somewhat good job covering science topics, while far fewer say the media do a bad job covering science (20-public median of 68% vs. 28%). Ratings of the news media are lowest in the U.S. and Spain, where roughly half say the media do a good job with their science coverage. A 20-public median of 74% consider limited public understanding of science to be a problem for media coverage of scientific research. By comparison, a median of 49% say the news media oversimplifying research findings is a problem in coverage.

  • Prior to the pandemic, many saw medical treatments as a source of achievement. Across the 20 publics, a median of 59% say their medical treatments are at least above average, with some of the highest ratings in the Asia-Pacific region. In South Korea and Taiwan, for example, 80% say their medical treatments are at least above average. By contrast, only 6% in Brazil and 13% in Poland think their medical treatments are the best in the world or above average. At the same time, medians of 45% and 42% say their technological and scientific achievements are at least above average, respectively. Assessments of primary and secondary school STEM education are lower (median of 30% say this is at least above average).

The full report explores these findings with additional public-by-public comparisons and greater demographic detail, including analysis by education, age, political ideology, gender and geographic region. This report is based on a survey of more than 32,000 telephone and in-person interviews conducted in late 2019 and early 2020.

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The report will be available at this link at the time of release: https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/09/29/science-and-scientists-held-in-high-esteem-across-global-publics

For more information or to receive the full copy of the report, please email Haley Nolan at hnolan@pewresearch.org.

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