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NSF report takes deep dive on perception of S&T, where public learns about science

March 07, 2024
By: Michele Hujber

Americans have a strong level of confidence in scientists and scientific institutions overall, as SSTI reported in a Digest article in December 2023. A new NSF report reviews recent literature about public perceptions, awareness, and information sources for science, and reports strong support for science. However, in their extensive literature review, the authors found evidence of current uncertainty and varying levels of awareness and acceptance of newer technologies, such as AI, robotics, and automotive automation.

The authors conclude that there is a pattern among Americans of not knowing much about science and not being very involved in science activities. “That pattern suggests that direct exposure to how S&T professionals conduct their work to generate peer-reviewed research publications has been limited among Americans, and future changes in such exposure could hold implications for Americans’ relationships with S&T institutions.” Depending on the trends, those implications could be either negative or positive.

Public perceptions of newer science and technology

The authors reviewed literature on newer science and technology topics that have generated public discussions. These topics include AI, automation technology, neurotechnology, climate change, and water contamination. They found "uncertainty and variation" among Americans in their perceptions and awareness of, and information sources for these technologies, which they said helps forecast U.S. adults' level of confidence in science in the near future.

Regarding Americans' attitudes toward AI, the authors cite a 3M State of Science Index survey from 2020. This survey showed that 22% of Americans reported knowing "nothing" about AI, 17% reported that they know "a lot," and 62% reported knowing "some." When the Pew Research Center asked the public about their level of familiarity with AI used for different purposes in December 2022, 46% of U.S. adults had encountered information about AI being used to aid weather prediction, 22% were aware of information about the use of AI for skin cancer detection, and 33% had heard or read information about AI being employed to write news articles. A 2023 review of over a decade of public opinion data on the use of AI in healthcare settings also suggested that approximately half of U.S. adults are unaware of specific instances in which AI is applied in healthcare.

The authors conclude that "(t)aken together, current public perception research on AI suggests that many Americans lack awareness about AI or feel uncertain about it, yet they feel some conditional optimism about it as well. The vast majority of U.S. adults appear to have some concern about future technology management.” 

Their literature review also illuminated recent public perceptions of:

  • neurotechnology, for which the authors say there is widespread concern and lack of understanding,
  • climate change, about which Americans are having difficulty understanding the research language, and
  • water contamination, about which the authors note, “the extent to which American adults understand … is not yet clear.”

Although the relatively low rates of understanding about newer technologies could potentially predict a future lack of confidence in these technologies, the authors note that, according to their literature review, public trust in other technologies, such as robots or automatic parking features in electric cars, rose once the public had more exposure to the technology.

Information Sources and Involvement

The literature review also revealed that American adults tend to learn about science from general news sources or social media. Thus, many Americans are not exposed to the study limitations that would only be mentioned in an original, peer-reviewed article.

The authors also note that the extent to which American adults participate in science activities is one aspect of their direct opportunity to learn about scientific logic and processes. They cite available survey data indicating that fewer Americans interact directly with science than read about it in general or social media. For example, only 19% of adults reported being involved with a child's science project, according to The Pew Research Center's November 2020 American Trends Panel survey, and only 18% reported visiting a science and technology center in the past year, according to 2017 Pew Research Center data.

Public familiarity with science and technology research processes

The authors also reviewed the literature to determine how familiar the public is with the scientific research process. They cite Pew Research Center data collected in November 2020, the most recent national evidence available on the topic, to illustrate an association between individuals’ understanding of science as a process and their confidence in scientists. The survey found that 66% of people surveyed correctly believed that the scientific method produces findings meant to be continually tested and updated over time. However, it also found that 34%, which the authors note is a "considerable minority," believed that the process produces "unchanging core principles and truths" or was unsure. And only half (50%) could correctly identify a scientific hypothesis.

"(The results from the (Pew November 2020) research suggest that a sizable proportion of the U.S. adult population may not currently understand the scientific process of hypothesis testing in the same way that professional scientists working in scientific communities do," the authors concluded.

science, technology