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Public perceptions of science & technology and higher education explored in recent reports

May 19, 2022
By: Emily Chesser

Two recent studies explored public perceptions of science and technology and higher education in the United States. The first study from the NSF National Science Board explores public perceptions and awareness of science and technology among American adults, and a separate report from New America analyzes attitudes on higher education, with a particular interest in the transition to online instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NSF National Science Board study explores three dimensions of public perceptions of science and technology, including Americans’ perceptions of science and technology, how well Americans understand scientific logic and research processes, and where Americans encounter science and get scientific information. The study found that public confidence in science generally remains high, and trust in medical scientists has increased since 2016. In 2020, about 43 percent of Americans expressed great confidence in medical scientists, a 19 percent increase from the 24 percent reported in 2016.

Most Americans reported a basic understanding of scientific research, but only a minority reported having any recent experience with scientific activities. The report also found that American adults seek scientific information more often than adults in other countries with comparable levels of research and development spending. While most data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, the report does explore the impact of the pandemic on public perceptions, especially when it comes to media presentation of scientific information. The report found evidence suggesting that news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to increased public trust in science in 2020.

A study conducted last year by New America also provides insight on American’s attitudes about the value of higher education and included an interview of 2,620 American adults with oversamples of Black, Latinx, Asian Americans, current undergraduate students, and student loan borrowers. The survey questions fit five broad categories: value, funding, accountability, policy, and COVID-19 response. The survey found that Americans believe that post-secondary educational opportunities are valuable, and about 76 percent believe that higher education offers a strong return on investment. Only about 48 percent of respondents indicated they believe that high-quality post-secondary education is affordable. The survey also found a deep partisan divide on whether the government should spend more money to fund higher education.

The survey showed that Americans want colleges and universities to be held more accountable. About 93 percent say that institutions should provide public data on graduation and employment rates, and about 81 percent say that institutions with low graduation rates should lose some taxpayer dollars. In terms of policy, the survey asked respondents what they believed the Biden Administration should prioritize, and the most frequent response was the affordability of higher education. New questions were included to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public perceptions of higher education. Most respondents reported that colleges have adequately provided technological support, mental health counseling, and medical health assistance during the pandemic. However, results showed that respondents believed institutions could have done better at providing basic necessities, lower tuition, and childcare. 


science. technology, higher ed