7 July 1998

They Don't Know Much About Science, But They Know What They Like

It may not be the New Rock 'n' Roll, but science is capturing the imagination of Americans like never before. According to survey results published in the latest National Science Board's biennial report to Congress, the public is more aware than ever about scientific discoveries, inventions and new technologies. But when it comes to basic scientific concepts ' such as the definition of DNA or how frequently the Earth revolves around the Sun - they are hopelessly in the dark.

"The awareness and interest in science continues on an upward path, but most Americans still don't understand the scientific process very well, and that affects their views on the nation's science policy," says Jon Miller, who conducted the survey for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Miller is director of the International Centre for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

The survey also reveals a public divided intellectually and emotionally over the impact of some technological developments. As Neal Lane, outgoing director of the NSF, observes: "The American public believes that science and technology improves the quality of life, but its concern over specific technologies, such as nuclear power for electricity and genetic engineering, indicates that the public has not given science a blank cheque. And the scientific community needs to communicate its work more clearly and effectively, because only one in four Americans understands the process of scientific discovery."

Among the survey findings:

- Almost 70 percent of Americans surveyed in 1997 said they are interested in science and technology, the highest level ever.

- Meanwhile, only one in five Americans consider themselves to be well-informed about new scientific discoveries and in the use of new inventions and technologies. This is improved compared to 1995.

- American adults appear to understand basic scientific concepts as well as or better than other industrialized nations, in contrast with results produced by some American students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

- While there is a continuing rise in the use of computers in the workplace or at home across the general population, the biggest increase by far over the last two years has been among those with at least a bachelor's degree.