Public Attitudes about Specific S&T Issues
Views about specific S&T issues may shape individual behavior (e.g., purchasing particular products, supporting specific policies) more directly than general attitudes and knowledge (Fishbein and Ajzen 2010). Although Americans appear to have relatively stable, positive views about science in general, the available data suggest that they have become increasingly concerned about a range of environmental and technological developments in recent years.
The corresponding data from the GSS are not as comprehensive as the data provided elsewhere in this report. The questions used were initially designed as part of an international survey project and have several unusual characteristics; therefore, they should be interpreted with caution.Technical Appendix for additional discussion.) It is important to note that perceived danger about the environment and both nuclear power stations and modifying the genes of crops move in parallel (Figure 7-10), suggesting that respondents’ reported views are at least partly based on general levels of concern about science-related risks rather than concerns about specific issues or technologies.However, the overall pattern found in the questions is largely consistent with results from other surveys where a range of questions is used to assess views about specific issues. (See the
Perceived danger of specific health and environmental issues: 1993–2018
Data are not available for all years. Data represent respondents giving a response of "extremely dangerous" or "very dangerous" to the following: In general, do you think that pollution of America's rivers, lakes, and streams is…; In general, do you think that air pollution caused by industry is…; In general, do you think that pesticides and chemicals used in farming are...; In general, do you think that a rise in the world's temperature caused by the "greenhouse effect" is…; In general, do you think that nuclear power stations are…; and Do you think that modifying the genes of certain crops is....
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1993–2000); NORC at the University of Chicago, General Social Survey (2010–18).
Science and Engineering Indicators
It is also noteworthy that the issues reported here are those for which there has been a historical interest in opinion dynamics and for which there are high-quality, current data. These do not represent all potential issues. Previous editions of Science and Engineering Indicators have included attitudinal data on nanotechnology, the teaching of evolution in schools, and other topics.
The GSS included three general questions about environmental pollution, and the 2018 data generally suggest that concern is similar to 2016 but high relative to surveys from prior decades. The data also suggest that most Americans feel some degree of concern about a range of environmental issues. Specifically, in 2018, about three-quarters of respondents said that they believed that “pollution of America’s rivers, lakes, and streams” was “extremely” or “very” dangerous to the environment, similar to 2016 and higher than in earlier decades (Figure 7-10). The trend was similar in “air pollution caused by industry” and “pesticides and chemicals used in farming.” Women and those with a high school diploma or higher levels of educational attainment were generally more concerned about these issues (Table S7-18 through Table S7-20).
Gallup (2019b) data on similar environmental pollution questions, and on overall environmental concern, also suggest that current levels of concern are high relative to the most recent decade. However, the Gallup data suggest that concern was at its peak around 2000, a pattern that is not observed in the GSS data, which may be due to differences in the Gallup survey and the GSS, including question wording and order. It is also important to note that, in the GSS and Gallup data, levels of concern about a range of different specific environmental issues move together (i.e., if concern about one issue increases, concern about other issues also tends to increase).
The share of GSS respondents expressing concern about the rise in the world’s temperature has increased over time. In 2018, a majority of GSS respondents (58%) indicated that a “rise in the world’s temperature caused by the greenhouse effect” is “extremely” or “very” dangerous. This is up from the 1994 low of 35% (Figure 7-10). Concern is highest among those with more education, especially science-specific education and awareness of basic scientific facts, and relatively younger respondents (Table S7-21).
Other surveys on attitudes about climate change have found similar patterns. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication have jointly surveyed climate change attitudes since 2008 and have seen increases in the reported concern about climate change, as well as the belief in the scientific consensus that humans are a primary cause of current climate trends (see the Technical Appendix for additional information on sampling). Specifically, the November 2019 Climate Change in the American Mind survey found that 66% of Americans were “very” (30%) or “somewhat” (36%) worried about climate change, similar to an all-time high of 69% in December 2018 but higher than the low of 49% in January 2010 (Leiserowitz et al. 2019). Also, 59% said in November 2019 that they believed that “global warming is caused mostly by human activities,” up from 46% in January 2010 and March 2012. Data from Pew Research Center and Gallup also found generally rising levels of reported concerns about climate change (Gallup 2019b; Poushter and Huang 2019).
The consensus among the scientific community is that climate change largely originates from human activities and represents a substantial environmental threat (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018; Royal Society and U.S. National Academy of Sciences 2014), as well as a threat to societies and economies (National Research Council 2010).
The only energy question on the GSS focuses on perceived danger to the environment from “nuclear power stations.” In 2018, slightly more than half of Americans (56%) said nuclear power stations were “extremely” or “very” dangerous, similar to 2016 and up from 40% in 1993 (Figure 7-10). In the same year, about a third of respondents said nuclear power stations were “somewhat dangerous,” and 10% categorized nuclear power stations as “not very” or “not” dangerous. Women, those with relatively less education and awareness of basic scientific facts, and those in the 25–34 age group tended to perceive higher levels of risk from nuclear power stations (Table S7-22).
Gallup (2019a) has also asked about nuclear energy regularly for the last 20 years. In 2019, Gallup also found that about half of Americans “strongly” (17%) or “somewhat” (32%) favored the use of “nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity” in the United States. Also in 2019, a similar share (47%) said they considered nuclear energy to be safe. In Gallup data, favorability of nuclear energy peaked in 2010 at 62% before the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 and has been largely split since then, with about half of Americans supporting the technology and the remainder opposing the technology or reporting no opinion (Reinhart 2019). Pew Research Center data show a similar split (Funk et al. 2018).
Beyond nuclear energy, data from Pew Research Center and Gallup suggest a strong desire for renewable sources of energy and limited support for expanding the use of fossil fuels. For example, a 2018 Pew Research Center survey (Funk et al. 2018) found that most Americans favor “more solar panel farms” (92%) and “more wind turbine farms” (85%). Support for fossil fuels is more limited, with fewer Americans supporting “more offshore drilling” (42%), “more hydraulic fracturing” (38%), and “more coal mining” (35%). In 2019, Gallup (2019a) also reported strong support for more emphasis on solar (80%) and wind production (70%) and more limited support for fossil fuels.
Genetically Engineered Food
The 2018 GSS also included a question about genetically engineered food crops (sometimes known as genetically modified [GM] organisms or GM food). About 39% of respondents in 2018 indicated that they thought that “modifying the genes of certain crops” was “extremely” or “very” dangerous, down slightly from 2016 but considerably higher than the low in 2000 (21%) (Figure 7-10). A similar share (37%) said such modifications were “somewhat” dangerous, and 20% said such modifications were “not very dangerous” or “not dangerous” (Table S7-23). This issue seems to concern fewer people than nuclear energy and most environmental issues (Figure 7-10). Generally, women and those with less than a bachelor’s degree seem to be most concerned (Table S7-23).
A different survey by Pew Research Center (Funk, Kennedy, and Hefferon 2018) found higher levels of concern. Specifically, in that study, nearly half of Americans said that “genetically modified ingredients” are generally “worse for your health than foods with no genetically modified ingredients,” up from 39% in 2016. The same survey, however, reported that 71% of Americans had heard or read “a little” (58%) or “nothing at all” (13%) about the topic. Despite some Americans’ concerns about genetic engineering, in 2018, 7 in 10 Americans said that science has “had a mostly positive” effect on food in the United States, which was similar to or higher than surveys from previous years (Funk, Kennedy, and Hefferon 2018). In addition, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) argue that there is no evidence that genetically engineered crops have caused substantial health or environmental problems since the technology emerged commercially in the 1990s (NASEM 2016a).