Americans’ Attitudes about Science and Scientists in 2017


From natural disasters to an opioid epidemic that prompted a public health emergency declaration, science was at the forefront of events that shaped our nation in 2017. National public opinion surveys commissioned by Research!America throughout the year revealed that a majority of Americans agree that public and private sector research is critical to better health, economic growth, global competitiveness and more. While the perception of science and scientists is positive, based on survey findings, scientists and our nation’s scientific enterprise remain largely invisible to the public.

The public overwhelmingly (82%) considers scientists trustworthy spokespersons for science, far above elected officials and the media. This level of trust includes an expectation that scientists will be the primary messengers for scientific issues, even those with policy implications. More than half of Americans agree that scientists should play a major role in shaping public policy in many areas, not only in medical and health research, but also in education (58%), infrastructure (55%) and national defense (51%). Americans recognize that science plays a role in their well-being, where they live, work and play. Yet many are unaware of the science community and those responsible for scientific advances. A strong majority of Americans (81%) cannot name a living scientist, more than two-thirds (67%) cannot name an institution, company or organization where medical or health research is conducted, and less than a quarter (21%) know that medical research is conducted in all 50 states. The findings have been consistent over the past decade, indicating the need for stronger engagement between scientists and the public.

A strong majority of Americans (71%) say they have confidence in scientific institutions compared to only 31% for Congress and 46% for the Presidency. When asked if great strides in science and innovation will continue while Donald Trump is President, opinions were divided (46% agree, 33% disagree and 22% not sure), with more Republicans (74%) than Independents (44%) and Democrats (22%) agreeing. Furthermore, a significant number of Americans (79%), including strong majorities across the political spectrum, agree that it is important for President Trump to assign a high priority to putting health research and innovation to work to assure continued medical progress (85% of Democrats, 79% of Republicans and 72% of Independents). As we pivot towards midterm elections in 2018, it is important for scientists and science advocates to ask candidates about their level of commitment to research and innovation to ensure a healthier and more prosperous future for our nation.

To view public opinion survey data click here.

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If concerted, long-term investments in research are not made, America will lose an entire generation of young scientists.
Brenda Canine, PhD; McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana