Scientists, public differ in outlooks

Scientists and the public don't see eye-to-eye on animal research, evolution or moneymaking, finds a poll out Thursday, but both agree on one thing.

They like science.

In the Pew Research Center survey, 84% of non-scientists say science has a "mostly positive effect on our society," and 76% of scientists say these are "good times" for researchers. However, nearly half the scientists surveyed, 47%, say their colleagues are pursuing "projects that yield marketable products but do not advance science very much."

"The results tell us we have a lot of work to do, not only on getting the word out about scientific findings, but about how science works," says Alan Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which collaborated with Pew on the survey. Conducted from April to June, the survey asked 2,001 members of the public and 2,533 scientists about their attitudes toward science in a look at views on business, religious and political beliefs. Among the differences:

•Evolution. 32% of the public and 87% of scientists agree that people have evolved.

•Animal research. 52% of the public and 93% of scientists support drug testing or other experiments on animals.

•Nuclear power. 51% of the public and 70% of scientists support nuclear power development.

"I don't think this is hugely surprising. We've seen these kind of differences before," says Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. "But I think this is hugely important in telling people in science that maybe they need to reach out to the public better."

Leshner noted that the public was much less likely (17%) than scientists (49%) to see U.S. research as leading the world, despite their support for government funding. The nation spends about 2.6% of its $14.2 trillion gross domestic product on research and development, chiefly in the defense industry, according to the National Science Foundation.

"The major value of this survey is that it rebuts the frequent allegations that Americans are 'turning against' science," says political scientist Jon Miller of Michigan State University.

Echoing past surveys, 79% of the public respondents in a companion June survey of 1,005 people felt that the government should maintain or increase federal science spending. In April, President Obama called for the nation to spend 3% of its GDP on science, both public and private, in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences.

On the scientist side, 76% say that the incentive to do research on subjects in which funding is readily available has too much influence on the direction of research; 11% believe the "possibility of making a lot of money leads many scientists" to "violate ethical principles" in their research. Even so, 67% say "it is a good time to begin a career in science."

Reporter Dan Vergano responds to your questions or thoughts in the comments below.

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