Total Disconnect: The chasm between consumers and science widens

Editor's note: The following article was featured in the June issue of PORK Network magazine.

Climate change, genetically modified organisms, animal research and pesticides have long proven to be the center of much debate amongst the common public. Is it real? Are they safe? Is it moral? In a recent poll by Pew Research Center, distinct disconnect between public and scientists" views on science and society came to the surface with those topics.

The poll states, "Despite broadly similar views about the overall place of science in America, citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes. There are large differences in their views across a host of issues.

"Scientific innovations are deeply embedded in national life in the economy, in core policy choices about how people care for themselves and use the resources around them, and in the topmost reaches of Americans" imaginations," notes the report. "New Pew Research Center surveys of citizens and a representative sample of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) show powerful crosscurrents that both recognize the achievements of scientists and expose stark fissures between scientists and citizens on a range of science, engineering and technology issues."

Here's what the poll found:

· Only 37 percent of the general public feel it's safe to eat genetically modified foods, compared to 88 percent of scientists. This was the largest gap of the poll with a 51-point gap.

· 47 percent of the public are in favor of using animals for scientific research, compared to 89 percent of scientists, making a 42-point gap.

· When it comes to deciding whether it's safe or not to eat food grown with pesticides, 28 percent of the public felt it was acceptable, compared to 68 percent of scientists, with a 40-point gap.

· The hot topic of climate change was viewed mostly due to human activity by 50 percent of the public, compared to 87 scientists, for a 37-point gap.

· Only 59 percent of the public population believe the growing world population will be a major problem, in a 23-point difference with 87 percent of scientists agreeing.  

"The largest differences between the public and the AAAS scientists are found in beliefs about the safety of eating genetically modified (GM) foods," says the report. "Nearly nine-in-ten (88 percent) scientists say it is generally safe to eat GM foods compared with 37 percent of the general public, a difference of 51 percentage points. One possible reason for the gap: when it comes to GM crops, two-thirds of the public (67 percent) say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects."

Public versus private

A paradigm shift has taken place in terms of where research is conducted, particularly animal research. Twenty years ago, land-grant colleges and Extension specialists performed most of the research. Now, private companies are involved in research, either exclusively or in partnership with university experts. All forms of research are important, regardless of whether or not it takes place in a university or company setting, and animal research lags far behind human scientific research.

Struggle for funding

Research funding, particularly government funding, is going to be even more challenging in the future. The report says, "There are a number of possible reasons for scientists" less optimistic assessments over this period including the different economic and political contexts, heightened concerns among scientists about the research funding environment, and, perhaps, what scientists see as the limited impact their work is having on policy regulations.

"Fully 83 percent of AAAS scientists report that obtaining federal research funding is harder today than it was five years ago. More than four-in-ten say the same about industry funding (45 percent) and private foundation funding (45 percent) compared with five years ago. Further, when asked to consider each of seven potential issues as a "serious problem for conducting high quality research today," fully 88 percent of AAAS scientists say that a lack of funding for basic research is a serious problem, substantially more than any of the other issues considered."

About 70 percent of the adults surveyed believe that government investments in engineering and technology and in basic scientific research usually pay off in the long run. Some 61 percent say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34 percent say private investment is enough to ensure scientific progress is made.

Other topics provide insight into attitudes

It's evident that consumers are highly influenced by the media, their friends and by social forums. The general media crave viewers and listeners, hence sensationalism trumps objectivity. Some social media mavens have discouraged vaccination of children and the value of drinking raw milk. These viewpoints put other individuals at risk. For example, 68 percent of the public see the necessity of children being vaccinated, while a strong 86 percent of scientists support vaccination. While 68 percent is not a low number, it is low enough to create concern.

Generally positive

The report suggests that overall, the American public tends to see the effects of science on society in a positive light. Almost 80 percent of citizens say that science has made life easier for most people, while just 15 percent say it has made life more difficult. However, the balance of opinion is slightly less positive today than in 2009, when positive views outpaced negative ones by a margin of 83 percent to 10 percent, write the authors.

Similarly, a majority of adults says the effect of science on the quality of U.S. health care, food and the environment is mostly positive as was also the case in 2009. The share saying that science has had a negative effect in each area has increased slightly. For example, 79 percent of adults say that science has had a positive effect on the quality of health care, down from 85 percent in 2009 while negative views have ticked up.

Despite the broad chasm between opinions, science still holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals, according to the report. Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and, despite considerable dispute about the role of government in other realms, there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.

This common area of agreement provides a good starting point for future projects that can help narrow the gap between what scientists and consumers believe.

Editor's note: Laura Mushrush is associate editor of Drovers Cattlenetwork, a sister publication to PORK Network. The information for this article came from the PEW Research Center Report: "Public and Scientists" Views on Science and Society, by Cary Funk and Lee Rainie.

For more articles and features from the June issue of PORK Network, click here.