On August 21, 2017, an estimated 154 million Americans gazed upwards at a total solar eclipse that cast its shadow across a 70-mile-wide sliver of 14 states—making it among the most-viewed science-oriented events in history.
The eclipse also stood out as a tranquil episode during an eventful year in science that was frequently characterized by change and controversy. In just the last 12 months, the U.S. government announced it would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, rolled back more than 40 environmental regulations and proposed to cut the budgets of several federal agencies, including those with science research missions.
Against this backdrop, scientists inserted themselves into public policy debates when thousands of researchers took to the streets during the April 2017 March for Science.
Pew Research Center surveys conducted throughout 2017 reveal various fault lines in how the public thinks about these issues. The nation was sometimes split along partisan lines and at other times divided among age groups. The American public also weighed in with its views about the trustworthiness of scientists and science-related information.
1) Younger and older Americans had significantly different views of the March for Science
The March for Science, which took place on April 22, 2017, stemmed from a Reddit thread created on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day. A number of groups were involved in planning the event, held in Washington, D.C. and some 600 other locations around the world. Although climate change was a key issue, marchers said there were a number of other reasons they participated.
Although most of those in the scientific community support active engagement in public policy debates, some researchers had expressed concerns that protest marches could inadvertently politicize science issues. A Pew survey conducted one month after the events found that Americans were closely divided on whether the science marches would have an impact: 44 percent of adults thought the protests, marches and demonstrations would boost public support for science, while an equal share believed the protests would make no difference.
While there were no notable demographic differences in views about the March for Science by gender or education, the division between younger and older adults was striking. When it came to backing the goals of the protesters, 56 percent of those ages 18 to 29 said they “support” or “strongly support” the goals of the marchers, while just 36 percent of those 65 and older said they back the goals of the marchers.
In terms of perceived impact, 72 percent of those ages 18 to 29 thought the marches would encourage scientists to be more active in civic affairs, compared with 47 percent of those ages 65 and older. Some 62 percent of younger adults believed the protests would raise support for government funding of science, while only 36 percent of those 65 and older said this. Moreover, 61 percent of younger adults thought the protests would encourage policymakers to rely more on the advice of scientific experts, versus 43 percent of adults 65 and older.
2) While Democrats’ views of environmental regulations have remained largely unchanged, Republicans increasingly view them as harmful to the economy
On November 13, 2017, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries signed a declaration saying that humanity had failed in its efforts to limit climate change and that environmental challenges would continue to get “far worse.”
Although growing numbers of both Republicans and Democrats say there is solid evidence that the Earth’s temperature is increasing, they continue to disagree over whether this is caused mostly by human activity.
This partisan divide is not limited to climate change: Republicans and Democrats are wider apart than ever over whether environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. These divisions were laid bare in Washington, D.C. this past year as lawmakers clashed over initiatives to repeal or roll back dozens of environmental rules regarding air and water pollution, fossil fuel extraction and mining rights on federal lands.
These political divisions are largely the result of changes among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. A decade ago, 58 percent of Republicans said stricter environmental regulations were worth the cost; 34 percent said stricter environmental regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy
Today, these opinions have reversed: just 36 percent of Republicans say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, while 58 percent say they cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.
There are also wide partisan differences when it comes to prioritizing environmental protections and reliance on renewable energy sources. For example, Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party are about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to want to ensure that energy development efforts are designed to prioritize environmental protection (68 percent versus 32 percent).
3) Democrats are far more supportive than Republicans of federal spending for scientific research
The Trump administration is setting out to reduce the size and budget of several government agencies. Some of those agencies include scientific research among their missions, which has prompted concerns in the scientific community.
Among the proposed cuts in the administration’s current budget proposal: the National Institutes of Health would see its budget reduced by about 20 percent and NASA’s Earth science program would be reduced by roughly 9 percent.
As with environmental regulations, there is a significant partisan divide over federal spending for scientific research, according to a survey conducted in April 2017.
In 2001, the two parties were nearly equal in their support for this type of federal spending. But since then, Republican support trended steadily downward before a modest uptick in recent years, while Democratic support remained relatively steady before rising significantly in the current survey. The partisan gap in support for more spending was 16 percentage points in 2011 and now stands at 27 points.
4) A majority of Americans get their science news from general outlets, though many question how often these outlets get the science facts right
As debates have swirled around science-related issues ranging from environmental protection to the food we eat, an important question is where Americans go to stay informed about science topics, if anywhere.
Public confidence in the scientific community appears to be relatively strong, as does trust of information from scientists—in fact, more Americans trust information from scientists than from industry leaders, elected officials and the news media, according to a 2016 Pew survey.
Likewise, a survey conducted in May and June 2017 reveals that Americans believe science and technology centers or museums are a more accurate source of science news than any other outlet.
That said, only 12 percent of Americans get their science news from science and technology centers or museums. A majority of U.S. adults (54 percent) rely on general outlets, though just 28 percent say general news gets the facts right about science almost always or more than half of the time.
Americans see problems in science news coverage stemming from the media, researchers and the public itself. For example, 43 percent of Americans say it is a big problem that the news media are too quick to report findings that may not hold up. A similar share (40 percent) also see problems resulting from researchers publishing so many studies that it is hard to distinguish between high and low quality.
When pressed to choose which problem is greater, almost three quarters of Americans (73 percent) say that the bigger problem is the way the news media cover scientific research, whereas only about a quarter (24 percent) say the bigger problem is the way researchers publish and share their findings.
At the same time, roughly four in ten U.S. adults say that major problems in the coverage of research findings include the public not knowing enough about science (44 percent) and jumping to conclusions about how to apply research findings to their lives (42 percent).