Public varies in views on science


Under the Microscope/Dr William Reville: Which of the following statements are true and which are false?

(a) Lasers function by making sound-waves converge; (b) Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria; (c) Electrons are smaller than atoms; (d) The genes of the father determine whether a baby is a boy or a girl; (e) All radioactivity is man-made; (f) The Earth goes round the sun in a month; (g) The first humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs; (h) Radioactive milk can be made healthy by boiling it; (i) The sun rotates around the Earth; (j) Humans have evolved from older animal species; (k) The oxygen we breathe comes from plants; (l) Continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move; (m) The Earth's core is very hot.

These questions formed a small part of a large survey of European attitudes to and knowledge of science and technology in the 15 member states carried out on behalf of the Directorate General for Research of the EU in 2001.

The survey is called Eurobarometer 55.2. I will now give you the answers to the above questions. In the following list T and F indicate whether the statement is true or false and the succeeding numbers indicate the percentage of people who reported the statement as true, false or "don't know". (a) F, 26.6, 35.3, 38.1; (b) F, 41.3, 39.7, 19.0; (c) T, 41.3, 23, 35.7; (d) T, 48.1, 30.2, 21.6; (e) F, 26.5, 52.6, 20.9; (f) F, 22.9, 56.3; 20.9; (g) F, 20.3, 59.4, 20.3; (h) F, 11.8, 64.2, 24.0; (i) F, 26.1, 66.8, 7.1, (j) T, 68.6, 16.6, 14.8; (k) T, 79.7, 13.6, 6.7; (l) T, 81.8, 5.5, 12.7; T, 88.4, 3.5, 8.1.

Eurobarometer 55.2 is a follow-up on a 1992 survey. It gives a good snapshot of public appreciation and understanding of science. Most people (61 per cent) feel they are poorly informed about science but 45 per cent declare they are interested in the subject and 52 per cent say they are not interested.

The areas of greatest interest to Europeans are medicine, the environment and the Internet (particularly among younger people) and TV is the preferred medium for obtaining information on scientific developments.

Visiting science and technology museums is uncommon. Scientific knowledge has progressed little since the 1992 survey with the single exception of knowledge of the action of antibiotics on viruses.

In 1992, 27 per cent of people knew antibiotics were powerless against viruses whereas 39.7 per cent knew this in 2001.

The overall view of science among the general population remains positive. Some 80 per cent of people feel scientific progress will cure diseases such as AIDS and cancer and 72 per cent feel science will provide greater opportunities for future generations. However, science and technology are not considered to be a panacea for a series of problems such as poverty, famine and scarcity of natural resources.

Only 16.5 per cent of people agreed with the statement "science and technology can solve all problems". Also, politicians and weak-kneed academics please note, 75 per cent of people favour government support for basic scientific research even if "it only helps knowledge to progress".

The public is divided on the issue of scientists' responsibility. Some 43 per cent agree with the statement "scientists are responsible for the misuse of their discoveries by others" and 42 per cent disagree. There is widespread desire for social control of science - 80 per cent of people agree with the statement that "the authorities should oblige scientists to obey ethical rules".

The public is definite in its opinion on genetically modified foods (GMF). Some 95 per cent of people want to have the right to choose whether to eat GMF, while 86 per cent of people want more information about GMF and 60 per cent believe that GMF could have negative effects on the environment.

The three most highly-regarded professions among the general population all have a scientific/technical dimension. Medical practitioners come first (chosen by 71 per cent), scientists come second (chosen by 45 per cent) and engineers come third (chosen by 30 per cent). Only 13.5 per cent choose business as the most esteemed profession and only 6.6 per cent choose politics.

Some other interesting findings reported were: 79 per cent of people said that "scientists and industrialists ought to co-operate"; 70 per cent said "more people ought to work in technological research and development in Europe"; 67 per cent reckoned "there should be more women in European scientific research".

Finally, we are experiencing something of a crisis in the matter of scientific vocations. The view of 42 per cent of people surveyed was, "This is a serious threat to future socio-economic development"; while 60 per cent said, "The authorities should try to remedy this situation". Rather worryingly, the top three reasons given by young people for lack of enthusiasm are (a) science lessons are unappealing, (b) science is too difficult and (c) young people are not interested in science. But I feel that the fourth reason given by young people and the population as a whole is critically important and this is the perception: salaries and career prospects are not sufficiently attractive in the scientific field. I feel that things would change radically if this perception were reversed.

William Reville is associate professor in biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC