Science is important but moves too fast: five charts on how Australians view science and scientists

24 August 2017

Rod LambertsAustralian National University.

Ninety percent of Australians feel science has made life easier overall. But we're a complex nation when it comes to the finer details of how we view science and scientists.

We recently released results of the 2017 Australian Beliefs and Attitudes Towards Science (ABAS) survey, which was conducted by the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and commissioned by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

The report contains a snapshot of beliefs and attitudes of Australians towards science, and also links key attitudes and beliefs with demographic characteristics of the survey sample.

Some of the new results confirm what we knew already:

  • overall, Australians are very pro-science
  • as a society, we are generally quite highly engaged with science-related issues
  • we are predominately a nation of people who accept and are concerned about climate change and our role in it.

But there were some surprises, too. The data show some tension between the benefits and the pace of scientific change, and a far from straightforward relationship between the perceived contribution and prestige of scientists as professionals. Further, more than 50% of Australians think that drugs should be released for use before clinical trials are completed.

The benefits and pace of science

Eighty percent of Australians say the benefits of science have been greater than any harmful effects.

Source: Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science.

However, despite this positive perception of the value of science, nearly half of us say science has changed our way of life too fast.

Our attitudes to science and its outputs are far from straightforward. Personally I find this encouraging. It suggests that many Australians are thinking quite deeply about the way science and society interact, rather than uncritically accepting or dismissing its effects and implications.

Contribution and prestige of scientists

Around 80% of Australians felt scientists contribute enormously to society, just beating doctors (80%) and farmers (78.5%) as the biggest contributors. Less than 20% of respondents saw lawyers as contributing enormously to society.

Interestingly though, only 62% saw the sciences as very professionally prestigious. Doctors came first there, scientists second, and farmers came third. Around 26% of respondents saw being a lawyer as very professionally prestigious.

Source: Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science.

We analysed the data in another way to ascertain the relationship between views on contribution and prestige in individual Australians. We found that when it came to scientists, the relationship between prestige and contribution to society was the least straightforward of all 16 professions we asked people to rate.

This data shows that many people who rated scientists highly on contribution to society did not rate them highly on prestige. However, people who rated priests or members of the military as high contributors were far more likely to rate them as more prestigious as well.

Clearly our opinions about how scientists fit into the world are complicated.

Drug access without complete clinical trials

We asked respondents whether they were in favour of or opposed to a range of specified scientific activities.

As shown in the graphs below, opinions about use of animal in research, nuclear power for electricity generation, growing genetically modified crops to make fuel and fracking all received varied degrees of support.

Interestingly, more than half (54%) of respondents favoured releasing drugs before full clinical trial approvals have been conducted.

This is remarkable, and is actually almost exactly the same proportion as a similar question in the 2015 US PEW poll.

For now, I can only speculate as to why this might be the case. Perhaps many of us believe clinical trials exist to block access, seeing them as a regulatory sticking point rather than a critical part of the process of assuring safety. We recently saw a very public battle between mainstream medical opinion and the promise of untried medical treatments in the case of Charlie Gard, who has since died from mitochondrial disease.

Australians don't have a simple relationship with science and its products. But this is a good thing in a modern society. The fact that we can applaud what science does well, but are still prepared to question what we don't like or understand is a sign of a healthy democratic relationship with science, scientists and science funding.

To view a complete picture of the survey results, you can download the full report and the data tables here.

The data consists of a nationally representative sample of 1,203 Australian adults in early 2017, and is an update and extension of a 2010 Australian national survey of public opinion about science. The 2017 edition includes some questions inspired by a recent US national survey conducted by PEW.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.