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Science Dims In American Public's View

Americans still have high regard for scientists and the impact that science can have on society, but they are not so sure about the superiority of U.S. science, according to a new poll.

Only 17 percent of the public -- compared to 49 percent of scientists -- said that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world, according to a survey of the public and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conducted by the Pew Research Center this spring.

Americans are also less sure than they were 10 years ago that science, medicine, and technology are America’s greatest achievements.

Only 27 percent agreed with that statement, a drop of 20 percentage points since 1999. More Americans now call civil rights the country’s greatest achievement, or have no opinion on the question.

Most scientists, meanwhile, said the public doesn’t know much about science -- 85 percent agreed with that statement. Many criticized the news media for not distinguishing well-established scientific findings and for oversimplifying science. They diverged sharply with the public on several other issues as well.

For example, scientists are less likely than the public to believe that government is “inefficient and wasteful” and more likely to say that businesses tend to have a hard time striking “a fair balance between profits and the public interest.”

They are also far more likely than the public to believe in evolution, global warming, and the use of animals for scientific research.

A large majority also believe in federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, more nuclear power plants, and a requirement that all parents vaccinate their children.

The biggest obstacles to doing good science, according to scientists, are lack of federal funding and limitations on H1B visas for foreign-born workers.

There are areas where scientists and the public agree, though. A majority of both groups viewed medicine and life sciences as important achievements and said that government funding is essential to good science. They also believe government funding will pay off in the long run.

Despite the bad economy, scientists are upbeat about their profession. Three quarters of those surveyed said these are good times for science and their specialties.

That opinion may be related to politics, the survey notes. More than half of the scientists identified themselves as Democrats and liberals, and many said they are optimistic about the Obama administration’s impact on science.

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