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The public’s view of science is back!

The public’s view of science is back!

Karen FolkesBy Karen Folkes, Chair of the 'Public Attitudes to Science' Steering Group and Deputy Head of Science and Society, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills


What do the UK public think about science? Are they interested in science? Do they value it? Do they want to hear more about it? Do they have any concerns about scientific developments and new technologies?

These are just some of the questions explored in Public Attitudes to Science – a series of studies which has been going since 2000 and is now entering its fifth iteration. The data, collected from both surveys and qualitative research, has been used by many different organisations to help measure the impact of their scientific, engineering and educational programmes.

What do the UK public think about science?

In 2011, 51% of people thought that they heard and saw too little information about science – but how has this changed, if at all, in the last three years? Without understanding how, and perhaps more importantly, why, we can’t continue to improve what we, as organisations, have to offer.

Range of views

These studies are extremely useful in helping to shape the future of science policy, education and communication in the UK. Having spoken to other members of the steering group, and those who work in science communication organisations, it is clear to see the value in this type of research.

“Public Attitudes to Science is an incredibly useful tool for a range of organisations,” explained Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the British Science Association.

“It not only shows to what extent certain groups of people hold common sets of values, but also identifies the areas where more can be done by our programmes. We are incredibly excited to be involved again this year and are looking forward to seeing the results in Spring 2014,” he said.

In 2011, 88% of the people surveyed believed that scientists made a valuable contribution to society, but 70% believed the media sensationalised science.

Plan for the future

At the end of last year, the Government announced eight areas in science and technology research that they believe the UK can be global leaders in. Of course, we'll be looking at attitudes to those technologies, among many others, in order to gauge the public’s views on scientific research in the UK.

“The survey helps us understand how people engage with new things, such as nanotechnology or synthetic biology - which helps us in shaping our understanding and planning around these new areas,” explained Ruth Williams, from Research Councils UK.

Reliable data

Considering the need for such a survey, it is incredibly important we get it right and build on the good work carried out over the past decade or so.

“EngineeringUK needs to understand how people perceive engineers and engineering, in order to promote the vital contribution that engineers, engineering and technology make to our society,” said Neil Randerson from EngineeringUK.

“We want to inspire people to pursue careers involving engineering and technology.  We need robust and accurate data from Public Attitudes to Science to help us and our stakeholders to understand and benchmark perceptions.”

The next phase

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has commissioned Ipsos MORI, in partnership with the British Science Association, to carry out this latest study, to be published in 2014. There will be a large face-to-face survey of UK adults, plus an additional booster survey of 16-24 year-olds. There will also be face-to-face qualitative research to explore the hypotheses generated by the survey results. New this time round are the hosted discussions and debates on the Ipsos MORI Connects online panel, which will be run throughout the year.

We will be discovering public views on a huge range of topics including science in everyday life, attitudes to scientists, and to the big scientific issues of today, including robotics, energy, big data and agri-technologies.

We’ll have a number of guest posts from science and cultural commentators to share their thoughts and spark debate on this year’s study.

You can come here to –

  • find out about the next stages of the project
  • have your say on the findings as they emerge
  • debate with scientists, researchers, writers, commentators and members of the public.

So, welcome to the start of this year’s discussion.

Have you used the research from Public Attitudes to Science in your programmes or activities? How did it help you? Please leave your comments below or tweet them using the hashtag #PAS2014.

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