By Abi Hilditch, Policy Partnerships Manager at the British Science Association

What is the public’s attitude to science in the UK? Until earlier this year, the role of science may not have been obvious in many people’s lives. However, since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, terms like ‘follow the science’ have become common in the media and public psyche.

The British Science Association (BSA) has been working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for many years to understand the relationship between science and society. In July 2020, the 2019 Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) report was released charting the public mood towards the scientific community over the past five years – but crucially, concluding before 2020. 

Following on from the 2014 report, this study provides insightful data into the views of the population before the pandemic put science at the front of centre of every news bulletin across the world. Although firmly situated in a pre-COVID-19 world, the study is none-the-less rich in data and warrants a deeper dive.

So, what does it tell us? The PAS report covers a myriad of points, but certain headlines stand out: 

  • Firstly, before COVID-19, public trust in scientists, regulation and funding remained high, with 89% of the public believing scientists make a valuable contribution to society. Perceived accessibility improved, and respondents were ‘more likely to feel very or fairly well informed about science’, with younger people (aged 16-34) the most likely group of society to feel informed and engaged.  
  • However, ‘Science Capital’ (the sum of all the science-related knowledge, attitudes, experiences and resources that an individual builds up through their life) was unequally distributed across the population, with those possessing higher levels most likely to be degree educated men. This is an unsurprising finding when we consider the levels of inequity in STEM education across the country. For those interested in a further exploration of this subject, please see our recent APPG inquiry into Equity in STEM Education.  
  • Of special interest to the BSA is the PAS illustration of public connectedness to science. 22% of people felt actively connected to science, 56% were interested in science but inactive and a further 22% felt that science ‘is not for me’. These findings mirror the work of the BSA and King’s College London on the Culture Tracker (2016) which found 25% of people were not interested in science, with the majority (51%) interested but inactive. The BSA uses this as the basis of its audience segmentation tool, which breaks the ‘actively interested’ category down into two: actively engaged (9%) and professionally (15%) engaged.  

This audience model has influenced our strategy and evaluation work at the BSA over the last three years, specifically our goal to reach underserved audiences, breakdown stereotypes, and champion diversity and inclusion. With less than a quarter of the population actively engaged with science there is much work to be done in increasing the public’s active science identity. 

While it is positive that trust in science was increasing, and beginning to feel more accessible, most of the population is still ambivalent. Science remains a sector that is unrepresentative of UK society, with prominent figures and those with high ‘Science Capital’ more likely to be male and middle-aged. In order to diversify science, we need to better understand how people engage with it to reach them. 

As part of the BSA’s mission to diversify science and science engagement, we will be releasing a further study in the autumn into how different and under-served audience groups engage with science. This work will use existing datasets, including the PAS 2019 study, and a new qualitative study to examine the interests and values of those who have an ‘inactive’ science identity, or who say science is ‘not for me’. We look forward to sharing our results as the project progresses.