“Science issues are increasingly pressing civic issues”

Lee Rainie and Cary Funk, Pew Research Center.

Pew Research Center is a fact tank that informs the public about issues, attitudes and trends that are shaping the world. As a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder, it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan and non-advocacy organization, based on values such as independence, objectivity and rigor. Lee Rainie is the Center’s director of internet, science and technology research, and supervises the surveys that examine people’s online activities and the internet’s role in their lives, as well as the intersection of science and society. Cary Funk is an associate director for research, focusing on science.

 

Pew Research Center conducts a wealth of research and produces many facts. How do you choose your research topics?

We are constantly looking to see which topics and key questions in society are pressing issues and could benefit from the kind of data and analysis that we can provide. Our mission is to conduct original, primary research that helps inform major policy decisions and cultural conversations. This means that we spend a lot of time trying to discern noteworthy and urgent issues in public discourse and determining which of these conversations might be helped by the kind of sound, timely data and analysis that we provide. However, we do not perform our research for the purpose of taking a position on policy outcomes.

 

Since facts are never completely neutral, do you take any neutrality measures with regard to dissemination?

We work to make sure that our research is balanced and neutral, starting with how we design our questions right through to how we describe our findings. Dissemination of our research focuses on people, groups and organizations who share an interest in the topic under study, regardless of their policy position. So, for instance, we hope our material is equally useful to those who want to limit immigration even more and to those who support more liberal immigration policies, or to those who want to cut science research and those who support higher levels of science research. We know that we are achieving our goals for balanced research when advocates on both sides of an issue cite our studies. For example, we recently observed in an appeals court that the judges on both sides of an immigration argument used our data to support their opinions on the case.

 

Why has the Pew Research Center expanded its research on science and society?

The Center decided to expand its research in these areas for three reasons. First, science issues are increasingly pressing civic issues: significant policy and ethical questions are driven by what scientists discover and how policymakers and the general public react to those discoveries. Second, science and technology innovations are at the heart of societal change: nations look to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, genomics, brain science, energy technologies, food production, robotics and other fields to fuel economic growth. Third, scientific findings are a key battleground for how cultures decide what is true: the rise of the internet and the explosion of communities of interest around science issues have raised fundamental questions about how facts are unearthed and what meaning they should be assigned when crafting policy solutions.

 

What is the relevance of science research in relation to other topics tackled by the Center, such as politics and religion?

As we already said, science issues are more broadly civic issues. Our analysis of public attitudes across 23 science-related issues showed that sometimes people’s political views are a major influence on their positions on a science issue and sometimes their religious beliefs and practices are a notable influence. Other times, people’s general level of education and their specific level of knowledge about science are influences. We find that some judgments about science are increasingly divided along partisan lines, such as support for federal government spending on scientific research, but also that many science subjects are not swept up by partisan hostilities.

The thing we find most fascinating with regard to all of these issues is that there is no single explanation for why people think the way they do about science. For example, people’s political views matter significantly in their thinking about climate change and energy issues, whereas religion is strongly related to how people think about end-of-life medical issues and people’s views about biomedical advances on the horizon

 

In science debates, what carries more weight: political ideology or facts? 

People’s political orientations appear to serve as an anchoring point for how knowledge influences their attitudes. For example, many in the scientific community believe that if the American public were better informed about the science behind climate change and energy issues, people would hold views more closely aligned with those of scientific experts. But as we found in a 2016 Pew Research Center survey on these issues, how much people know about science has only a modest and inconsistent correlation with their attitudes about climate and energy issues, whereas partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs. People’s level of science knowledge help to explain their beliefs about climate change to a certain degree, but the relationship is a complicated one.

 

Do you know how public and/or private bodies take your studies into account?

Even though we do not have a policy agenda driving our work, we want our material to be useful to the policy audiences. So, the starting point is building awareness.  In recent years, we have presented our findings to staff at the White House; Congress; multiple federal agencies and advisory bodies, such as the National Academies of Science; a number of prominent scientific societies, and the science journalism communities. Our work is included in the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report from the National Science Board and the National Science Foundation; it has also been included in at least two studies by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and served as the catalyst for a three-year project on the public face of science by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

 

What are the latest internet-related issues that you have investigated?

Our two recent reports on cybersecurity focused on how Americans think about cybersecurity issues in their everyday lives and on how much Americans know about cybersecurity issues and concepts.  This work extends the research we have done over the last three years about Americans and privacy issues. We have also continued our studies about the future of the internet by examining what experts predict the impact of algorithms will be on human activity in the next decade. We must remember  that algorithms are instructions for solving a problem or completing a task that lead to massive amounts of data being created, captured and analyzed by businesses and governments. We have also examined how experts think people and technologists will handle free speech issues in this age of trolls and worries about fake news.

 

And what are the latest science-related issues that you have investigated?

We released a series of studies assessing public judgments about scientific expertise, consensus and credibility. These surveys gathered parallel measures across three science issues: global climate change; childhood vaccines; and genetically modified foods. This in-depth look at public trust in science stems from questions raised in our  earlier surveys comparing the views of the public and those of the scientific community, which showed that on a number of major, controversial issues there were wide opinion gaps between them. The findings raised questions about the reasons behind these wide differences, and many speculated that they reflected a lack of public trust in scientific experts and their research.

 

And what are the mid- and long-term trends that you would like to explore? Why?

In our technology-related research, we are interested in several developments. One is the emergence of the Internet of Things and how people will incorporate connected devices and appliances into their lives. Of course, that has major implications for privacy and security. Another trend is how people try to navigate this new information ecosystem and how they figure out how to find information they can trust. Yet another issue is what role automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence play as factors in people’s workplaces and learning experiences.

In our science research, we will continue to explore questions about new developments in biomedical research and how people think about these developments. Our most recent research on this showed that people are quite wary of biomedical advancements used to enhance human abilities, such as gene-editing, brain chip implants and synthetic blood substitutes. Many people are concerned about what these enhancements might do to them, their loved ones, and society.

Another area we hope to address in our coming research is how people learn about science issues and the role of education in people’s attitudes towards and understanding of science. We want to better understand public participation in these kinds of activities and how it might shape public thinking.

 

How are new media changing society?

Information has a different character when it is digitized and courses through networked communications channels. We have documented in our work how digitized, connected communication has, for example, elevated the importance of personal networks and decreased the power and role of the mass media in people’s lives. It has compelled institutions to create new laws and regulations around “information politics” on issues ranging from privacy, to hate speech, to intellectual property ownership. It has enabled people to participate in media culture in ways that were previously impossible and to create new kinds of communities that are organized around every possible connective element of human life. Furthermore, it has added new stresses to life, and has provided new ways for people to torment and wound each other.

 

In your opinion, how much of the research that you do in the USA can be universalized or extrapolated to other countries/cultures?

This is a core question driving our work at the Pew Research Center.  We would love to know more about the extent to which our findings in the U.S. generalize to other countries. All the questions surrounding science research are relevant not just to the U.S. but to societies around the world.  With so many technology companies based in the U.S., we often see Americans adopting new technology early, but as more people from other countries use these technologies, their use often evolves in new ways. Our colleagues who study global issues, for instance, have seen that social media adoption in developing countries is much higher among internet users than it is in developed countries. And that people in different countries use social media for different purposes.

One big mystery at the moment is whether the developing world will have a different experience of the changes enabled by the spread of mobile phones, compared with the experience that developed economies went through in the past generation with the wired internet. Some have speculated that the spread of cell phones in developing countries will allow them to “skip a generation” of tech adoption. No one has yet fully documented what that means or suggested how it will unfold in the future.  

 

From a Spanish point of view, one thing that is striking is that you have a “Hispanics” section. Why this specific section and not others? 

The United States of America is a country known for its diversity. The Center has studied other key demographic and religious groups in the country including U.S. Muslims and African Americans. We are also looking to better understand the key migration patterns of immigrants in the U.S., in Europe and around the world.

We originally began studying the experience of Hispanics in the U.S. because the number of Hispanics was growing rapidly. Hispanics are, according to a 1976 US Congress law, “Americans who identify themselves as being of Spanish-speaking background and trace their origin or descent from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and other Spanish-speaking countries”. This was a particularly useful line of research for the Center to pursue, because their experiences had not been comprehensively studied by other researchers. The number of Hispanics in our country now totals about 57 million adults and children. While the rate of growth has slowed, Hispanics still accounted for about half of the population growth in the U.S. from 2000 to 2014 (54%). Most Hispanics in the USA originally come from Mexico (64%); smaller percentages come from other Latin American countries. 

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