How do we feel about science?

How do Australians feel about science? The Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science has released results of a national survey examining Australian beliefs and attitudes towards science. The Australian beliefs and attitudes towards science survey 2018 report is a follow up to a similar survey conducted in 2017.

2018 results show that the broadly positive attitudes towards science identified last year continue. However there are some areas where public opinion is divided.

These include:

  • Access to experimental drugs – 55 per cent of 2018 respondents favoured or strongly favoured allowing access to experimental drugs before full clinical trials had shown them to be safe and effective. More than half of these respondents said this was because ‘people should have a choice / that it could save lives’.
  • GM foods – a third of 2018 respondents said that eating GM foods is generally unsafe, with their most common concerns that GM foods are ‘unnatural, unhealthy, harmful’, or ‘that they don’t know what making GM foods involves’. This is offset somewhat by the 46 per cent who consider GM foods generally safe.

A new 2018 survey question asked respondents about the sources of information they rely on to inform themselves about science. The top three most commonly mentioned information sources were all news-focused (either online, television or newspapers), with ‘other television shows’ and ‘specialist websites’ rounding out the top five.

As seen in 2017, Australians overwhelmingly consider that scientists, along with doctors and farmers, contribute enormously to society. However, the relative prestige of science as a profession does not match this high level of perceived contribution.

Other 2018 highlights include:

  • Two thirds of Australians reported they felt at least ‘fairly well informed’ about science, with nearly 60 per cent of these respondents saying this was because they ‘read about / take an interest in science’.
  • Nearly 88 per cent agreed that overall, science has made life easier with many attributing this to ‘advances in technology and medicine, or general scientific progress’.
  • Nearly 85 per cent of respondents said that all parents should be required to vaccinate their children, with ‘the proven theory of herd immunity / stops diseases spreading or returning’, the most commonly cited reasons for doing so.
  • Among the 128 people who were against parents being required to vaccinate their children, ‘it should be the family’s personal choice’ was the by far most common reason proffered (by nearly three quarters of this group of respondents).

Notable differences between 2017 and 2018 results include:

  • Fewer people reported being ‘not at all interested’ in politics in 2018, with the number of ‘not at all interested’ responses dropping from 31.8 per cent in 2017 to 19 per cent in 2018.
  • The proportion of respondents opposed to the use of animals in research (42.8 per cent of the sample) dropped by more than 5 per cent from 2017 to 2018, with 90 per cent of these people opposed because they considered animal research ‘cruel or unethical’. A similar number of respondents were in favour of using animals in scientific research, with nearly three quarters of them saying they favoured it because it was ‘better to test on animals than humans’.

The Australian beliefs and attitudes towards science survey 2018 was funded by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science  with data collection conducted by the Social Research Company. The research was designed, analysed and reported by Dr Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director, The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at The Australian National University.

Download the report