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News Release 98-036

Science and Engineering Indicators '98 Survey Shows Americans' Interest in Science Grows

But Actual Understanding of Scientific Terms and Concepts Still Lags

July 1, 1998

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Americans say they are more interested and more aware than ever about scientific discoveries, inventions and new technologies. However, they still score low on actual understanding of basic scientific terms and concepts, such as the definition of molecules and DNA, and how frequently the earth revolves around the sun.

The public also seems divided intellectually and emotionally over the impact of some technological developments.

The newest survey measuring public attitudes and understanding of science, engineering and technology was published in the latest National Science Board's (NSB) biennial report to Congress, Science and Engineering (S&E) Indicators 1998. The report is the NSB's volume of vital statistics on the state of science, engineering and technology in the United States.

"The awareness and interest in science continues on an upward path, but most Americans still don't understand the scientific process very well, and that affects their views on the nation's science policy," Jon Miller, who conducted the survey for the National Science Foundation (NSF), said. Miller is director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

In a testing method used for national and international surveys, American adults were asked a series of nine basic questions. On a zero-to-100 scale, their mean score was 55. Survey-takers scored worst on a question about their understanding of what is a molecule. They scored best on their understanding of how the continents are moving slowly about on the face of the earth.

"The American public believes that science and technology improves the quality of life, but its concern over specific technologies, such as nuclear power for electricity and genetic engineering, indicates that the public has not given science a blank check. And the scientific community needs to communicate its work more clearly and effectively because only one in four Americans understands the process of scientific discovery," Neal Lane, outgoing NSF director, said.

Among other survey findings:

  • Almost 70 percent of Americans surveyed in 1997 said they are interested in science and technology, the highest level ever;

  • Meanwhile, only one in five Americans think they are well-informed about new scientific discoveries and in the use of new inventions and technologies. This is improved compared to 1995;

  • American adults appear to understand basic scientific concepts as well as or better than other industrialized nations, in contrast with results produced by some American students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

  • While there is a continuing rise in the use of computers in the workplace or at home across the general population, the biggest increase by far over the last two years has been among those with at least a bachelor's degree.

The impact of information technologies on the economy, education and on private citizens is now so vast that a new chapter was written for S&E Indicators 1998 to assess the issue. The report finds that the use of these technologies in the workplace is pervasive but that there are significant inequities in access to computers and the Internet in schools.

"We should be concerned about these inequities in our schools," Shirley Malcom, former NSB member and chair of its education and human resources committee, said. "It is crucial that our schools have consistently modern tools together with quality content, and that teachers get the training needed to instruct students using these technologies."

The National Science Board is the governing body for the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency which develops S&E Indicators for the NSB every two years through the Division of Science Resources Studies. The final report is submitted to the President, who transmits it to Congress.


The URL for the web version of Science and Engineering Indicators 1998 is:

For other press releases about S&E Indicators, see:

  • PR 98-34 Upswing in Industrial R&D Creating Positive Economic Benefits: New data released in S&E Indicators 1998

  • PR 98-35 Growth of Information Technology is Changing the Face of the Economy: S&E Indicators '98 says IT likened in scope to Industrial Revolution

Media Contacts
William C. Noxon, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Jennifer Bond, NSF, (703) 292-8777, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2020, its budget is $8.3 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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