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The Public Attitudes to Science surveys delve into the UK public’s attitudes to science, scientists and science policy.

Carried out by Kantar on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, PAS2019 is the sixth in a series of surveys undertaken, the last in 2014.

The research includes a nationally representative survey with additional research carried out using qualitative interviews, digital dialogues and in-person focus groups to capture digitally-excluded participants - plus social media listening exercises.

Obviously the research included in this report was carried out prior to the current pandemic, and given that e.g., trust is contingent and not necessarily set, the overall trends may have changed. Nevertheless, this and other similar reports are always useful to have a look through to understand generally how people think and feel about science - especially if you're lucky enough to be working on a topic that is covered by the in-depth topic reviews, in this case, ageing society; AI, robots and data; genome editing; micro-pollution and plastics (related to the government's Grand Challenges).

The main headlines about changes since 2014 include:

  • There is a shift in how people access science information from print to online
  • Despite a backdrop of declining levels of trust in media reporting more generally people have become more trusting about science reporting
  • On the whole, people find science more accessible and feel better informed
  • While people increasingly see science as important they are less likely to see it is relevant to their own everyday life
  • There are increased levels of trust in scientists and science regulation
  • People are more positive about efforts to involve the public though they increasingly value expert-driven decision-making in science
  • People are less concerned about the pace of change
  • People are more supportive of renewable energy but less supportive of the use of animals in medical research

And then some more detailed headlines:

  • Science capital helps explain why people do or do not feel connected to science
  • Science capital is unequally distributed across the population
  • Science capital is highly correlated with positive views about science
  • There is a strong association between knowledge and confidence
  • The public do not understand how science is funded
  • People continue to display an appetite for information about science and mainly use television, online news platforms and Facebook for this
  • People are confused about whether they can trust media reporting of science
  • Traditional media is more trusted than online-only media, though people have more trust in online science information they search for themselves
  • People recognise that there are more trustworthy sources of science information available even if they don’t use these themselves
  • Most people recognise the value of science in daily life though this doesn’t necessarily translate into active engagement
  • People are commonly exposed to science though science-related attractions especially as part of a family activity
  • There is significant overlap between engagement in science and other cultural activities
  • Science communication is seen as important but people feel scientists could do more
  • People feel the public has a right to be involved but they still want experts to drive decision-making
  • Public trust and respect in scientists and engineers remains very high - specially University-based scientists and engineers
  • Although there are some concerns about the effectiveness of science governance
  • The public strongly supports government spending on science though remains concerned about the role of the private sector in funding
  • The public wants risks to be well managed
  • People were more positive than fearful about most technologies asked about
  • People associate scientific advancement with widening inequalities
  • Science and engineering careers are regarded as interesting and future-focussed though engineering is perceived as better paid
  • Science and computer science are regarded as important skills to equip young people for the future and to help drive UK economic growth

My take-aways are that the increasing efforts of researchers to communicate their research and more deeply engage the public are making a difference, and that we shouldn't internalise this 'the public have had enough of experts' lark too much (though apparently it was said in regards to NGOs, not about all experts) since trust in university-based researchers remains high. But it also highlights that efforts need to be made to connect research and development efforts to peoples' lives in a way that demonstrates its relevance, and to continue efforts to make sure that our science communication and engagement is as accessible as possible in terms of both the language and methods used. It highlights that we should consider and be aware of the potential inequalities that might arise from any benefits or potential applications that arise from research.

Obviously these are headlines that won't explain differences across demographics - and its these exceptions that are worth exploring when you're thinking about what engagement you can do that will have the most impact, or how best to target the most relevant audiences, especially if you're interested in ensuring your engagement is inclusive and equitable (and who wants to exclude, really?). 

Below is the infographic for a quick overview and a link to the full report (which includes info on the specific topics explored:

A summary of findings from the PAS2019 surveys - kantar.com/uk-public-attitudes-to-science A summary of findings from the PAS2019 surveys - kantar.com/uk-public-attitudes-to-science

Read the full report