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Australians largely support science, but not all see the benefits

Australians support science, but nuanced views are found amongst people with differing incomes and education. from www.shutterstock.com

Australians largely support science, but not all see the benefits

Scientists in Australia (and across the world) will take to the streets for the March for Science on April 22. It’s timely, therefore, to discover Australians overwhelmingly support the role of science in policymaking and society.

Released this week, the most recent ANUpoll has surveyed Australians’ attitudes on a range of science plus research and development policy issues. The poll surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Australian adults via telephone (60% mobile and 40% landline phones) in November 2016.

We found that 82% of Australians believe politicians should rely more on the advice of expert scientists. In an increasingly polarised and contested world, such unanimity is rare.

However, there are limits to this support, and challenges for Australian science in maintaining the support of both citizens and governments.

Consistency over time

Broad support of science is not necessarily a surprising result. Surveys have consistently found Australians want politicians to take more heed of scientific advice.

Data from 2015 shows more than 90% of Australians are proud of the country’s scientific achievements. These figures are remarkably stable over the past 30 years, and are only matched by Australians’ pride in our national sporting achievements. Science seems integral to our national identity.

Moreover, we are largely sanguine about the role of science and technology in our everyday lives. Around seven in 10 Australians agree that new technologies excite rather than concern them. A similar number (75%) believe that the benefits of technological progress are greater than the risks. Even more (84%) believe there should be more people working in research and technological development in Australia.

Support, but with limits

Looking more closely at these results helps to reveal the limits of this overwhelming support for science in Australian life. Surveys often enable respondents to express contradictory views within one questionnaire, or to express support for broad concepts but reticence towards individual policies or positions that seem to underpin those concepts.

In economic terms, we might think about this phenomenon as the difference between stated and revealed preferences. It is one thing to declare that we support “science”, but quite another to support policies that enable or promote scientific research, or collaboration between scientists and politicians.

For instance, almost half (42%) of Australians either “agree” or “strongly agree” that scientific advances tend to benefit the rich more than they benefit the poor. This presents a challenge for scientists hoping to “defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments” (that is, the March for Science’s aims).

Australians in the lowest income households are most likely to hold the view that that scientific advances tend to benefit the rich more than they benefit the poor.

Figure 1: Agreement with the statement ‘Scientific advances tend to benefit the rich more than they benefit the poor’ by self-reported gross annual household income. Jill Sheppard, Author provided

As shown in Figure 1, nearly one quarter of Australians living in a household with an annual income of less than A$20,000 “strongly agree” with this position, and a further 29% agree. This compares to 9% of those in households with an income of A$150,000 or more who strongly agree that scientific advances benefit the rich more than the poor, and 21% who agree with this position.

In other words, the lower an Australian’s household income, the more likely they believe that the benefits of science are not distributed equally. This seems an entirely rational concern; Australian government economists warn that low-skilled employment and wages are threatened by technology and automation.

The pace of change

Similarly, 45% of Australians either agree or strongly agree that “technological change happens too fast for me to keep up with it”. An important factor in explaining this position is education: the more formal education Australians have received, the more comfortable they feel with the pace of technological change.

Figure 2: Agreement with the statement ‘Technological change happens too fast for me to keep up with it’ by self-reported highest level of education. Jill Sheppard, Author provided

As shown in Figure 2, among the 148 respondents with a Year 10 education or lower (12% of the whole sample), 73% do not believe they can keep up with the pace of technological change. Among those with a postgraduate degree (14% of the sample), only 27% feel this way.

Age breakdowns tell a similar story: older Australians are overwhelmingly more concerned than younger generations about the pace of technological change.

Maintaining confidence in science

The widespread goodwill for Australian science notwithstanding, this is a substantial problem for scientists trying to maintain the confidence of citizens and government. If perceptions place scientists as members of some kind of social and political elite, working to advance the cause of their fellow elites, public support will almost undoubtedly decay.

With the role of science in informing public debate and policymaking attracting attention in the lead up to the March for Science, it is heartening to note that science in Australia enjoys a comparatively privileged position.

However, focusing on the top-line rates of public support conceals subtleties lurking below the surface. Scientists in Australia – and elsewhere – will do well to heed to concerns of those who perceive they are missing out on scientific and technological progress.

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