Scientists: USA #1! Public: Meh.

Almost half of America’s scientists think they are the best in the world – but the public disagrees. That’s the most striking finding of a new survey which shows the perceived importance of US achievements in the field has slumped in the past decade.

A study by the Pew Research Center for the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 49% of more than 2,500 US scientists questioned said the country’s scientific achievements were the best in the world, a view backed by just 17% of non-scientists who took part in the survey.

The country’s achievements in science, medicine and technology have also lost some perceived importance. In a similar survey in 1999, 47% of people ranked successes in the field as the nation’s “greatest achievement”. Today that figure is just 27%: still the highest ranked category, but losing ground to “civil rights/equal rights”.

That’s not to say the public has turned its back on science: 60 per cent said government funding was essential for research, while just 29% thought purely private financing was sufficient.

Scientists ranked a lack of funding as the biggest obstacle to research, with 87% describing it as a very serious or serious problem, while around two-thirds said visa issues for foreign scientists wanting to research in the US was a serious problem. However, most of those questioned rejected regulatory issues such as those on animal testing as being a serious problem.

There’s still a big disparity between the views of scientists and the public on key issues: while 87% of scientists believe in the general principle of evolution, just 32% of the public share this belief. And while 84% of scientists believe the earth is getting warmer because of human activity, 49% of the public agree.

Surprisingly, attitudes to scientific issues don’t have a major affect on how people assess the importance of science. 78% of evolution believers say scientists contribute a lot to society’s well-being, compared with 64% of creationists. Even among those who said science conflicts with their religious beliefs, 67% still said scientists contribute a lot.

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