What do Kiwis think of science? – experts respond

New Zealanders rate science highly and consider it important for the country’s international competitiveness, improving health and preserving the environment, according to a new nationwide survey.

NZInnovateThe Public Attitudes Towards Science and Technology Survey, released today, examines how everyday New Zealanders engage with science and technology, and how it impacts their lives.

The survey, involving more than 3,000 respondents, was undertaken by Nielsen with funding from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

You can read more in the full survey report and accompanying press release.

Key findings from the report include:

  • 83 per cent of respondents consider science important for New Zealand’s international competitiveness, improving health (91 per cent) and preserving the environment (87 per cent);
  • Only 59 per cent consider science important to their daily lives and 42 per cent of people say they get too little information about science.
  • The media was the primary channel through which New Zealanders engaged with science; 87 per cent of people engaged with science and technology issues through the media in the last year.
  • Internationally, New Zealand ranked well in terms of interest in science, with 81 per cent of the population very or fairly interested in science (ranking higher than Australia and 27 European Union countries).

Read more key findings and analysis on Sciblogs.

The SMC approached experts for their reaction to the survey. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like further assistance, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz).

NEW: Dr Joanna Goven, Adjunct Associate Professor in Political Science, University of Canterbury, and researcher and director at Kukupa Research Ltd, comments:

“First, the good news: this survey asked whether scientists “should listen more to what ordinary people think,” an important and relatively neglected question. (More on this later.) Now for the not-so-good news: Like most such surveys, the purpose of measuring public attitudes remains somewhat opaque and the meaning of its results quite unclear. This is partly due to using the word “science” as if its meaning were obvious and straightforward. Did the pre-survey briefing define “science”? If so, how? It would be reasonable for people’s answers to differ depending on which type(s) of science (e.g., freshwater ecology or stem cell research or synthetic biology or geoengineering, etc.) or aspect of science they had in mind (e.g., the current organisation of science in practice, which is increasingly dependent on interested parties for funding and for what it can say to the public, or some other conceptualisation or representation of science). International comparisons are not particularly informative when basic terms are undefined.

“It is noteworthy that 62% of respondents agree with the statement “scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think”, suggesting a widespread view that “science” (however understood) should be responsive to broad societal needs (as opposed to the needs of narrower interests or to entirely internal priorities). It is also interesting to note that two closely related questions received a similar level but different demographic composition of support: 65% of respondents are “interested in having [their] say on ethical issues around science” and “interested in having [their] say on what scientific areas government should invest in”. This suggests that groups who were less likely to agree with the first and more likely to agree with the latter two include people who are keen for scientists to listen to them but not to “ordinary people” (presumably they do not consider themselves to be ordinary). It may also mean that those who are keen for scientists to listen more to ordinary people do not themselves feel able or inclined to have their say, but that was not apparent from the data presented.

“Finally, I cannot help but note the irony of measuring public attitudes toward and engagement with science at a time when our Prime Minister dismisses inconvenient peer-reviewed scientific findings as just “a view”, when scientists are prevented from communicating their research to the public by managers of Crown Research Institutes, and when scientists who do speak out are subjected to campaigns of character assassination by a politically protected blogger. Perhaps the wrong population is being targeted with this work.”

Dr Nicola Gaston, Principal Investigator, The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Victoria University of Wellington and President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, comments:

“The survey results make interesting reading, and it is great to have this insight into the public understanding of and interest in science.  It is heartening to see the broadly positive attitudes that NZers have to science, but there are also a few key pointers to where we could do better. The relative lack of understanding of Matauranga Maori and how it relates to science is disappointing, if not surprising. For scientists, the feeling that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think should be the subject of some reflection.

“There is also an indication of the need to better communicate the ways in which science underpins so much of our society, since there is low recognition of relevance to daily life and the benefits of science beyond economic benefits. I’m particularly disappointed that one of the groups least likely to recognise the importance of science in daily life is people who work in government!

Monica Peters, participatory science researcher and PhD Candidate, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Waikato, comments:

“Overall, there are some very positive and surprising (mostly in a good way) points raised. The fact that we even have this survey is extremely valuable – we need to know what progress we are making as a country, and knowing how we compare to others may provide extra impetus (or perhaps even funding….) for doing better. The results bode well for strengthening the engagement between scientists and community members as promoted through the ‘Nation of Curious Minds‘ document recently released by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

“Less surprising is the need to engage a wider slice of society – Maori and Pacific Islanders as well as women in general. There are many talented science communicators in NZ but the points around being ‘too specialised to understand’ and there being ‘too much conflicting information’ suggest the need for providing more opportunities for scientists to enhance their communication skills but also helping the community to understand what’s quality information and what isn’t. For the former, the challenge lies with time pressure – many scientists seem to either carry out their communication and public engagement activities in their own time, and this work often remains poorly acknowledged in academic settings.”

Dr Fabien Medvecky, Lecturer, Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago, comments:

“The new Nielsen report prepared for MBIE about public attitudes to science gives us reasons to be excited, to be cautious and to be concerned. We should be excited because New Zealanders are more positive and receptive to science than just about anyone else (81% of the population is positive about science compared to 53% of Europeans and 63% of Australians). But we should be cautious because this survey only asks about science as one general idea, where in fact science is many things (the other surveys ask people about their attitude to more segregated fields like ‘environmental issues’, ‘medical issues’ or ‘technologies, inventions & innovations’), so the results may tells us more about attitudes ‘brand SCIENCE’ than to specific aspects of science.

“But the real concern is that more than 1 in 3 New Zealander believes that science is too specialised for them to understand, and only slightly more than half of the population (59%) see science as important to their daily life. So while New Zealanders are very supportive of science as a concept and New Zealanders are clearly interested in science and its findings, we need to do a better job showing science’s importance to everyday life and we need to do a better job making science accessible to all those who are interested in it.”

Dr Alison Campbell, Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, University of Waikato, comments:

“I think it’s really positive that such a high proportion of the population has such a positive attitude to science and technology. I think that bodes well for the future.

“It’s obvious that having some experience or background in science, either experience of science in school or a qualification in science, is the key here. One message from this is that we need to aim to give kids really positive experiences in school science, with the hopeful effect that that will keep them in science longer in school and lead to more students going on to train in science at university level.

“One of the issues that we seem to have with science outreach is that there’s quite a high proportion of people identifying as struggling either with the level of specialisation in science or with the apparent level of conflict in information available. This does suggest that from an outreach and science communication perspective we have quite a bit of work to do. I think the nature of science is not well understood, for example in the sense that there’s never 100 per cent certainty in science.

“Because there’s quite a high proportion of Maori and Pasifika in the cohorts that have more negative attitudes to science and technology, I think that’s going to tie in quite strongly with the government push for universities — under their agreement with the Tertiary Education Commission — to increase the proportion of Maori and Pasifika students at the tertiary level in the sciences, engineering and technology. That means there’s a real onus on the secondary and tertiary sectors to address the lower perceived relevance of science in those groups.

“The survey shows there’s a real desire for engagement and having a say in science. We need to look quite critically at the sort of outreach and information that we provide. I think there’s a real case here for being more forward-thinking about how we do citizen science, and getting people involved in actually doing the science, rather than being passive recipients of information about it.

“It was really encouraging to see that we’re better than Australia in the benchmarking sections, and that we’re in line with the UK and quite high on the OECD index. I did notice that the UK has higher support for blue skies research in the general population. I think we need to enhance and develop understanding out there of why blue skies research is actually as important as applied research with a recognised purpose.”