A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has shed light on the factors that influence public support for increasing funding for science and federal funding of basic research. The study, conducted by researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), identifies five crucial factors that shape public assessments of science.
These factors include the credibility and prudence of scientists, the perception of unbiased research, self-correction within the scientific community, and the perceived benefits of scientific work. Understanding these factors is essential as they play a pivotal role in determining whether people support increased funding for scientific endeavors.
The importance of public support for science funding cannot be overstated. Scientific research requires significant resources, and the cost of conducting research is continually rising. It is critical to identify the factors that predict public willingness to increase federal funding for science, particularly for basic research, which is often characterized as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
Basic research is fundamental to scientific discovery and a nation’s competitiveness. Since elected officials decide the allocation of federal taxpayer money for science, understanding what influences this decision is crucial, especially in the context of the partisan divide in support for funding.
The research team behind the study — Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo; Dror Walter, an assistant professor at Georgia State University; Patrick E. Jamieson, a researcher affiliated with the Annenberg Public Policy Center; and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and professor at the University of Pennsylvania — sought to explore how differing political ideologies impacted perceptions of science funding.
“Public support for science plays a key role in efforts to secure funding for scientific research,” the researchers told PsyPost. “At the same time, acceptance of what science knows at the time is associated with science-consistent behavior. One’s perceptions of science could, for example, help shape one’s willingness to vaccinate or drive support for policies addressing climate change.”
“While it was clear from past research that trust in science and scientists plays an important role in determining public perceptions of science, we hypothesized that additional factors may play a part as well. Our goal was to design a measurement tool able to track public perceptions of science over time and to map message-related factors that predict support for federal funding of science and adoption of science-consistent behavior such as vaccination.”
To investigate these factors, the research team relied on data collected in 2022 from a national probability sample of 1,154 US adults. The study employed a survey conducted via computer-assisted telephonic interviews (CATI). The survey asked participants a series of questions related to their perceptions of science and scientists.
The researchers used 13 specific questions to assess public perceptions, including questions about scientists’ competence, trustworthiness, values, and whether they felt superior to others. Additionally, participants were asked about their perceptions of the scientific community’s ability to overcome biases, handle fraud, and take responsibility for mistakes. The study also assessed whether scientific findings produced in the past decade had benefited the country and individuals like the survey respondents.
The study identified five factors that form a Factors Assessing Science’s Self-Presentation (FASS) model, which helps assess public perceptions of science and scientists:
- Credibility: This factor relates to the perception that scientists are competent and trustworthy in their work.
- Prudence: It involves the perception that scientists exercise caution and responsibility in their research, refraining from cutting corners.
- Unbiased: This factor pertains to the belief that scientists provide unbiased conclusions about their area of inquiry.
- Self-Correcting: It reflects the perception that the scientific community can correct its mistakes, showing competition, critique, and correction.
- Beneficial: This factor assesses whether the work of science is beneficial to the nation and individuals like the survey respondents.
The study revealed differences in how these factors interacted with political ideology when predicting support for science funding. Among conservatives, increased perceptions of scientists being unbiased and prudent were associated with greater support for federal funding of basic scientific research. Conversely, among liberals, increased support for funding was linked to a heightened perception that science produces beneficial research.
“We developed a way to measure and track public perceptions of the self-presentation of science and scientists,” Ophir and his colleagues said. “Specifically, we measure whether people perceive that scientists are credible, prudent, and able to overcome their biases, and whether science is perceived as correcting problems when they occur and produces outcomes that benefit people like the respondent and society in general. We found differences in the ways in which conservatives and liberals assess science and scientists that are associated with their support for federal funding of scientific research.”
Both liberals and conservatives were less likely to support federal funding for basic research when they perceived it as non-beneficial. However, among those who considered science beneficial, liberals were more likely to support such funding. Additionally, when scientists were perceived as lacking prudence, liberals were more likely than conservatives to support federal funding of basic research, although this difference disappeared when participants saw scientists as very prudent. The study suggested that liberals’ perception of scientists as biased in their favor might explain this difference.
“Although the results we found did not surprise us, they did elucidate the mechanism underlying support,” the researchers told PsyPost. “While ideology influenced support for funding (with conservatives being less likely to support funding on average), interactions were found between ideology and specific components of our FASS model. For example, while the perception that scientists overcome biases increased the likelihood that conservatives would support funding, we did not find that effect among those who identify as liberal (in other words, liberals were as likely to support science funding whether or not they perceived that scientists overcome their human biases).”
“We found the opposite when exploring the relationship between liberals and conservatives’ perceptions of whether science produced beneficial outcomes and support for increasing federal funding for basic science funding. Where for liberals the perception that science produces beneficial outcomes was associated with willingness to support funding, the association was not as pronounced for conservatives.”
While the study provides valuable insights into the factors that influence public support for science funding, like all research, it includes some limitations. The research relies on cross-sectional data, making it challenging to establish causality or directionality. Future research could extend this model to other contexts and topics, such as climate science, COVID-19 vaccination, and genetically engineered food.
“Our PNAS paper is a first step toward testing the utility of the FASS model,” the researchers added. “Next steps would include examining how, if at all, each component interacts with other factors in relation to adoption of science-consistent behaviors, such as vaccinating, adopting sustainable climate-friendly solutions, or consuming genetically modified foods. The ultimate test of the model will of course require controlled experiments.”
“The study points to different nuanced ways in which conservatives and liberals differ in their understanding of science and scientists, and in translating those beliefs to intentions and action. The findings of studies utilizing the FASS model could thus guide future messaging about science in ways that could counteract the politicization of science.”
The study, “Factors Assessing Science’s Self-Presentation model and their effect on conservatives’ and liberals’ support for funding science“, was published September 11, 2023.