“Science issues are increasingly pressing civic issues”
Interview with Lee Rainie & Cary Funk from Pew Research Center.- originally published at Social Observatory "la Caixa"
Lee Rainie and Cary Funk are the heads of Internet, Science and Technology research at the Pew Research Center, a fact tank that informs the public about issues, attitudes and trends that are shaping the world. As a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder, it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan and non-advocacy organization, based on values such as independence, objectivity and rigor. Lee Rainie is the Center’s director of internet, science and technology research, and supervises the surveys that examine people’s online activities and the internet’s role in their lives, as well as the intersection of science and society. Cary Funk is an associate director for research, focusing on science.
Pew Research Center conducts a wealth of research and produces many facts. How do you choose your research topics?
We are constantly looking to see which topics and key questions in society are pressing issues and could benefit from the kind of data and analysis that we can provide. Our mission is to conduct original, primary research that helps inform major policy decisions and cultural conversations. This means that we spend a lot of time trying to discern noteworthy and urgent issues in public discourse and determining which of these conversations might be helped by the kind of sound, timely data and analysis that we provide. However, we do not perform our research for the purpose of taking a position on policy outcomes.
Since facts are never completely neutral, do you take any neutrality measures with regard to dissemination?
We work to make sure that our research is balanced and neutral, starting with how we design our questions right through to how we describe our findings. Dissemination of our research focuses on people, groups and organizations who share an interest in the topic under study, regardless of their policy position. So, for instance, we hope our material is equally useful to those who want to limit immigration even more and to those who support more liberal immigration policies, or to those who want to cut science research and those who support higher levels of science research. We know that we are achieving our goals for balanced research when advocates on both sides of an issue cite our studies. For example, we recently observed in an appeals court that the judges on both sides of an immigration argument used our data to support their opinions on the case.
Why has the Pew Research Center expanded its research on science and society?
The Center decided to expand its research in these areas for three reasons. First, science issues are increasingly pressing civic issues: significant policy and ethical questions are driven by what scientists discover and how policymakers and the general public react to those discoveries. Second, science and technology innovations are at the heart of societal change: nations look to breakthroughs in nanotechnology, genomics, brain science, energy technologies, food production, robotics and other fields to fuel economic growth. Third, scientific findings are a key battleground for how cultures decide what is true: the rise of the internet and the explosion of communities of interest around science issues have raised fundamental questions about how facts are unearthed and what meaning they should be assigned when crafting policy solutions.
What is the relevance of science research in relation to other topics tackled by the Center, such as politics and religion?
As we already said, science issues are more broadly civic issues. Our analysis of public attitudes across 23 science-related issues showed that sometimes people’s political views are a major influence on their positions on a science issue and sometimes their religious beliefs and practices are a notable influence. Other times, people’s general level of education and their specific level of knowledge about science are influences. We find that some judgments about science are increasingly divided along partisan lines, such as support for federal government spending on scientific research, but also that many science subjects are not swept up by partisan hostilities.
The thing we find most fascinating with regard to all of these issues is that there is no single explanation for why people think the way they do about science. For example, people’s political views matter significantly in their thinking about climate change and energy issues, whereas religion is strongly related to how people think about end-of-life medical issues and people’s views about biomedical advances on the horizon
In science debates, what carries more weight: political ideology or facts?
People’s political orientations appear to serve as an anchoring point for how knowledge influences their attitudes. For example, many in the scientific community believe that if the American public were better informed about the science behind climate change and energy issues, people would hold views more closely aligned with those of scientific experts. But as we found in a 2016 Pew Research Center survey on these issues, how much people know about science has only a modest and inconsistent correlation with their attitudes about climate and energy issues, whereas partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs. People’s level of science knowledge help to explain their beliefs about climate change to a certain degree, but the relationship is a complicated one.