If you regularly read this newsletter, science is likely central to your profession. You might collect data in the form of vital signs, describe the symptoms of a disease, calculate proper medication dosing, or work to contain an outbreak. Regardless, you likely have some understanding of how science is done and how we arrived at the knowledge that underlies your profession.

But, do you ever think about current public perceptions of science or the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce? Having an understanding of the overall climate and social norms related to science can be helpful. For example, it helps to recall that even if most people had science at some point during their education, they may not remember much about it, especially if they don’t have related careers. This educational history can affect how people receive and process science-based information, like health decisions.

Recently, three publications provided insights into what the public thinks about science, how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the situation, and how these perceptions can influence health-related decision-making. The first two, “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2024” and “Science and Technology: Public Perceptions, Awareness, and Information Sources,” were published by the National Science Board (NSB) of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The first of these is a summary report, and the second is one of nine thematic reports. These two publications, along with the other thematic reports and an online data tool, comprise a biennial report, known as “Science and Engineering Indicators” that the NSB is required to submit to the president and Congress. The third publication, “Trends in U.S. public confidence in science and opportunities for progress,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). So, let’s look at where things stand when it comes to the public perception of science.

Note: Links to each of these are in the “Resources” section of this article.

“The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2024”

This 52-page report focuses on three areas, including the STEM workforce (referred to as talent), research and development (referred to as discovery), and invention and innovation (referred to as translation). The data presented span a range of years and compile findings from multiple sources. Some key findings and areas of interest for our purposes include:

  • Math scores of elementary and secondary students demonstrate a sharp decline between 2019 and 2022, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, average math scores for fourth grade students were lower than all assessments since 2005, and those of eighth grade students were lower than all assessments since 2003. Also alarming is that the gap between scores of students in the 10th percentile and the 90th percentile widened, making it the largest since assessments began in 1978. While students of all races and ethnicities had lower scores, losses were greater among some groups than others, with American Indian and Alaskan Native children experiencing the greatest decrease in scores.
  • The number and percent of people in the STEM workforce increased between 2011 and 2021 (from 22% to 24%), and these individuals tended to have higher employment rates and median incomes and to experience fewer job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Women and certain racial and ethnic groups continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce (see pages 11-12 for more details).
  • While 77% of U.S. adults surveyed in 2022 reported a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that scientists would act in the best interest of the public, figure 10 is worth a look for its demonstration of the effects of COVID-19 on public confidence related to this. The figure shows data by educational degree as measured in 2016, 2020 and 2022. In all cases, levels of confidence were highest in 2020 and the percent of respondents with a great deal of confidence increased with increasing education. However, the 2022 data are interesting because while the percent of respondents with a “great deal” of confidence increased across all education levels compared with 2016, there were slight decreases in the combined levels of positive responses (“great deal” and “fair amount”) in those with “some college” or more. In contrast, those with a high school diploma or less increased in their overall positive responses between 2016 and 2022.

Other sections of this report may be of interest for those who want to know more about the STEM workforce, contributors to research and development, which countries publish the most peer-reviewed research papers, the subject areas of research papers by country, the fields and geographic regions of patent filing classifications, and manufacturing by country.

“Science and Technology: Public Perceptions, Awareness, and Information Sources”

As the title suggests, this 47-page report focused more deeply on public perceptions of science, including a more detailed look at whether people differentiate between scientists and engineers, their thoughts about scientific topics, their understanding of how science is done, where they get scientific information, and how often they engage in scientific activities. Some key considerations related to delivery of healthcare or health- and science-related communications include these points:

  • As described in the previous report, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily increased trust in science. And, while it has settled back to near pre-pandemic levels, most people trust that scientists will act in the best interest of the public. Data presented in Figure PPS-3 of this report (p. 11) show more timepoints than the figure in the previous report, and Table PPS-1 (p. 12) shows responses by gender, race or ethnicity, family income, and education. However, the authors conclude that the factor that most predicts confidence is one’s understanding of the scientific process.
  • Specific topics included were artificial intelligence and related technologies, neurotechnology, climate change and water contamination. While how much someone had previously considered climate change determined how much media content could change their beliefs about it, perceptions about water contamination were more closely associated with one’s socioeconomic situation, reminding us that people do not approach all scientific information in the same way.
  • When asked about whether scientific findings can change over time, about one-third of respondents were unsure or felt that science produced “unchanging core principles and truths.” These findings suggest that a significant group of people may evaluate information about updated scientific findings through a lens of scientific rigidity, potentially causing them to assign other factors, such as political or social contexts, as the reasons for these changes.
  • Trust relates to both perceptions of confidence and a sense of shared interests.
  • Confidence in scientists in general also extended more specifically to medical scientists.
  • People report getting their information about science from general news sources or social media more than from science-dedicated organizations.
  • When asked about how often they think about the impact of science on their everyday lives, more people answered “a lot” during the pandemic (4 of 10) than before the pandemic (3 of 10), although the number who answered “a little” simultaneously decreased from 5-6 of 10 to 4-5 of 10. Consistently about 10%-15% of people indicated that they do not consider the impact of science on their lives.
  • When asked about participation in science-related activities over the last year, like helping a child with a science project; donating money for research; donating blood; or participating in a citizen science project, research study, or online maker movement or hack-a-thon, the most common response was helping a child with a science project, albeit only about 20% of people reported such. These data were collected during the spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic. In 2017, about two-thirds of adults reported visiting a science-related venue or event during the prior 12 months, including parks, zoos, aquariums, science-based museums, or science-related talks. It will be interesting to see data related to whether visits to these types of venues have recovered since the pandemic.

“Trends in U.S. public confidence in science and opportunities for progress”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) created a Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust to evaluate public confidence and the factors that influence these feelings. This paper summarizes the findings of their efforts, which began in 2022. While public confidence in science is high compared with other institutions, confidence in all institutions has decreased over the past five years. Like the “Science and Engineering Indicators,” the Strategic Council also relied on data from multiple sources to draw conclusions. Some of the relevant findings for our focus include:

  • Willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine related to an individual’s trust in science and health authorities.
  • Likewise, individuals with higher levels of trust were less likely to accept COVID-19 misinformation.
  • While respondents from a national survey indicated high levels of confidence in the competence, trustworthiness and honesty of scientists, fewer (4 of 10) felt that scientists share their values and are likeable.
  • In suggesting ways to increase public confidence in science, the authors made the important point that efforts “not be premised on the assumption that society would be better off with higher levels of uncritical trust in science …” (p. 8 of 9), as that would be antithetical to scientific norms of critical thinking and skepticism.
  • Other suggestions included internally directed efforts related to the scientific enterprise, such as the importance of correcting errors and addressing misconduct.

Takeaways and conclusions

Realizing that not everyone has the same level of understanding about and confidence in science is important for informing conversations and other forms of communication based on scientific knowledge. In particular:

  1. Some people spend little time thinking about the impact of science on their lives or participating in science-based activities. Likewise, many people get their science- and health-based information from news outlets or social media rather than scientists or scientific organizations. As such, information that we take for granted and have heard many times may be less familiar to those outside of our area of interest.
  2. Further, some people have limited information about how science works, and this can lead to not only less confidence in scientific information but also less trust, lower uptake of technologies based on science, and greater susceptibility to misinformation related to these technologies.
  3. Different scientific topics will also be received differently. While opinions on some topics may relate to an individual’s previous considerations of the topic, opinions on other topics may be more influenced by socioeconomic factors, so a single approach will not necessarily work for communication across scientific topics.
  4. The COVID-19 pandemic influenced this entire arena, and while some considerations appear to have returned to pre-pandemic levels, we are still learning about the effects on others.
  5. While the healthcare-related workforce increased between 2012 and 2021 and these types of jobs seemed more insulated to the effects of the pandemic, we will need to continue monitoring trends in the post-pandemic era.

Check the March 2024 “On the Bookshelf” article for a related publication based on a recent Summit held by the National Academy of Sciences.


Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.