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Images of science

Ibero-American network of researchers develops indices to assess public perception of scientific knowledge

Imagens-Edu-CesarEDUARDO CESARIt would be rash to extend to the populations of Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Uruguay as a whole the conclusions of an innovative survey about public perception of science, carried out in these countries between the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2003, because, in statistical terms, the samples taken for the work are hardly representative of this universe. But they certainly offer precious indications about the social imagery regarding science and technology in these Ibero-American countries. Moreover, they give important clues as the to degree of understanding in relation to given topics of scientific and technological knowledge, about the consumption of scientific information in these societies, and about the actual participation of their citizens in the movements and debates around controversial themes of science and technology.

Accordingly, while maintaining the caveat that the information presented has “a provisional indicative character”, as indeed the coordinators of the survey explicitly do, one can say, for example, that in the social imagery of the countries studied a triple image of science prevails, as an epic of “great discoveries”, as a condition for “technical advance”, and as a source of “improvement of human life”. And in another example, referring to information about science and technology, it is interesting to find that, repeating what is recorded in the international practice of these surveys, the great majority of the people heard regard themselves as “little informed” or “uninformed”, which for that matter is coherent with the revelation that only occasionally is scientific information consumed from television or from newspapers or specialized magazines. Indeed, when the results of the survey are taken into consideration, there is very great trust on the part of the public in scientists as a source of certain information (about nuclear power and biotechnology), while journalists enjoy extremely scant credibility in this field.

Strategies for analysis
All this data and much else, carefully quantified, is in the book “Percepção pública da ciência” [Public perception of science], organized by Carlos Vogt, the coordinator of the survey in Brazil, and Carmelo Polino, the coordinator in Argentina, published by Editora Unicamp and FAPESP. Launched in November and taken as a basic document of a workshop about the theme held by the Foundation in the first few days of December, the book is, strictly speaking, a sort of first scientific report of the Ibero-American Project of Indicators of Public Perception, Scientific Culture and Civic Participation, started in mid-2001 by the Ibero-American States Organization (OEI) and by the Ibero-American Network for Science and Technology Indicators (Ricyt/Cyted). The surveys of the public perception of science are part and, at the same time, tools for the development of this project, which has more ambitious objectives. “The surveys are exercises of a methodological nature, since priority has been given to empirical experience for developing concepts and ascertaining indicators and strategies for analysis”, it is explained in the book.

It is precisely there – in proper indicators and concepts – that one of the greatest difficulties is concentrated for sounding out the repercussion, in its various senses, of the productions of science and of technology in society, in countries that are not at the center of the economic system. Because, as is said in the book, “even though one may postulate the universalization of scientific and technological knowledge, it is indubitable that its reception, appropriation and employment are socially localized processes and subject both to the cultural peculiarities of each society and to their historical and concrete social situation”.

This means that the project faces the challenge of building, in the medium term, a battery of regional indicators, based on a complex concept of scientific culture, that can handle the characteristics of the countries of the region and, at the same time, can be used in broader international comparisons. It is worth observing that in the United States, in the countries of the European Union, in Great Britain, in Canada, in Australia, in China and in Japan, amongst others, the methodological basis that is usually applied in surveys of scientific culture and perception was developed by the American institution, the National Science Foundation (NSF), from 1972 onwards. These models for analysis assess the level of information, attitudes and interests of the individuals with regard to science, but they do not, for example, reveal their degree of involvement with the advance of research.

This is one of the limitations that, in the assessment of the researchers connected with the Ricyt, make the NSF methodology inadequate for the reality of the developing nations. The argument is that science and technology in these countries plays a preponderant role for economic growth, and understanding by the public of the courses and the social benefits of the advance of knowledge is an indispensable condition for citizens to have an effective democratic participation in the public policies of the sector. “The concepts should be discussed on a broader theoretical plane”, observes Polino, the director of the Science, Development and Higher Education Studies Center, of Argentina.

In practical terms, the members of the project are now carrying on a bold series of studies, which include the theoretical revision of the concepts linked to scientific culture and the development of the indicators of perception, at the same time that they are seeking to strengthen the network of research groups and institutions, for intercourse and theoretical-methodological studies in the Ibero-American countries. Today, there are now 50 institutions taking part in Rycit.

Pioneer research
Carried out in Brazil by the team from Unicamp’s Journalism Laboratory (Labjor), coordinated by Vogt, who is also FAPESP’s president, the survey of public perception of science has a pioneering nature in the country, particularly if one takes into consideration its methodology, its theoretical grounding and its objectives. There was, it is true, a broad opinion poll in 1987 – “What Brazilians think about science” – about the image that the urban population of the country had of science, which was conceived by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, together with the Astronomy and Kindred Sciences Museum (Mast), and carried out by the Gallup Institute. Following the replies from 2,892 persons (1,409 men and 1,483 women), over the age of 18 and from all the social classes, to 27 questions, the sampling showed, amongst other details, that 52% of the people heard thought that the country was backward in research, and that 71% of them showed some or much interest in scientific discoveries. It also revealed that in their view, scientists occupied fifth place, amongst professionals that most contributed towards the development of the country, behind farmers, industrialists, teachers and doctors.

Very different, the Rycit survey went deeper, with a total of 90 questions, and eminently qualitative. So much so that, in Brazil, in the first sample – the one that appears in the book – only 162 persons were consulted in Campinas, between February and March 2003. Later on, it was extended to São Paulo, were 776 questionnaires were applied, and to Ribeirão Preto, where 125 persons were interviewed. It is worth pointing out that, once the replies to the second stage are tabulated, the differences in relation to the first sample were insignificant, which made it possible for the Labjor team during the FAPESP seminar the unified results referring to the total of 1,063 persons, without any contradictions with the results that appear in the book. In Argentina, the sample involved 300 people, all heard in December 2002 in Greater Buenos Aires. In Uruguay, under the coordination of Rodrigo Arocena, from the University of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, 150 questionnaires were applied in Montevideo, and, in Spain, 150 persons were consulted in Salamanca and Valladolid, in a work coordinated by Miguel Ángel Quintanilla, from the University of Salamanca. In these two countries, the survey was carried out between February and March 2003.

In all the cases, the magnitude of the sample was determined by criteria for consistency in analyzing the indicators employed. Of the four clusters of questions – social imagery, comprehension of contents of scientific knowledge, processes of social communication of science, and Civic Participation on questions of science and technology -, the first was the most extensive. And the set of indicators included therein intends to reflect, besides the images that are held of science, the ideas about its usefulness, the value given to scientific knowledge, the importance of science in its relationship with society and daily life, the risks that are associated with scientific production, the image of the scientists themselves, and the vision of the development of local science.

On the specific question of what best expresses the idea of science, although in the four countries investigated, as has been said, three associations predominate (great discoveries, technological advance, and improvement in human life), in Brazil, specifically, it is the vision of science as a source of benefits for the life of the human being that wins over most adepts (46.9% of those interviewed). One other indicator of the positive image of science is the high level of agreement among the interviewees in the four countries (77% on average and, in Brazil, 76.5%) with the statement that the main cause of the improvement in the quality of life of humanity is the advance of science and technology. But science is certainly not taken as a sort of universal panacea, so much so that most interviewees disagree with the statement that science and technology can solve all the problems (82.7% in Brazil, 85.4% in Argentina, 82% in Spain and 93.3% in Uruguay).

Amongst the queries focusing on the importance of science as a source of knowledge or a place of truth, an attempt is made to compare it with, for example, religion. The problem is presented with a statement, “we attribute too much truth to science and too little to religious faith”, with which the interviewees should agree or disagree. Agreement amongst the people heard in Brazil is in the order of 70.4%, in Uruguay, 57.3% and in Argentina, 53.3%, while in Spain the percentage of those who disagree is higher (46.7%) and the percentage of those who do not know how to reply to the question, (11.3%), is high, compared with the other countries.

In the questions that try to capture the importance of science in relation to society and daily life, something that calls attention is the indication that it is not regarded as the exclusive domain of illuminated minds. The major part of the Brazilians (64.8%), Uruguayans (56%) and Spaniards (54%) interviewed disagree with “the world of science cannot be understood by ordinary people”. The Argentineans, though, in their majority (60.5%), regard the discourse of science as inaccessible. Still in the same field of questions, 67% of the interviewees think that science and technology are concerned with the problems of the population, and 60% of them, on average, assessed science as a factor for rationality in human culture, considering that if we neglect it, “our society will be more and more irrational”. In short, the survey concludes, although there is a good portion that sees science as knowledge of difficult access for ordinary people, scientific activity is integrated into society, “as a component of culture, as a source of useful knowledge, or as production of useful knowledge aimed at the problems of the population”.

When invited to reflect on the risks deriving from scientific research, the interviewees show very varied degrees of concern with the theme. Amongst the Brazilians, 42.6% understand that the carrying out of science brings problems for society, a proportion that rises to 47% amongst the Argentineans. But concern in this direction is much stronger amongst the Spanish (56% of the sample) and the Uruguayans (58%). For those who see problems, the ones most mentioned are “the use of knowledge for warfare”, followed by a “greater concentration of power and wealth”. In the four countries, though, there are few who have doubts that the benefits of science and technology are greater than their negative effects. On average, 74.3% think the contrary.

The perception of the public about science and technology, the survey points out, is not necessary in tune with the image of scientists and technologists. The idea of science as a source of rationality can be linked to a vision of scientists driven by private and irrational interests. In the same way, the vision of science as a source of risks can be combined with a good image of scientists, who are held to be guided by positive values. Accordingly, the “vocation for knowledge” was pointed out – by a large margin of difference over the other alternatives – as the main factor that motivates them to dedicate themselves to research.

A possible humanitarian inclination – “to resolve the problems of the population” – appears in second place, and the “conquest of power”, “money” or “prestige” were regarded as less relevant motivations. Even so, an important fraction of those interviewed does not think that these qualities guarantee them suitability for conducting science as an instrument of development. Moreover, in spite of supporting autonomy in investigation, for the interviewees, the political function of deciding what to investigate goes beyond the competence of the researchers. Nor should research be controlled by companies, in the opinion of the majority of those interviewed. Only in Brazil is the sample divided on this question: 48.2% do not see any problem with private appropriation of knowledge.

Brazilian optimism
The predominant idea about the existence of science and technology in each one of the countries surveyed is that there is “a little of science and technology in some areas” (see graph on page 21). Uruguay, by the way, was the country in which this statement met the highest percentage of responses: 80%. “In Uruguay, science and technology have little weight in the economy”, says Arocena. Worth highlighting, no doubt, is the optimism of the Brazilian sample with regard to the knowledge produced in the country: the options that identify Brazilian science as “quite well developed” and “very well developed” got, respectively, 25% and 18% of the replies.

The researchers also dealt with assessing the vision of the public about state funding for science and technology. And the predominant opinion found was that official support is insufficient, which constitutes one of the main inhibiting factors of a “greater scientific and technological development” in each one of the countries. However, in this item once again, the perception of the Brazilians is more optimistic: 27.8% of those interviewed think that state finance is “reasonably sufficient”, against the 3.3% of the Argentineans who classify it thus, 13.3% of the Spanish and 9.3% of the Uruguayans.

Furthermore, while the lack of interest of the business comes up almost marginally amongst the factors that prevent a greater scientific and technological development for Argentineans and Spaniards (the Uruguayans were not given this question), for 17.3% of the Brazilians, this is a cause that ought to be taken into consideration. To finalize in this key of national optimism, while 66% of the Uruguayans, 59.4% of the Argentineans and 43.2% of the Spanish stress the dearth of social diffusion of the results of scientific practices, no less than 54.9% of the Brazilians go in the other direction and emphasize precisely the practical application of knowledge as a positive trait of the country’s scientific system.

Surprisingly right
In the set of questions referring to the comprehension of contents of scientific knowledge – in which the interviewees have to mark whether the statements were true or false, or declare their ignorance on the subject -, in general, the percentage of right answers was very high, certainly as a result of the level of schooling of those interviewed. However, considerable variations were recorded in the right answers, depending on the field of knowledge dealt with. Accordingly, it was 82.5% in the questions referring to geology and astronomy, while in physics it fell to 61%. It was relatively low in the questions connected with biochemistry and genetic engineering (62.8%) and higher in the queries linked to biological evolution (74%). It was also to be observed that issues that are used to mobilizing collective actions, such as transgenics, cloning or radioactivity, do not show higher levels of comprehension than other themes.

In the set of questions referring to processes of social communication of science, the majority of the interviewees in Argentina (80%), Brazil (71%) and Spain (67%) regarded themselves as “not much informed” or “not at all informed”. Only amongst the Uruguayans did a high percentage (50%) regard itself as “very informed”. The consumption of scientific information, whether by means of television, newspapers or science magazines, is occasional for the majority in Argentina, in Brazil and Spain. In Uruguay, the replies about the frequency of consumption in newspapers elicited a balance between the “regular” and “never” options. In Argentina, what calls attention is the 41% reply of those consulted, who claimed that they had never had any contact with magazines popularizing science, against the 23.5% of Brazilians who chose this option, 20.7% of the Spanish and 28.7% of the Uruguayans.

The questionnaire also sought to identify the values that the interviewees attribute to scientists and journalists, in their capacity as important agents for the public communication of science. With regard to clarity in popularization, for example, the great majority of the replies considered that only in a few situations do scientists “use a language that is complicated and difficult to understand” (the option was chosen by 74.1% of the Argentineans, 56.8% of the Brazilians, 79.1% of the Spaniards and 58.7% of the Uruguayans). When, however, the subject is biotechnology and nuclear power, trust in the source of information is split between university scientists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in defense of the environment. Brazilians, by the way, trust most the environmental NGOs.

An issue to think about is the very secondary credibility of the journalists: only 5.2% of the Brazilians chose them as sources in which they trust to get information on nuclear power. Worse is their credibility amongst the Argentineans (only 1.9% chose them), Spanish (1.3%) and Uruguayans (2% of the sample). Trust in the journalists is even lower when the information refers to biotechnology: only 0.9% of the Argentineans, 2% of the Brazilians, 0.7% of the Spanish and 2.7% of the Uruguayans regard them are worthy of trust.The survey selected controversial situations – like the question of nuclear waste, genetically modified organisms and industrial contamination, amongst others – to identify experiences of actual participation by the public. It was found that the absolute majority of those interviewed have no doubts that it is “important” to take part in these debates, preferably in groups. But a major part revealed having taken part only in public manifestations on these themes or in gathering signatures.

The OEI and Rycit project is now entering a new stage, assessing in more depth the results of the survey and the instruments for gathering the information. The Ibero-American network will be reinforced with new groups being incorporated into the project on indicators and new investigations that are going to avail themselves of different strategies, Carlos Vogt and Polino reveal.