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Support for science

Datafolha concludes that people in São Paulo admire scientists and think investment in research is worthwhile, even if it does not produce immediate benefits

A survey by the Datafolha Institute shows that 88% of the residents of the state of São Paulo consider it very important that investments be made in science and technology, and 86% believe the government should finance scientific research even if benefits are not realized immediately.  And scientists represent the third most admired profession, ranking only behind teachers and physicians.  Seventy-seven percent of respondents, however, were unable to recall the name of any research institution, not even one of the university facilities.  The survey was commissioned by FAPESP to map the interests of the people of São Paulo as regards science and technology and find out what the public thinks of investments in research and the work of the Foundation.  When presented with names of various institutions, 26% said they have heard of FAPESP, but 69% either did not know or did not remember what the Foundation does.

Interviews were conducted with 3,217 respondents in 138 cities in all 15 mesoregions of the state of São Paulo.  “The high priority people place on support for research and the value they attribute to science as a profession echo the sentiments observed in other countries and encourage the São Paulo scientific community to obtain more and better results that have scientific, social, and economic impact,” observes Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP.  “The research also points to the need for institutions to make a more vigorous effort to demonstrate results and associate their names with them.”  FAPESP President Celso Lafer says, “the Datafolha survey shows the importance the public attributes to science and its respect for scientists.  Secondly, it is evidence of a clear perception that the State has a responsibility to support scientific research, even when it may not have immediate benefits, and that private enterprise could also increase its investments in the field.”

In addition to its survey of the general public, Datafolha addressed two other communities by interviewing the 505 researchers who are receiving FAPESP support, as well as 30 opinion-makers, such as professors and journalists.  The majority (80%) of the researchers said that, in Brazil, investments in science and technology are less than sufficient.  To 64%, companies should finance research more heavily, while 75% cited the government as the main source of funding for scientific activity.  “Better financial resources” and “credibility” were the key factors underlying the choice of FAPESP made by researchers who are receiving its support, according to the survey.  FAPESP assistance to the researchers interviewed was obtained through Doctoral Scholarships (36%); Post-Doctoral Research Grants (30%); Regular Line of Research Project Awards (26%); Master’s Degree Scholarships (26%); Undergraduate Scholarships (22%); Regular Line of Research – Thematic Projects (5%); the Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (PIPE) (3%); the Young Investigators Awards Program (2%), and others (6%).

Opinion-makers who were interviewed were only “fairly well” satisfied with scientific research in Brazil.”  They mentioned insufficient investment and a lack of tradition in research as negative aspects.  They also agreed that the teaching of science in schools needs to improve.  There is not enough training, and too few incentives are offered for both teachers and students.  However, they recognized that certain positive initiatives have been taken, such as the Scientific Open House, Science Fairs, and the Science Without Borders program.  FAPESP was not well known among the opinion-makers but those who said that they do know of the Foundation have a positive image of a serious institution.  “Those members of the public who are more directly involved recognize the contribution by FAPESP and emphasize its credibility.  In short, the figures confirm that São Paulo taxpayers support FAPESP activities,” Celso Lafer states.

034-037_Datafolha_230-01In interviews with members of the general public, the declared interest in scientific subjects was high: 67% said they are interested or very interested in science and technology.  But 79% agreed with the statement that science and technology are such specialized fields that most people cannot understand them.  The percentage who are “very interested” in science and technology (26% of the total) was lower than for topics like medicine and health (51%), food and consumer affairs (45%), the environment and ecology (39%), religion (38%), sports (32%), and movies, art, and culture (30%).  But it was higher than the percentage of those who said they are very interested in fashion (14%), politics (12%) and are curious about celebrities (7%).

An Important Gap
The gap between interest in science and the difficulty in citing the name of a research institution is nothing new in studies of public perception of science, according to Luisa Massarani, a researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, who has herself conducted several studies of this type.  She says that the panorama observed in São Paulo is similar to that of the national scene, as evidenced by surveys carried out in Brazil by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation and by the Museum of Life at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation.  “What we find is that while people express an interest in science, there is an important gap between those who say they are interested in scientific topics and those who actually try to become informed about them,” she says.  “Another point that became obvious in qualitative studies that we did is that there often is no direct correlation in this country between science and actively practicing science.  In other words, even today not many people know that Brazil is active in science and that there are Brazilian scientists.”  In the opinion of the researcher, an important step has been taken in determining that the public is interested in science, but there is a lot more to be done.  “We have to start with a more specific and realistic notion of what science is, who works with it, where scientific activities are going on, and how science and society are associated with each other,” she says.

Researchers and lay people often have different ideas about the nature of scientific activity.  In the United States, a survey published in January 2015 by the Pew Research Center compared the opinions of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) with those of a group of ordinary citizens.  On some topics, the differences were significant.  Eighty-seven percent of the researchers stated that climate change is due primarily to human activity, but only 50% of lay people agreed.  Similarly, 88% of the scientists stated that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, compared with only 37% of the public in general.  The Datafolha survey, too, recorded some differences in perception.  The degree of Brazil’s development in scientific research was rated by 44% of São Paulo respondents as “intermediate” and by 39% as “delayed.”  Among scientists, the percentages were 67% for intermediate and 26% for delayed.  Among researcher respondents, 60% said that Brazil has won distinction in agriculture and livestock, but only 6% believe that the country in any way stands out in terms of development of new technologies.

Although São Paulo residents have a less than favorable impression of the quality of Brazilian research, this does not temper their admiration for scientists.  The extent of their admiration is 61%, higher than their regard for engineers, journalists, judges, businessmen, and artists.  But the researchers themselves take a more critical view of their professional activity.  The majority does not think that science as a profession is very attractive to young people because “the pay is low and the profession enjoys little prestige.”  But 80% find that, from a personal standpoint, the profession is very gratifying, and 58% believe that scientists are primarily motivated by a thirst for knowledge.  Moreover, 55% say they are satisfied with the degree of scientific development in their fields, compared with 44% who say they are dissatisfied—1% gave no answer.  Of those who said they are satisfied, 31% cited “international recognition or distinction” as the main reason, and 29% mentioned “progress and new developments in their field of research.”  Practically all the researchers interviewed (99%) believe that scientific research is making an important contribution to Brazil’s growth and they advocate the independence of scientists.

Scientific and technological knowledge was considered by survey respondents as “ very useful,” primarily in terms of “health care and prevention of disease” (70%), “ability to understand the world” (51%), and “preservation of the area around my house as well as the environment” (47%).  Opinion makers also emphasized health: most professors and journalists who responded said that when they think of science, they think of health.  The topics most closely related to health science, they said, are stem cells, vaccines, cures for diseases, and science laboratories.  “There are a number of studies in other countries and in Brazil that show that most of the media coverage of science is health-related,” Luisa Massarani observes.  “We have even asked that same question of editors and reporters and found that they believe that research in health is closely connected with people’s daily lives.  It is in the field of health that the impact of science is perceived, in terms of drugs, vaccines, etc.,” she explains.