The Cultural Authority of Science in the Public Sphere: Creating Data Streams for Further Advances

Joseph P. Morrissey, Ph.D., Principal Investigator

Gordon Gauchat, Ph.D., Co-Investigator

Intellectual Merit. Survey research on public attitudes toward and understanding of science has been plagued by a lack of theoretical focus. To address this gap, the objective of this application is to develop new measures that previous surveys on this topic have yet to address. The rationale for this project is that it will create the foundation for a vibrant research community that can examine how social groups vary in their trust/distrust of organized science. The proposed research will accomplish the overall objective of this application by pursuing the following specific aims: Aim #1: Bring together scholars from multiple backgrounds to discuss the core issues related to the cultural authority of science, provide new perspectives on existing data, and suggest measures for future surveys. This aim will be completed by organizing an expert panel that will bring together scholars who possess specialized knowledge related to the overlap of social theory and public opinion, social studies of science, survey research on public understanding of science, current data archives, and the development of public opinion questionnaires. Robert Bell—Executive Secretary of the NSF’s Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology —has indicated that the NCSES division of the NSF is intensely interested in this proposal and would consider co-funding the project. Aim #2: Develop new measures and collect new data to examine the social and cultural factors that shape the cultural authority of science in the public sphere. Building on the knowledge gained from the expert panel described above, the next step will be to collect new survey data using a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults. The survey will consist of new items that previous national surveys have overlooked and will allow us to address new empirical issues and develop new measures for future NSF surveys. The proposed project will contribute an in-depth understanding of the cultural authority of science in the public sphere that both integrates theoretical ideas from social scientists and emphasizes a multidimensional approach to these issues. This contribution is significant, because it will transform future survey research as a means for studying the role of science among diverse social groups in society.

Broader Impacts. The outcomes of this project will have wide-ranging benefits. The benefits to students learning and training will be twofold. First, the presentation of results students will accompany an invitation to become involved in the PI’s research program. Second, the data collected in aim 2 will be made available to students for their own research. The inclusion of underrepresented groups is always a great concern to social scientists and the PI shares in the NSF’s commitment in this regard. Due to the centrality of race/ethnicity, class, and gender to the proposed research, the PI is committed to recruiting individuals from these groups to participate in all aspects of the proposed research. The enhancement of infrastructure is also built directly into both aims of this study. First, the outcome of the expert panel will be a summary report that will be publically available. Second, aim 2 involves the development of a new questionnaire and dataset that will be shared with other researchers. These outcomes will directly benefit the NSF’s survey and the broader social science research community. In addition, research will be presented at professional meetings and disseminated to local and national news media. Furthermore, understanding the mechanisms that the divide the public sphere will help the NSF and other scientific organizations engage the public and improve public participation in science, both among adults and children.