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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Science, Society: mapping public understanding of scientific knowledge

The scientific knowledge of UK citizens is ‘patchy’, but increased media coverage is not the answer, finds a new report.

The UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has just released a report on public knowledge and media coverage of three scientific areas – human genetics, climate change and the combined measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
“Overall, public understanding of these three issues was patchy,” the report entitled ‘Towards a better map: Science, the public and the media' concluded. It noted that the average score on the general knowledge test it carried out twice last year was just 38%.
Despite this generally low level of scientific knowledge, 60% of the 1 000 respondents who took part knew that stem cell research aimed to create cells for treating disease. Almost half recognised the mapping of the human genome as a recent breakthrough in the life sciences.
A slim majority of interviewees had a positive perception of recent evolutions in genetic science – 42% believed the latest developments were encouraging, while 33% thought they were worrying.
People’s perception of what they knew did not appear to match reality. Although 68% of those canvassed felt their knowledge of genetics was relatively weak compared with the other two areas, their actual knowledge of the three areas was roughly the same.

More engagement not information
Although the European Union and many Member State governments have been engaged in initiatives to promote more and better coverage of science in the media, the report suggests that the way forward is greater public engagement in scientific issues.
“We find little evidence to support the idea that the presence of more science, scientists and science specialists in the media will increase the public understanding of science,” the report asserts. “What matters here … is not so much the science itself, but establishing clear connections between science, policy and the broader public interest.”
The EU is pushing ahead with efforts to involve its citizens more directly in the research agenda. Earlier this month, the European Commission invited NGOs, researchers and government representative to a conference in Brussels to exchange views on the role of civil society in the governance of the European Research Area.

Source: EU and external sources
More Information:
ESRC press release on report
‘Towards a better map: Science, the public and the media' [PDF document 1,00 Mb]
‘Governance of the European Research Area: the role of civil society’ [PDF document 46 Kb]


Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top