How Do Economic Conditions Affect Public Attitudes Toward Science?

All global recessions come with calls to spur economic growth by increasing investment in science and technology (S&T). In the U.S. such calls have largely gone unanswered, but that’s been due to the fact that, like all ostensibly uncontroversial spending on important public goods, the funding of scientific research is now ensnared in the eternal dispute about the size of government. Even though public opinion on the role of science in ameliorating economic hardship tends to be ignored, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking how a recession is likely to affect public attitudes towards S&T.

One theory is that science is seen as a “post-materialist” value akin to environmentalism — i.e. something that people should support for the sake of humanity, but not something that will directly bring about the material necessities people need in times of economic struggle. The post-materialist view suggests that attitudes about the need for science will become more negative during as the economy gets worse. An alternate view, one that’s generally espoused by scientists and politicians, is that science is a materialist value — i.e. something that directly spurs the growth and development that will give people the economic security they crave. Such a view suggests that attitudes toward science will be inversely related to economic conditions. So which is it? Does economic hardship make us turn toward science, or does it make us prioritize concrete means of economic security like jobs or unemployment insurance?

A new study by Luis Sanz-Menendez and Gregg Van Ryzin sought to answer this question by looking at attitudes toward S&T in regions of Spain that experienced different economic conditions. The attitudes were gleaned from national surveys administered in 2006 and 2010, and the researchers collected data from 17 regions with unemployment rates ranging from 7% to 15%.

The researchers found that the view of science as a materialistic value prevailed. In places where economic conditions were worse, people felt more positive about the need for science and technology.

Interest in science increased significantly in higher-unemployment regions, relative to the change that occurred in lower-unemployment regions. The coefficient (focusing on the full model with control variables), indicates a net gain of nearly 6 percentage points in the level of interest in science in higher-unemployment regions of Spain compared with low-unemployment ones. The net gain in trust that the benefits of S&T outweigh the risks is even larger, nearly 14 percentage points. At the same time there is no change in the level of interest in environmental issues.


Both the aggregate correlations and the individual regressions in our study show that, in regions hit hardest by the economic crisis (compared to less-affected regions), trust in the benefits of S&T increased substantially, as did general interest in science. In addition, residents of the hardest-hit regions were more likely to choose S&T (out of a list of policy areas) after the crisis as a priority for government.

It remains unclear whether the findings are unique to the recent economic downtown or the specific conditions in Spain, but having some evidence that high unemployment doesn’t cause people to abandon their enthusiasm for investing in science is better than the alternative.

A few additional thoughts:

1. At least within Spain, the results suggest that there’s no need for scientists to be timid about advocating for more funding during an economic crisis. If there was a risk people would increasingly view scientific funding as a waste money, it may be better to keep quiet about the public dollars that go toward science. These results suggest that’s not the case.

2. In the U.S., it’s probably not a bad idea for proponents of immigration reform to link it to an influx of scientists and high unemployment. Rather than viewing immigration reform as a distraction from a pressing jobs crisis, the study suggests that tying it to the idea of “more science” will make people more likely to view it as a legitimate solution.

3. Linking climate change to the broader issue of science and technology may help mitigate the drop in support for environmentalist causes that often accompanies economic downturns. Whereas broader notions of conservation tend to fall into the category of post-materialist values, whichpeople discount during times of economic need, a framing that connects climate change to investments in new energy technologies may make people more likely to see environmentalist causes as a solution to economic problems rather than as a distraction.
Sanz-Menendez, L., & Van Ryzin, G.G. (2013). Economic crisis and public attitudes toward science: A study of regional differences in Spain Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662513489790

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