Recently released study findings indicate Americans recognize and respect the achievements of science but take issue with scientific findings related to specific topics.
The study was conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Generally speaking, the study report notes, “Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and, despite considerable dispute about the role of government in other realms, there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.”
Seventy-nine percent of adult consumers who participated in the study said science has made life easier for most people, and a majority are positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment. At the same time, the PRC report notes, “citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes.”
Among those issues is the safety of genetically modified foods. Researchers found a 51-point gap between the 37 percent of U.S. adults and the 88 percent of AAAS scientists who believe such foods are safe to eat. That gap represented the largest opinion difference revealed by the survey. Sixty-seven percent of participating consumers said they do not believe scientists have a clear understanding about the health effects of genetically modified crops. Conversely, 84 percent of participating scientists said limited public knowledge about science is a major problem for science in general.
The issue of childhood vaccines reveals another, albeit smaller, opinion gap. Sixty-eight percent of participating adults and 86 percent of AAAS scientists believe childhood vaccinations such as those for measles, mumps and rubella should be required. That represents an 18-point gap.
Twenty-eight percent of consumers and 68 percent of scientists believe foods grown with pesticides are safe to eat. Fifty-nine percent of consumers and 82 percent of scientists believe the growing world population will present a major problem.
From an agricultural perspective, the study findings are disappointing but not surprising, said Lindsay Reames, assistant director of governmental relations for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “What these findings show us is that at least some of the people who are speaking out against GM foods are speaking from a place other than that of fact-based research. GM crops have been part of the U.S. and global food system for two decades, and they were meticulously reviewed before they became part of the food system. Since then, there has been no credible research that’s found that they pose any health risks to humans or animals.”
Genetically modified seeds for eight crops are available for commercial use in the United States: alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. Nearly 90 percent of U.S.-grown corn, soybeans, cotton and sugar beets are genetically engineered. The bulk of U.S.-grown corn and soy are used for ethanol production and animal feed.
Reames noted that GMO foods are a critical component of increasing food production to keep up with world population growth. “If there ever was a time when science was needed to address a problem, it is now, and the problem is how to sustain the global population. Decisions that affect the solutions need to be science-based, and those that are not stand to be detrimental worldwide.”