Jayesh Shah is part of the Ipsos MORI team conducting the Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) 2011 study. Below, he gives an update on where we are with the project, the challenges involved and what people should expect from the data.
Is it a good or bad thing if people say they feel informed about science and scientific research and developments? Do people’s spontaneous responses about science give the full picture of what they think about it? These are the kinds of issues Ipsos MORI is currently trying to untangle, now that we’re into the thick of reporting for PAS 2011. Bear those questions in mind – I’ll return to them later.
Before I do that, it’s worth pointing out what we’ve achieved up to this point. As Marilyn noted in the December Progress Update, we completed a UK-wide survey and four sets of deliberative workshops just before Christmas – a mammoth task.
However, the fieldwork and analysis are not done and dusted. We are currently conducting a statistical analysis of the survey data, called a cluster analysis. This will segment the UK population into groups, known as clusters, who each have similar attitudes to science (based on answers to the survey). It will be a useful resource to scientists and science communicators – many of you probably already know that some people like to be engaged in science in different ways than others, and the cluster analysis should help identify the best ways to engage different groups.
The cluster analyses have been conducted in all the previous PAS studies, but this time we’re hoping to do something a bit different to enhance the statistical data. We’re going to hold four further discussion groups, each with people who fit into a particular cluster, so we can dig further into the survey answers and maybe find out why these clusters think the way they do. This is something I am particularly excited about, since it’s all too rare that you get to actually meet the people being described in a statistical analysis!
I gather some of you reading this will want to know what exactly we have been looking at using the above methods. After all, “public attitudes to science” is a catch-all for a range of topics. As with the previous PAS studies, we will be looking at people’s hopes and concerns about science, how informed people feel and trust in science. That’s in no way an exhaustive list, and there are some interesting new areas we are looking at that have not been covered in detail in the previous studies, including how science relates to culture and how science impacts on the economy.
Of course, reporting on all these areas raises a considerable challenge, bringing me neatly back to those questions I asked above. Is it a good thing if people say they feel informed about science? What if they say they’re informed, but then deny that climate change is man-made – is this a good thing? This highlights the need to look at the data neutrally, without making immediate value judgements on whether something is good or bad. This is also why it has been so useful to conduct qualitative as well as quantitative research, which allows us to probe further into people’s spontaneous responses in the survey and see whether these give the whole story.
We are also aware that the data need context to be meaningful. We can discuss how informed people feel about science, but in this discussion it would be useful to know that the BBC held its Year of Science in 2010, during survey fieldwork.
I look forward to National Science and Engineering Week, which is when we will publish the results of PAS 2011. I hope that it will provide a useful resource to scientists and indeed anyone in the general public interested in science issues.