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The Welsh Government Office for Science commissioned Beaufort Research to conduct a survey of the Welsh population in November 2021, to better understand the public’s perceptions and attitudes regarding the purpose and value of science. The survey included some of the questions previously asked in a pilot survey in March 2020.
The survey used the Beaufort Wales Omnibus. A sample of 1,000 adults aged 16+ across Wales was surveyed using an online panel, with fieldwork conducted between 8 and 28 November 2021. The survey used quotas to gain a sample intended to reflect the Welsh population on demographics of age, gender, local authority and social class.
Overall respondent attitudes to science and technology were positive, with high agreement with almost all statements about science. The highest agreement was evident for the statements ‘Young people’s interest in science and technology is essential for Wales’s future prosperity’, ‘Scientific research contributes to the health and well-being of society’, ‘Growing science in Wales is essential for future prosperity’ and ‘Science and technology are important for addressing key challenges affecting society’, with agreement levels of around eight in ten for each (80%, 80%, 79% and 78% respectively).
Almost four in ten participants (38%) agreed they ‘do not feel well informed about science’, however.
Comparing results from November 2021 with March 2020, overall agreement has reduced slightly on almost every positive dimension. The exception is for the statement ‘I would like to know more about science’, where agreement has risen in 2021 to 61% (from 52% in 2020).
Direct comparisons between the two sets of findings need to be treated with caution, however, as the wording of many of the statements changed slightly in 2021 and the change in 2021 interviewing mode will also have affected comparability. As the survey approach uses a quota sample, it is also not intended to provide comparisons of changes over time which are generalisable to the population level. It can provide an indication of the differences in views between the sample in March 2020 and the sample in November 2021.
Up to March 2020 interviewing on the Wales Omnibus was conducted face-to-face on tablet computers using CAPI (Computer Aided Personal Interviewing) technology. As a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis, interviewing switched to an online approach using an online panel exchange platform. The 2021 survey was therefore conducted online, while the pilot survey in March 2020 had been carried out by interviewers in respondents’ homes. The change in data gathering approach to online self-completion interviews may have resulted in some changes in findings, due to mode effect.
While overall agreement with survey statements about science has dropped, which might suggest attitudes to science are less favourable, the proportion of the public sampled strongly agreeing with each positive statement (where broadly comparable) has risen in 2021. The fall in overall agreement is therefore due to fewer participants in 2021 answering ‘agree’ and more answering ‘neither agree not disagree’, rather than to an increase in negative responses. The difference is likely to be a result of the change in methodology between the 2020 and 2021 survey.
Almost seven in ten of the public surveyed (68%) thought the Welsh Government should invest more in science research, innovation and education. This proportion has fallen back slightly from the 2020 level (74%), which is likely to be a mode effect related to the change in methodology between the two surveys.
Unprompted reasons given by those in favour of more investment in science focused round its importance for the future and for future generations (mentioned by 20% of this opinion) and the importance of science per se (mentioned by 15% of this opinion). Those who did not want to see more government investment were most likely to make general negative comments about the Welsh Government when asked why (at 15% of this group), or to feel there were more important areas or issues needing funding (14% of this group).
The great majority of Welsh adults interviewed in 2021 (82%) thought it was important that future generations were provided with a good scientific education. This has fallen from 94% in 2020, likely due to the changed data gathering approach.
Science was considered important in terms of improving human health, improving the environment, and producing innovative new technologies by almost nine in ten respondents. It was also considered to be important in creating new jobs by almost eight in ten of those interviewed. The pattern of results in 2021 is unchanged from 2020 and endorsement of the importance of science remains high, but overall agreement levels have fallen back on each of the dimensions. Again, this is probably due to the change in interviewing approach.
Interest in receiving more public scientific information on a range of different topics was high. The topics generating the highest interest overall were ‘Renewable energy’ and ‘Cancer’ (with mean interest scores of 8 out of 10), but interest in more information on all topics presented was high, with mean scores of around 7 in 10 or more for each one.
The overall impact of COVID-19 on public opinions of science appears to be positive. Almost seven in ten of the public surveyed (69%) said they were more likely to agree that ‘Science plays a critical role in solving public health crises’ because of their experience of the pandemic. 69% said they were now more likely to agree that’ Science needs more funding’, as did 63% that ‘Science is very important in solving societal issues’.
This gives an indication of the changes in attitudes towards science as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these findings should be treated carefully, as this question asked participants to compare their current views retrospectively with their views before the pandemic.
The most used sources for information about science and research were general news websites and public TV and radio, which almost eight in ten Welsh adults surveyed said they sometimes used for this purpose (at 79% and 78% respectively). Other commonly used channels were social media friends / colleagues and Facebook, Twitter or other social networks. These sources were used at least occasionally by around six in ten respondents for information about science and research (at 61% and 58% respectively.
Authors: Fiona McAllister and Owen Knight, Beaufort Research
Views expressed in this report are those of the researchers and not necessarily those of the Welsh Government.
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Social research number: 51/2022
Digital ISBN 978-1-80364-396-0