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Public perception of scientists, and what we can do about it

by Donna Nelson, ACS President
June 20, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 25

Donna Nelson
Credit: Donna Nelson
Photo of Donna Nelson.
Credit: Donna Nelson

Why do scientists so often get a bad rap in the minds of the general public? In the television show “Breaking Bad,” for example, the fictitious character Walter White, who was once a promising chemist and high school chemistry teacher, becomes a villainous methamphetamine dealer after learning he has terminal lung cancer. Being a science adviser to the show has given me insight into how scientists can be portrayed negatively in popular television shows.

Scientists also can be perceived as “nerds.” While teaching organic chemistry to more than 11,000 students at the University of Oklahoma, I heard many young women mention experiencing a “nerd” stigma merely for enrolling in the course. Although some nonscientist friends praised them, others said they were “too attractive” to be in science.

Why is it important for the public to see that being a scientist is a rigorous and honorable profession, demanding great responsibilities and trust? The National Science Foundation’s report “Science & Engineering Indicators 2016” notes that an inability to weigh the benefits versus risks of science affects the level of confidence and trust the public has in science and scientists. And how people perceive science and scientists can affect the public’s willingness to fund science through public investment and young people’s willingness to enter and choose jobs in science.

According to a survey in the report, roughly four in 10 Americans have confidence in the scientific community, which ranks below the military and above the medical community. Seven in 10 believe the benefits from science are greater than the harms. However, the percentage of Americans saying that scientists contribute “a lot” to society continues to drop. It seems that much of the public doesn’t understand what we do.

A scientist is not usually written into a script unless science is specifically needed to move the story.

Scientists have long engaged the public in science through outreach at museums and science fairs, tours of university and industrial lab facilities, chemical demonstrations, and books and magazines. However, each of these captures a relatively small audience. Science videos on social media sites such as YouTube can reach larger audiences, but the sites don’t measure lasting impact.

Television and movies draw larger audiences, are advertised extensively, and have greater impact than other means of reaching a public audience. In recent years, TV and movies have presented more realistic science, including biographies of scientists who faced challenges in their personal lives because of health, discrimination, or remoteness to opportunities. However, the desperate heroism that sometimes accompanies their efforts does not help convey that science is a normal part of our lives and that most scientists are typical people.

Nevertheless, NSF’s “Science & Engineering Indicators” tells us that, between 2000 and 2008, portrayals of scientists represented just 1% of characters on prime-time network shows, with about 80% coded as being “good” and not villains. A scientist is not usually written into a script unless science is specifically needed to move the story. This is a missed opportunity to influence the public to understand and accept science.

Recent news events demonstrate the need for a better understanding of what scientists and other STEM professionals do. As reported in C&EN (May 16, page 3), in her May 9 Fred Kavli Science at the Frontiers Lecture, professor Jennifer Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned that a passenger aboard an American Airlines flight reported to airline officials that she suspected a terrorist was seated next to her. However, an investigation revealed that he was merely a professor writing differential equations using characters that she did not recognize and thought were Arabic. Jennifer and I had discussed this just minutes before her talk, and although it seems laughable, it was gratifying to see the attention the audience gave to the story and how fast it circulated.

Second and more serious, ISIS now may be producing and using chemical warfare agents (C&EN, May 16, page 19). Although scientists as we know them may not be involved in the suspected production, such reports tarnish the image of all scientists globally.

New ideas are needed for improving the public perception of scientists. What new solutions to this problem are possible? Past successes in engaging and influencing the public suggest employing television or movies to spotlight courageous acts of scientists working in their profession. A series of profiles of particularly courageous chemists, past or present, could constitute a 2017 ACS national meeting symposium. ACS members can contribute by sending nominations of scientists who risked their lives and careers in the course of their work to me at

If we all work together as ambassadors of our scientific professions, we can improve how the public perceives scientists to benefit all concerned.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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