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Survey assesses youth perception of science and technology

Haendel Gomes (COC/Fiocruz)

Science and technology are subjects that arouse great interest among young Brazilians, even more than sports and as much as religion. Most of them, however, including those in college, are unable to provide the name of a national research institute or of any Brazilian scientist. This was the result found by the survey called What do young Brazilians think of science and technology? by the National Institute of Science and Technology in Science and Technology Public Communication (INCT/CPCT), made public on 24 June at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz). 

Run in Brazil for the first time, the study covered the entire country and used the survey technique to apply a structured and in-person questionnaire to a sample of the Brazilian population of young people (between 15 and 24 years old). The quantitative survey involved 2,206 people and was carried out between 23 March and 28 April 2019. It also involved cognitive and qualitative phases, to know what young people think of and what their attitude towards science and technology is.

The young people who took part of the study displayed support and trust in science, and stated it is important to invest on the sector. According to the study, young people in general see the scientist figure under a positive light, and most of them believe that men and women are equally capable of being scientists and should therefore be offered the same opportunities.

In a time in which anti-vaccine movements are gaining terrain, 75% of the young people interviewed said it is not dangerous to vaccinate children. The study measured, for the first time in Brazil, access to scientific knowledge, disinformation and perception of fake news. It also intended to measure the life trajectory and moral and political positioning of young people regarding attitudes towards science and technology.

“Although it is very important to understand how young people interact and engage in science and technology subjects, there are still few studies in this sense in Brazil”, says Luisa Massarani, leader of INCT/CPCT and one of the coordinators of the research work. “Our goal with this study, which includes a national survey, interviews and discussion groups, was to bring light to this question, which may generate subsidies to design public policies and science communication initiatives that target young people”, added the coordinator of the Post-Graduation Program of Science, Technology and Health Communication of Casa de Oswaldo Cruz (COC/Fiocruz).

The event at Fiocruz could count on the presence of experts in the field of public perception of science and technology in Brazil, Argentina and the United States. In addition to the presentation of the survey results, the event also discussed the most recent contributions in the field and possibilities of use of the data that were generated.

Main results

To select the subjects that were to be interviewed, the study used a probabilistic sample up to the penultimate stage, applying samples by gender, age and level of education in the last stage. The confidence interval was 95%. The interviews, carried out by a trained team, took place at the homes of the interviewed subjects, between March and April 2019. 

The following results are worthy of mention:

- Most young Brazilians shows great interest for science and technology subjects, in equal proportion of males and females, and in practically all social groups; interest in science and technology is, in general, higher than interest in sports and comparable to interest in religion;

- In general, young Brazilians see scientists in a positive light, and most believe that men and women are equally capable of being scientists and should be given equal opportunities;

- However, most of the young people interviewed, including those in college, were unable to mention the name of a single Brazilian institution involved in research, nor the name of any Brazilian scientist; 

- Young people also show doubts regarding social and political controversies that involve science today: 25% believe that vaccinating children may be dangerous; 54% agree that scientists may be “exaggerating” their statements regarding the effects of climate change; 40% say they do not agree with the statement that humans have evolved over time and descend from other animals.

Interviews and discussion groups

In addition to the survey, discussions groups and interviews were also carried out with young people between 18 and 24 years old in the cities of Rio de Janeiro (RJ) and Belém (PA). The technique used in the discussion groups was selected for the study because it makes possible to collect not only what people think and express, but also how they think, and why. One of the aspects under analysis was how young people deal with fake news, in particular those related to science and technology.

The following results are worthy of mention:

- The study shows a shift in the information ecosystem. Information is no longer searched for, but it is found; young people stumble upon various contents, and science and technology are part of this scenario;

- Young people complain it is hard to know whether the information that circulate in the mainstream media and on the Internet is true or not. They report anguish and insecurity regarding what happens in the world: it is increasingly harder to identify what is true;

- Not surprisingly, our data show that this perception of receiving possible fake news regarding science and technology is higher among young people who are politically engaged, have higher education and who consume scientific information more frequently;

- Their confidence when it comes to identifying fake news is strongly dependent on the degree to which they consume scientific information and on their cultural habits (going to museums, attending events etc).

The study was supported by CNPq, Faperj and Fapemig.

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