Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
Given the often heated nature of online discourse, and the rise in fake news and misinformation, that there is little real desire from the public for scientific data and information. Research1 from Georgia Tech suggests otherwise, however, and finds that the public is surprisingly keen on open-access science.
The researchers analyzed 1.6 million downloads of reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which is widely regarded as the cream of the crop of science-based literature, and examined the reasons for downloading.
It found that around half of the downloads were for academic purposes, as might be expected, but even more were downloaded by people outside of educational settings, with a desire for lifelong learning a popular reason given.
“This study shows strong demand among everyday Americans for the highest quality information to help improve at their jobs, to help their relatives, neighbors, and communities, and in some cases simply to learn for learning’s sake,” the researchers say. “We never hear these stories because everyone is focusing on all the misinformation that goes out over social media.”
An interest in science
In total, the researchers trawled through 1.6 million comments that had been left on 6.6 million downloads since 2011, which is when the Academies first started to offer the reports for free. The comments were left in response to a query about how users planned to use the reports. The researchers then used machine learning to analyze the comments.
The analysis found that while academic users accounted for around 48% of all downloads (where comments were left), that left 52% of downloads from non-academic users, including retirees, amateur astronomers, and lifelong learning providers. Indeed, around 150,000 downloads were tagged as being for personal use, with 25,000 being from doctors and nurses who wanted to inform their clinical work.
The findings suggest that the diffusion of knowledge after the decision to make the reports freely available has been both broad and impactful.
“The results reveal adults motivated to seek out the most credible sources, engage with challenging material, use it to improve the services they provide and learn more about the world they live in,” the researchers explain. “The picture contrasts starkly with the dominant narrative of a misinformed and manipulated public targeted by social media.”
While the authors accept that misinformation online is certainly a problem, they nonetheless believe that their findings show that a large chunk of the general public is willing and able to turn to experts to understand the complex world we live in.
“A large part of the American public is innately curious and is willing to tackle the academic jargon to gain some insight,” they conclude. “That in itself is a comforting finding.”
Article source: Research Shows A Strong Public Desire For Science.
- Hicks, D., Zullo, M., Doshi, A., & Asensio, O. I. (2022). Widespread use of National Academies consensus reports by the American public. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(9), e2107760119. ↩