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Report & Summary:

"Americans' Motivations for and Barriers to Engaging with Science"

There are a lot of factors that go into creating a successful, engaging piece of science communication, perhaps none more so than an understanding of your audience's reason(s) for wanting to learn. But another important facet to understand is the flip-side of that coin: what keeps others from caring or wanting to learn about a certain scientific topic? Because, after all, the ultimate goal of every scientist trying to spread word of their work should be not just to reach those already interested or involved but anyone and everyone who could possibly benefit from the knowledge (the whole world, ideally).

In order to help the scientific community better understand some of those big picture motivations and barriers the folks at ASTC, ScienceCounts, and a number of other fine institutions recently conducted a massive study (based on both several focus groups and a nationwide online survey) to "provide scientific engagement practitioners insights and data to develop more effective public engagement activities." And their results, in addition to being fascinating, could prove an essential tool in building your next piece of scientific communication.


Overall Results

The biggest piece of good news from the report is that 94% of Americans expressed interest in learning about at least one scientific topic. And the top five reasons for this desire to learn show that it's typically based in positive emotions:


  1. Curiosity - 36% of respondents
  2. Mastery (of a new skill or topic) - 35%
  3. Joy - 33%
  4. Autonomy (of being able to learn on their own) - 29%
  5. Recharge - 29%


Curiosity was not just the top reason for interest on average, it was the top across all demographics. Regardless of race, age, gender, income, political ideology, etc., curiosity drives more Americans to learn about science than anything else.


Engaging with Science

Public interest in science is always a good thing, but getting people to actively, regularly engage with science in some way is the real key to an invested and educated populace. And this study showed a majority of Americans, 59%, wish they had more time in their lives to engage in scientific activities. Now, of course it would be better if they actually had the time. But that willingness says a lot about how open the average person is towards potential chances to take part in some sort of scientific activity.

The role of personal connection to one's scientific interests is where differences start to crop up between demographics. Among African-American and Hispanic adults, roughly three-quarters see connections between their scientific and non-scientific interests with over a third of respondents in each group saying they see "lots of connections." Among white adults, on the other hand, only about two-thirds saw any connections with just 25% seeing "lots." The study also draws interesting parallels between the kind of scientific engagement triggered by curiosity vs connection. The former typically drives people to "casual, convenient, and/or one-time events" like a museum visit or documentary viewing, while the latter leads to "more participatory and/or longer term activities" like working with scientists or volunteering as research subjects.


Barriers to Engagement

Understanding the primary motivations behind most people's interest in science is extremely useful, but so is understanding what keeps others uninterested. This study identified four main types of barriers:


  • Logistics - Lack of time or access, prohibitive costs, and transportation difficulties.
  • Value Proposition - Topics are boring or hard to understand, not worth the time, and similar complaints.
  • Belonging - Feeling discomforted, disrespected, or unwelcome in science institutions or communities.
  • Identity - Science activity/institutions don't create experiences that speak to or interest someone because of their background. Also includes the sentiment that science focuses predominantly on accomplishments of white men.


Given those identified barriers, it's no wonder that the study showed Hispanic and African-American experienced them at much higher rates than whites in every category. Hispanic adults reported the highest instances in all four with Logistics (71%) and Identity (67%) as the top-rated barriers. African-Americans were a close second across the board and identified their biggest barriers as Identity (67%) and Logistics (65%). White people's rate of experiencing barriers was significantly lower in all categories except Logistics (64%). The study points out that the existence of these barriers does not necessarily preclude engagement as interested individuals are often willing to work harder than others to overcome them.



Curiosity and connection are key to getting Americans of all demographics to engage with science. But those drives often butt up against one or more barriers, particularly among the Hispanic and African-American communities. Finding ways to reach beyond those barriers to connect with people’s curiosity is key to improving one's capability to  communicate science to an even broader audience.

Paul D. Mooney

Paul D. Mooney is an award-winning writer and filmmaker currently earning his master's in Marine Conservation and Policy at Stony Brook University. He has a BS in Film and Television from Boston University, an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, resides in Queens, and never turns down a burrito.

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