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Great Hall, Ontario Science Centre

Three out of four Canadians agree that science and technology are needed to solve the critical challenges the world is facing. Yet, three in five also say that society is “turning away” from science in favour of ideas that are not grounded in evidence or data.

The contrasting responses are among the latest results to emerge from a detailed survey tracking the way Canadians regard science and the role it plays in their lives. Now in its third year, the survey suggests there is strong public support for science yet also ambivalence about its impact and, potentially, a growing resistance to expert opinion.

“It’s something we need to pay attention to ... it relates to public trust in science,” said Maurice Bitran, CEO and chief science officer of the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, which commissioned the survey by the polling firm Leger.

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While an overwhelming number of those surveyed – 84 per cent – agreed that science is improving their quality of life, many also expressed reservations about the potential impact of technological advances, including artificial intelligence (62 per cent) and self-driving vehicles (60 per cent).

More broadly, 54 per cent agreed that there is “a building tension between society and science in terms of [science] going beyond humanity’s needs.”

The results, released on Monday, were compiled from an online survey conducted last June of 1,501 Canadians. They are considered accurate to within 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

In previous years, the survey raised eyebrows for revealing that 43 per cent of Canadians consider science to be a “matter of opinion.” It was a disconcerting result for educators and policy-makers involved in promoting the value of science to public policy, particularly on matters related to health and the environment. The figure is unchanged in the latest version of the survey.

Similarly, the survey is consistent in showing that large numbers of Canadians hold views that are not supported by scientific evidence including one in five who believe there is a link between autism and vaccination, more than two in five who believe the science behind global warming is unclear and more than half who say that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a health risk.

Such figures have long prompted calls for more public education in science and more attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the school curriculum. However, U.S. research indicates that social, religious and political factors can trump education when it comes to shaping attitudes on controversial scientific topics, regardless of how well the relevant science is explained. For example, in a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that those who most differ on topics such as climate change are often the most educated.

Dr. Bitran, whose research background is in astrophysics, said that a key motivation for the survey is the need to better understand how well public institutions are doing at conveying the importance of science to Canadians.

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“Without measuring it, you’re kind of doing it in the dark,” he said.

He said another important result from the survey shows a widespread public agreement that women and minorities are underrepresented in science.

In general, only one-third of those who responded indicated that they have science-related skills or qualifications. The survey reinforces earlier research that suggests Canadians generally hold positive attitudes toward science but that most have little personal or professional connection to it.

“So many people associate science with something they had to take in school … as opposed to what they’re doing in their lives,” said Molly Shoichet, a professor and specialist in the use of in bio-materials for tissue regeneration at the University of Toronto who also sits on the science centre’s board.

Dr. Shoichet, who served as Ontario’s first Chief Scientist until she was dismissed in July by then newly elected Premier Doug Ford, added that the survey underscores the need for continued growth and investment in science and innovation-based industries as an economic driver and source of well-paying jobs in Canada.

Mr. Ford has yet to announce a replacement for Dr. Shoichet in the Chief Scientist role.

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CONFLICTING VIEWS

Some of the results from a detailed survey

of Canadians’ attitudes toward science.

Strongly

agree*

Agree

Critical challenges facing the world

will need to be solved by science

and technology

74%

28%

There is a building tension between

society and science in terms of going

beyond humanity’s needs

60%

14%

Society is “turning away” from

science in favour of ideas that lack

evidence or data

54%

15%

Scientific findings are

a matter of opinion

43%

7%

The social effects of arificial

intelligence are a cause for concern

62%

25%

Genetically modified organisms

are bad for you health

53%

19%

The science behind global warming

is still unclear

45%

14%

There is a link between vaccinations

and autism

19%

4%

Minority communities are adequately

represented in the sciences

35%

8%

More funding should be devoted to

science research and education

82%

36%

Margin of error: ± 2.5%, 19 times out of 20

*'Strongly agree' percentages are a subset of

'agree' percentages

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Ontario Science

Centre/Leger

CONFLICTING VIEWS

Some of the results from a detailed survey

of Canadians’ attitudes toward science.

Strongly

agree*

Agree

Critical challenges facing the world will

need to be solved by science and technology

74%

28%

There is a building tension between society

and science in terms of going beyond

humanity’s needs

60%

14%

Society is “turning away” from science

in favour of ideas that lack evidence or data

54%

15%

43%

7%

Scientific findings are a matter of opinion

The social effects of arificial intelligence

are a cause for concern

62%

25%

Genetically modified organisms

are bad for you health

53%

19%

The science behind global warming

is still unclear

45%

14%

There is a link between vaccinations

and autism

19%

4%

Minority communities are adequately

represented in the sciences

35%

8%

More funding should be devoted to

science research and education

82%

36%

Margin of error: ± 2.5%, 19 times out of 20

*'Strongly agree' percentages are a subset of 'agree' percentages

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Ontario Science

Centre/Leger

CONFLICTING VIEWS

Some of the results from a detailed survey of Canadians’ attitudes toward science.

Agree

Strongly agree*

Critical challenges facing the world will need

to be solved by science and technology

74%

28%

There is a building tension between society and

science in terms of going beyond humanity’s needs

60%

14%

Society is “turning away” from science

in favour of ideas that lack evidence or data

54%

15%

43%

Scientific findings are a matter of opinion

7%

62%

The social effects of arificial intelligence are

a cause for concern

25%

53%

Genetically modified organisms are

bad for you health

19%

45%

The science behind global warming is still unclear

14%

19%

There is a link between vaccinations and autism

4%

Minority communities are adequately

represented in the sciences

35%

8%

More funding should be devoted to

science research and education

82%

36%

Margin of error: ± 2.5%, 19 times out of 20

*'Strongly agree' percentages are a subset of 'agree'

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Ontario Science Centre/Leger

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