Mad scientists? More like sad scientists.
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  • Mad scientists? More like sad scientists.

New research has identified another group of American professionals who feel underappreciated. A study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center indicates that the public respects this profession, but not to the degree its members believe they deserve to be respected, and that the public has more doubts about some of the methods they employ than the experts employing them do. Even though most Americans still believe these people are doing a superior job, they’re not as certain of that as they used to be. There are signs the people doing these jobs are getting a little discouraged.

Who fits this description? Well, who doesn’t? Teachers, journalists, the cops—they’re all familiar faces in our nation of put-upons. Pew inducts into their company America’s scientists.

Working with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pew has located some remarkable breaches between what scientists are thinking and doing and the laity’s opinion of it.

For instance:

88 percent of AAAS scientists think it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. Just 37 percent of the public agree.

89 percent of scientists favor using animals in research. But 47 percent of the public do.

Are humans chiefly to blame for climate change? Yes, say 87 percent of the scientists and 50 percent of the public.

And are humans an evolved species? Almost all scientists—98 percent—think so, but just 65 percent of the rest of us do.

Though scientists might interpret such numbers as thrilling evidence that they constitute the vanguard of human knowledge, Pew’s data suggest they’re actually feeling a little sulky. For instance, the Pew study, “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” reports that only 58 percent of the responding AAAS scientists said “best science” usually guides policy regulations about new drugs and treatments, 46 percent about food safety, 27 percent about clean air and water, and a mere 15 percent about land use.

And only 54 percent of Americans believe American science is best in the world or even above average. Six years ago that number was 65 percent. Not by coincidence, surely, the number of scientists who consider today a “good time for science” has dropped to 52 percent, from 76 percent in 2009.