Public Trust in ISE Institutions

January 01, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Kris Morrissey and CAISE Admin.


Periodic survey research efforts are conducted to understand how the public’s trust in informal science organizations compares to other established institutions.  The results from these surveys are then used to understand how the public perceptions of trust change over time—whether they trend up, down, or stay the same.  Examples that specifically compare informal science institutions to other sources of scientific knowledge are scarce.  However, there is a lot of research on public attitudes and behaviors regarding science, scientists, and science knowledge.  For example, Harris Interactive (2014) reported that 76% of polled adults ranked ‘scientist’ as prestigious and 91% would encourage a young person to pursue science as a career although GenX respondents ranked scientists as somewhat less prestigious (70%).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Understanding Science

One surveys was conducted by the, Harris Poll (1994) Harris Poll, revealed that 76% of Americans polled enjoy learning about scientific developments yet 50% reported that they “understand less and less of what scientists are doing” (p.2).  Ten years later, Research America (2005) reported that 82% of Americans polled said they do not personally know any scientists.  Yet, the same survey consistently reveals the very high value the public places upon both science and scientists.  These survey results show a public with a consistent high regard for science and a persistent sense of mystery regarding the scientific enterprise. Still, Informal Science Institutions are more popular in the United States than in any other country. [needs citation]

In the most recent National Science Board (2010) survey on science and engineering indicators, results are consistent with previous surveys.  Half (57%) said they had visited a zoo or aquarium and over one-quarter had visited a “natural history museum” (27%) or a “science and technology museum” 26%). One in three Americans had visited an art museum and 64% had visited a public library (p.7-16). Education level is strong indicator of the likelihood of visiting a science museum.  The Wellcome Trust (2000) (comparable to the United States’ Science and Engineering Indicators Study) also found that British adults with more education are likely to place more confidence in the work of scientists and science institutions.

In 2001, the American Association of Museums sponsored an independent survey of adult Americans and found that “Among a wide range of information sources, museums are far and away the most trusted source of objective information. Thirty-eight percent of Americans believe museums are one of the most trustworthy sources and 87% believe they are trustworthy overall’  (Lake Snell Perry & Associates, 2001, p2). [need to confirm this] In 2006, the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), also conducted a survey of American adults and concluded that “museums evoke consistent, extraordinary public trust among diverse adult users” (Griffiths and King, 2008).

Trust regarding the Environment

The environment represents an issue where many adults are motivated to learn. According to the National Science Board (2006), the US population places the most trust in local and national organizations to deal with environmental issues.  While this probably pertains mainly to governmental agencies (i.e. Environmental Protection Agency), the question posed is vague enough that it probably also includes not-for-profit environmental groups and informal science institutions.  The report also claims that when Americans were asked to rate their trust in various institutions that could provide information about biotechnology, Public TV Networks ranked in the top third along with University Scientists, Science Journals, and the World Health Organization (p.7-30). It is important to note that informal science institutions were not on the list. In addition, the report found that Science and Technology museums are much more popular in the United States than in other countries. The millions of people who visit science museums each year demonstrate interest in science without necessarily being interested in science related news (p.7-3). In a recent study on public impact of zoos and aquariums (Fraser & Sicker 2009) surveyed participants indicated they felt these institutions were reliable sources of information on topics ranging from pollution to zoological concepts, with confidence being highest with issues related to issues in wildlife conservation and endangered species.

Possibly the most important and relevant study to date on informal science institutions and trust is Leiserowitz et al. (2010). Leiserowitz asked the question “How much do you trust or distrust the following as a source of information about global warming?” Science programming on television ranked second with 72% of those surveyed expressing trust in the programming (i.e. PBS, Discovery Channel). Science Museums and Natural History Museums were virtually the same with 73% and 72% of those surveyed respectively expressing trust in these institutions.  Weather reporters, military leaders, and mainstream news media scored the lowest in the survey with 52%, 42%, and 35% expressing trust respectively. In a comparison of Australian and US opinions, another study about climate change and museums found similar results, 57% distrusted mainstream media as a source for information about climate change (Cameron & Deslandes, 2011). 

Broadening Reach and Enhancing Trust

Science centers and museums—despite visibility and high-level of trust in their communities—do face challenges in broadening and diversity their visitor base and strengthening relationships with non-traditional publics.  Similar to in depth science journalism in print, online, or on public television, these institutions face strong educational disparities in their users.  Almost 40% of college-educated respondents, for instance, visited a science or technology museum in 2008, compared to less than 10% for respondents with a high school education or less (National Science Board, 2012).  To broaden and deepen their relationships across an affiliated community, science centers should look to shift into social and public spaces where non-traditional visitors can be found.  This can include low-income neighborhood schools, churches, and community centers.  Research also shows that adult programming that features interactive public forms that emphasize two-way interaction and dialogue among attendees leads to enhanced trust and feelings of efficacy among visitors (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009).

A Fragile Trust

The American Association of Museums raises the point that while informal learning institutions enjoy a very high level of public trust, this trust is fragile. A constant vigilance is needed to ward off detrimental effects from scandals at other non-profit organizations (Enseki, 2006).


Cameron, F., and Deslandes, A. (2011). "Museums and science centres as sites for deliberative democracy on climate change." museum and society 9.2: 136-153.

Enseki, C. (2006). Public Trust and Accountability. A Resource for AAM Peer Reviewers.  American Association of Museums, Washington, DC.

Fraser, J., & Sickler, J. (2009). Why zoos and aquariums matter: Handbook of research key findings and results from national audience surveys. Silver Spring, MD: Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Harris Interactive (2009). Firefighters, Scientists and Doctors Seen as Most Prestigious Occupations. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Harris Poll (1994). Americans have great faith in science but not much knowledge or understanding. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Lake Snell Perry & Associates.(2001). Nationwide public opinion survey commissioned by American Association of Museums. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement

Leiserowitz, A., Smith, N. & Marlon, J.R. (2010) Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

National Science Board. (2006). Science and Engineering Indicators 2006. Two volumes.

Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (volume 1, NSB 06-01; volume 2, NSB 06-01A). Accessed December 6, 2011 from

National Science Board. (2010). Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. Two volumes.

Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (volume 1, NSB 06-01; volume 2, NSB 06-01A). Accessed December 6, 2011 from

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009).  What’s Next for Science Communication?  Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions.  American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1767-1778.

Research! America. (2005). America Speaks: Poll Data Booklet. Vol. 6. Alexandria, VA. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Trust, T. W. (2001). Science and the public: A review of science communication and public attitudes toward science in Britain. Public Understanding of Science, 10(3), 315-330. Accessed December 5, 2011 from

Wellcome Trust. (2000). Science and the Public: A Review of Science Communication and Public Attitudes to Science in Britain. Office of Science and Technology. Accessed December 5, 2011 from