First, the good news: young people in Europe are overwhelmingly interested in science and technology (S&T) and positive about the benefits they bring to society, according to a new Eurobarometer survey on young people's attitudes to science. The bad news is that few are interested in pursuing a scientific career.
The results are based on a survey of some 25,000 people aged between 15 and 25 scattered across all 27 Member States of the EU. The youngsters were quizzed about their interest in news in general and S&T-related topics in particular; their views about research and scientists; their awareness of certain scientific innovations; the opinions about the health risks linked to certain factors and their interest in studying scientific subjects in the future.
The poll revealed that 67% of respondents were interested in science and technology news (in comparison, almost 90% were interested in culture and entertainment news, 67% professed an interest in sports news and just under 45% said they were interested in news from the worlds of economics and politics).
According to the survey, young men are much more likely to be interested in science and technology news than are young women.
Within the S&T field, the most popular topics were 'new inventions and technologies' and 'Earth and the environment'; almost 90% of those polled said they were either moderately or very interested in these subjects. Health and medicine and information and communication technologies (ICTs) also proved popular, and almost two thirds said they were either moderately or very interested in 'the universe, sky and stars'.
In terms of the young people's attitudes towards science, 82% agreed with the statement 'science brings more benefits than harm'. There was also widespread agreement with the idea that science could improve our quality of life and help to eliminate poverty and hunger. However, over three-quarters agreed that research today is influenced too much by profit. According to the young people, science should principally serve the development of knowledge.
On the research policy front, a quarter said that citizens should have the first say in how research funds in their country are used. A fifth picked the scientific community and 18% said the government should have the most say. Finally, some 16% said that research organisations should have the largest influence and 13% said it should be the EU. Private enterprises and the media got just 2% of the vote each.
A large majority of the youngsters agreed that there should be more coordination of research between the EU Member States. There was also widespread agreement that both the EU and national governments should spend more money on research.
Yet despite their clear interest in research and their understanding of its importance to society, the youngsters turned out to be less keen on studying these subjects. Just 19% said they were definitely considering studying social sciences or humanities subjects. For biology and medicine, the figure was 13%, while for engineering and the natural sciences the figures were 11% and 10%, respectively. Just 8% claimed that they were definitely considering mathematics as a subject for future study.
'I'm happy to see that science stimulates the European youth,' commented European Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik. 'The Eurobarometer survey shows that there is a huge reservoir of interest and support to science in the young generation. However, the low interest in engineering and scientific studies is a major concern, as well as the gender imbalance. We must reverse this trend because talented and educated 'brains' are major EU assets in the current global competition.'