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How We Use the Internet for Science Research

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The internet is second only to television as a source of science information for most Americans, according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the Exploratorium.

Fully 87% of those surveyed said that they have used the internet to research a scientific topic or concept. And not surprisingly, younger, more wired users say that the internet is their primary source of information, by a 44% to 32% margin over television.

"Many think of the internet as a gigantic encyclopedia on all subjects and this certainly applies to scientific information," said John B. Horrigan, Associate Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the study's principal author.

Pew, known for its numerous studies of how people use the internet for various needs, conducted the study with the Exploratorium, one of the first museums establish a web site in 1993, to learn how people use the internet to "engage with science online," according to Dr. Robert J. Semper, Executive Associate Director of the Exploratorium.

The study looked both at how people use the web, and whether online use had any impact on visits to brick and mortar museums or scientific exhibitions.

Most Americans say they would turn to the internet if they needed more information on specific scientific topics. When asked about specific topics, two-thirds of respondents asked about stem cell research said they would first turn to the internet and 59% asked about climate change said they would first go to the internet.

Unsurprisingly, most of those searches would begin with search engines.

Convenience is a major reason people turn to the web for science information: 71% of said they turn to the internet for science news and information because it is readily accessible.

Serendipity also plays a major role when it comes to science on the web. Two-thirds (65%) say they have encountered news and information about science when they have gone online for a different reason.

Turning to the web for science information doesn't inhibit people from visiting actual museums. 59% of the survey respondents have been to some sort of science museum in the past year, such as a zoo or aquarium, natural history museum, science or technology museum, or planetarium.

People don't just use the web for keeping up with scientific news, either. 49% of respondents reported visiting science-themed websites, such as the Smithsonian's website or NationalGeographic.com. There's also a relationship between the two behaviors: those who have gone to a science museum are more likely to visit science websites, and vice versa.

The study also examined attitudes about science and compared the opinions of respondents who used the internet for science research vs. those that did not.

Fully 78% of those who have gotten science information online describe themselves as "very" or "somewhat" informed about new scientific discoveries; 58% of remaining internet users says this.

And science is important in other ways: 48% strongly agree that to be a strong society, the United States needs to be competitive in science; just 33% of remaining online users strongly agree with this. And 43% strongly agree that scientific research is essential to improving the quality of human lives; 27% of remaining online users say this.

The full 42 page report is available for download from the Pew Internet & American Life Project web site.


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