The National Academy of Sciences’ LabX program came into existence in 2017 with a directive to develop programming meant to engage with a young-adult (18-37 years old) target audience who are active decision-makers and whose actions impact current and future policies. While conducting preliminary research, the LabX staff and advisory board discovered that available research on young adults’ relationship with science was sadly lacking in detail, beyond obvious conclusions about high levels of interest in technology and social experiences.[1,2]
To fill these knowledge gaps, gain a deeper understanding of the young adult population in the U.S., and identify potential engagement mechanisms, LabX partnered with Slover Linett Audience Research Inc. to design and implement a national survey of the target age group. Undertaken in 2018, the survey investigated the interests, actions, and perceptions of young adults, both in general and in relation to science, to determine how (if at all) science fits, and could fit, in their world.
We’re very pleased to share the results from the survey in this report. The findings point toward several high-potential opportunities for programming that we feel will benefit the entire public science engagement community. There are several intriguing potential threads to pursue, as well as paths to avoid.
LabX intends to use the survey results as a starting point from which to investigate different potential topic areas and experiment with approaches to engagement. Consistent with achieving LabX’s vision of “a world in which young adults actively use the relevant products and processes of science to inform their problem solving and decision making,” we have decided to focus our efforts on the moderate science affinity group identified by the survey as our target audience. We hope that all organizations are similarly able to utilize the information contained within this report for their own purposes.
By sharing this information with colleagues, we are aiming to contribute to a collective effort that creates relevant, effective science programming which will engage new, more diverse audiences and have a substantial impact on our world. We welcome and encourage opportunities for collaboration, so please feel free to get in touch with me if you are interested.
Slover Linett collected data in partnership with NORC’s AmeriSpeak panel, targeting a representative sample of 18 to 37-year-olds in the United States. AmeriSpeak is recognized as a leader in data quality among U.S. online survey panels, in part because it supplements the online surveys with phone follow-up to achieve high response rates. The panel has particularly high coverage of hard-to-reach populations, such as those living in rural locations.
The only screening requirement for participation in this English-only survey was the respondent’s age (18 to 37 years old). This is broader than the age range of the “millennial” generation, which in 2018 was 22–37. We also wanted to include 18–21 year olds, members of “Gen Z,” because of LabX’s interest in engaging college students. We received 1,003 high-quality responses to the survey between September 11 and September 27, 2018 from a pool of 3,993 panel members (for a response rate of 25.1%). NORC statisticians weighted the sample along a number of dimensions including age, race/ethnicity, gender, education status, and census division. The final margin of error of the weighted sample is 4.3%. The survey questions can be found here.
Age range of respondents
Number of high-quality responses received from the survey
THE CONTEXT FOR SCIENCE
The category of “science” is, of course, broad and varied, and that complexity is reflected in the ways young adults view science and its relevance to their lives. We did not define science—or any other terms—for respondents in the survey. Instead, we asked about science topics and other related and unrelated content areas, then built our picture of science relevance and connection from the full pattern of survey responses.
In order to drill down deeper into our young-adult target audience, we created a composite “science affinity” score. Derived from respondents’ general attitudes and beliefs about science, science affinity appears to be a measure of implicit interest in, or connection to, science that is separate from a stated, conscious interest in science.
To create the science affinity score, we used factor analysis across responses to the following seven attitudinal and self-description items. This composite score, created through factor analysis, explains almost half (48%) of the variance in the seven individual scale items.
For reporting, we divided the science-affinity factor scores into three equally sized groups, labeled simply low, moderate, and high science affinity. We then profiled each group based on how they answered other questions on the survey. Their distinct interests and preferences suggest potential pathways along which LabX’s programming can engage specific audience segments in relevant ways.
About Science Affinity Profile Levels
Young adults who see value and relevance in topics implicitly related to science—the group we’re calling high science affinity—are likely to have both personal and professional connections to the topic. As we’d expect, they’re more interested than others in attending science-themed events. They also tend to be highly curious and motivated by opportunities to learn, particularly when they can do so in a fun, social way, perhaps via a “gamified” experience. Young adults with high science affinity tend to trust and rely on expert sources of information. They’re quite comfortable and active online, and they strongly prefer online modes of engagement over in-person events. The events high-science affinity individuals attend aren’t very different from those with lower affinity levels, but the high-affinity group is a little more likely to have attended museum events and sports events. They’re particularly likely to enjoy online gaming and learning in competitive or gamified structures. And they’re more likely than other groups to seek out experiences that help them network in their job or career (notably, about a third of this group has a career connected to science in some way).
Young adults in the moderate science affinity group, unsurprisingly, show a moderate level of interest in science and science-related topics, and a moderate willingness to participate in various engagement mechanisms. As a group, they have equal proportions male and female, tend to be the oldest group, and are most likely to be married.
Compared with their high and low science affinity peers, moderate science affinity young adults would be more interested in checking out a science-related event if their friends and people their own age are going. In addition, they are most likely to encounter science-related topics through stories or topics in the news or to solve a practical problem.
Members of the moderate affinity group are the most likely group to attend live events—collectively, they prefer entertainment events, farmers markets, amusement parks, county fairs or rodeos, and theater. At the same time, they are the heaviest users of social media and are most likely to watch online videos, stream music, watch how-to videos, and listen to podcasts.
Young adults who aren’t starting from a foundation of deep or personal interest in science are, naturally, less inclined to engage with science-related events or online content. But framing those experiences in terms of other things they do care about may nonetheless open pathways to engagement. Young adults with low science affinity are particularly likely to seek information through their existing relationships—i.e., family or friends. When they go online, they’re more likely to do so in order to facilitate connecting “in the real world” with others. They’re less likely than those with high science affinity to use online tools across the board, from search engines to live streaming. They’re also more likely to have children at home, which can sometimes provide a reason for them to engage with science: e.g., in order to help or connect with their children. The kinds of in-person events they attend are broadly similar to those with higher science affinity, but they’re more likely to have attended play groups or classes for children. Young adults with low science affinity are more likely to check out a science-related event if it’s intended for all ages and clearly designed for those who aren’t “science people.”
Using this science-affinity lens, we next wanted to understand:
Broadly speaking, young adults tend to seek out information and experiences that offer opportunities to both learn and have fun, and they are most likely to seek out information for personal rather than work-related or academic reasons.
As might be expected, asking people why they look for information gave strong results related to learning or becoming better-informed. However, since the context for that information-seeking isn’t explicitly professional or educational, we weren’t surprised that fun and entertainment also ranked highly.
Online searches are the main source of information for young adults, and many also take informal routes, like asking friends or family or trying to figure it out themselves. Relatively few choose formally structured in-person events or look to experts (or expert sources of information). Interestingly, podcasts were not a popular source of information in this survey, despite their current ubiquity.
We asked about both in-person and online mechanisms for learning and engagement. When seeking information of various kinds, a majority of young adults say they prefer online activities over in-person events, although about a third are equally open to both modes. Interestingly, young adults in the high science-affinity category are even more likely to prefer online activities than those with lower science affinity.
Unsurprisingly, most young adults (like most Americans of all ages) are active seekers of both information and entertainment online: large majorities use social media, watch videos, and stream music, and almost half have played online games in recent months. Young adults gain knowledge online in many forms, with almost two-thirds (62%) watching how-to videos and smaller proportions listening to podcasts, watching talks, and posting comments. Far fewer young adults access formal learning opportunities such as online courses.
When young adults go online to seek information, they’re largely hoping to learn something and get their questions answered, though some also want to have their assumptions challenged or have a fun, humorous, or relaxing experience. Most showed little interest in socializing through online learning experiences
In an online context, young adults tend to look for information from many sources, especially those that offer direct learning or instruction from an individual, whether or not that individual has “official” credentials or academic expertise in the relevant area. It’s possible that getting the perspective of a specific individual helps provide a sense of human connection in the online landscape. Consistent with their other responses in this survey, young adults who live in non-metropolitan areas are somewhat more interested in opportunities for social experiences than their urban counterparts.
Young adults attend a wide range of in-person events, with entertainment-focused events (concerts, movies, performances) and festivals being the most popular. In general, the low science-affinity group was less likely to attend any of the listed event types, and they were twice as likely to indicate they had attended none of the listed event types. The low affinity group is also more likely to attend an event involving their kids.
When young adults attend in-person events, fun is more important than it is online: many want to both learn and have a good, relaxing time (laughter, excitement, etc.). We’ve seen that having fun is a top motivator for attending events in other disciplines as well, such as cultural activities (Culture Track, 2017). Young adults are not very interested in community-building through in-person events, or in meeting people with different experiences. Instead, they want to participate in something that is fun, and they enjoy learning in informal, low-pressure settings.
When they attend in-person events, most young adults tend to prefer receiving information rather than contributing their own thoughts or experiences, though hands-on experiences also rate highly. Perhaps not surprisingly, the high and moderate affinity groups are more interested in hearing from an expert than low affinity group.
We were then interested to see how the general engagement preferences described above mapped onto science and science-related topic-areas. Not surprisingly, the three science-affinity groups showed distinct differences.
The survey data suggests that the most natural connections to science for young adults are curiosity about how things work and the sense that scientific advancements make life better. When science does cross their minds, it’s often because they’re thinking about a practical problem or have seen a science-related story in the media. But half of respondents do sometimes seek out scientific topics on their own, out of personal interest. And some are prompted to think about science when helping their kids with science-related homework or projects (and those living in non-metro areas are more likely to connect to science this way).
Young adults recognize many topics as being connected to science in some way, though for all the topic areas we asked about, those in the high science-affinity group are more likely to view that topic as connected to science than those with low science affinity.
Among local civic and community-related issues, young adults are most concerned about the economy, education, and crime, with housing not far behind.
Drilling down beyond generalities, we wanted to directly explore whether young adults make a conscious connection between scientific concepts and specific issues of interest and relevance to them.
Taken altogether, our data indicate that young adults don’t see much natural alignment between scientific approaches and the issues they’re most concerned about. In other words, the social and economic issues that respondents care most about aren’t the ones they think are likely to be improved through science. Extrapolating just a bit, we could say that they don’t see science as particularly salient in society.
Pulling it all together, we wanted to see if the interests and motivations surveyed above would translate into participation in a science-themed activity.
When deciding whether to attend an in-person science-related activity, young adults are most concerned about the practical relevance of the content and the format of the event rather than the people they’d expect to find there. This may indicate an opportunity to foster engagement with science through topics that feel practical and applicable to everyday life.
There are numerous conclusions that can be reached from the presented data, each dependent on the frame through which the information is viewed. Rather than running through all possible scenarios, we offer some general thoughts on science-based programming for young-adult audiences:
On the whole, young adults don’t hold strongly negative associations with science—but neither are their connections with it deeply personal or particularly top-of-mind. While many do recognize the inherent value of science and scientific approaches, they’re less apt to pursue science information or events in their daily lives.
Science affinity is a useful tool for identifying and targeting specific audiences, and should be considered as a factor when developing programming. Keep in mind that affinity for science scales is highly correlated with gender and education-level (and less strongly correlated with income).
Potential participants in events look for indicators of relevance and connections to their interest when deciding how to spend their time outside of work. And for some, science alone won’t be very compelling; an approach which weaves scientific approaches and information in through other topics (which may feel more accessible and interesting) may be more successful in reaching a broad audience.
Focusing programming on issues of concern locally is one potential approach to relevance for young-adult audiences. However, during program development, it will be important to keep in mind that most young adults don’t think that a scientific approach is particularly useful with respect to issues of interest or local importance, so the connection between issues of interest and science may not be immediately apparent to all.
Having fun is a broad goal that needs to be better understood with respect to science programming, but we know it’s an essential element for young adults across a wide variety of contexts. While the topics of engagement programs are important, the structure and design of what happens during a program are also essential to engagement.
This study, while fairly detailed for a national sample survey, obviously leaves several questions unanswered and topics unaddressed. We list a few that appear to us:
How can someone’s science affinity level be identified—and how do we find and reach moderate science-affinity young adults?
Clearly it is unrealistic to ask someone to respond to our science affinity “checklist” as part of an activity, or to be able to size up the science affinity level of an individual (or group) at first glance. Instead, we encourage organizations to form close collaborations with local partners and stakeholders so that they might find mutually beneficial target audiences in which the moderate science-affinity predominates.
Are there other ways to analyze and segment the data that we’ve gathered in this study?
Short answer: yes. We used the science affinity frame as it was consistent with our intended outcomes and usage of the survey data. However, for organizations looking to engage with groups having specific demographics, the report does offer a wealth of data that is ripe for additional analysis and interpretation. We are willing to share that data upon request.
In summary, we feel that the information contained within this report helps address a major gap in the existing research on young adults. By digging into the young adult audience more deeply than previous studies, especially with respect to their relationship with science, we hope that this report will improve public engagement with science efforts being made by organizations across the country (and the world). While more research is still needed, this investigation represents a crucial first step towards a more data-driven, audience-centric approach to doing public engagement with and for young adults—an approach that is necessary and appropriate for the 21st century.
1. Science and Engineering Indicators 2018. 2018, Alexandria, VA: National Science Board.
2. Culture Track 2017. 2017, New York, NY: LaPlaca Cohen. Available at: http://2017study.culturetrack.com/