What comes to mind when people think of research scientists?

Studies have explored the idea that stereotypes of scientists – like the less-than-warm image of men in white lab coats – could undermine public trust in them or result in deterring diverse groups from pursuing education and jobs in science.

Majorities of Americans see scientists as intelligent, focused on solving real-world problemsA Pew Research Center survey presented Americans with a list of five desirable and five not-so-desirable qualities and asked whether each describes research scientists well. We found that large majorities see an array of positive qualities in scientists.

About nine-in-ten (89%) of those surveyed think of research scientists as intelligent. Three-quarters (75%) see scientists as focused on solving real-world problems. Similar shares say they consider scientists to be skilled at working in teams (72%) or honest (71%).

Scientists fared less well when Americans were asked if they considered them to be good communicators – a smaller majority (54%) described them this way.

Less than half the public considers each of five potential negative characteristics to fit their image of research scientists. The most common of these are “feel superior to others” and “socially awkward” (43% each say these describe research scientists well).

Democrats more likely than Republicans to see positive qualities in scientists

Roughly one-third of the public (32%) says research scientists “don’t pay attention to the moral values of society.” A similar share (29%) sees research scientists as “cold,” and 26% say scientists are “close-minded.”

On the whole, Democrats see scientists in a more favorable light than do Republicans. For example, Democrats and independents who lean Democratic are more inclined than their Republican and Republican-leaning counterparts to consider research scientists honest (78% vs. 64%) or focused on solving real-world problems (80% of Democrats vs. 69% of Republicans). But overwhelming majorities of both groups consider research scientists to be intelligent (90% and 89%, respectively).

On the flip side, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to attribute negative characteristics to research scientists. For example, half of Republicans and independents who lean Republican (51%) say research scientists “feel superior to others,” compared with 38% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

Americans with high science knowledge see scientists in a more positive light

And four-in-ten Republicans say research scientists “don’t pay attention to the moral values of society,” compared with 26% of Democrats.

How much people know about science also tends to color their image of research scientists. Those with high levels of factual knowledge about science, based on an 11-item index, are more likely than those with low science knowledge to say scientists exemplify four of the five positive qualities considered.

But people with high science knowledge are more critical of research scientists when it comes to communication skills. About half of those with high science knowledge (47%) say research scientists are good communicators, compared with 62% of those with low science knowledge.

Note: See topline results for full question wording and the Methodology section of the main report for more information on the index of science knowledge.

Cary Funk  is director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.
Meg Hefferon  is a former research analyst focusing on science and society research at the Pew Research Center.