Understanding How the Public Perceives the Importance of University Research in the United States

Most universities in the United States have little or no idea about how the public perceives the importance of research done at these institutions. Learning whether the public believes academic research is valuable, meaningful, and practical has implications for higher education, if the public believes that university research is of little worth. This project utilized naturalistic and qualitative methods to learn how alumni perceived the importance of research at a major public university with a heavy concentration in research (Texas A&M University). Long interviews using open-ended questions were conducted with 133 alumni at 33 locations in Texas. Interviews were transcribed, unitized, and coded using qualitative methods, and themes were identified. Findings provide insights into whether the public believes university research is important, how the public learns about research, whether public relations programs are effective, the importance of research and teaching, and the types of research the public wants universities to pursue. A framework is proposed to learn about how well the public understands science and to measure the effectiveness of media and education programs to raise both science awareness and understanding of science.