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The Federal Government May be Unpopular, but Science and Tech Agencies Remain a Hit

Microbiologist Ashley Sabol extracting Listeria bacteria for genome sequencing in a foodborne disease outbreak lab at the CDC in Atlanta.

Microbiologist Ashley Sabol extracting Listeria bacteria for genome sequencing in a foodborne disease outbreak lab at the CDC in Atlanta. // David Goldman/AP

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's high-profile role in the fight against the Ebola outbreak last fall, missteps and all, the agency still managed to come away with many brownie points.

As of early January, 70 percent of the public continue to view CDC favorably. And it's not the only federal agency basking in the glow of public approval.

A survey of more than 1,500 adults conducted by the Pew Research Center between Jan. 7-11 found that more people have favorable opinions of NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and even the National Security Agency than those who do not. 

NASA sits in a strong lead, with only 17 percent of those polled responding they view it in a negative light. Close behind it is CDC, followed by EPA and NSA.

It's not just members of the public who have high views of the space agency, in particular. In an annual ranking of the best places to work in the federal government released last fall, NASA placed first for the third year in a row. 

Despite NSA’s downward spiral in favorability following the infamous Edward Snowden leaks, it is currently only 8 percentage points behind EPA – 59 percent – when it comes to favorability.

And when breaking that percentage down by age, it is not the young people who are most heartily against the agency, but rather those respondents age 65 and older who held more negative views of the agency. 

Released Friday, the latest Pew study presents a brighter picture for agencies than an earlier Pew Research Center report released in 2013. That study found that less than a quarter of those polled believed they could trust the government in Washington “just about always or most of the time.”

“Public trust in the government remains near historic lows,” the study stated.

Either the public’s opinion has changed drastically in less than two years, or members of the public like specific federal science and tech organizations much more than the government as a whole. 

Chances are, it’s the latter.

The most recent Pew study reported the overall favorability rating for each of these agencies has changed only slightly over the last few years. The sole exceptions are for nonscience and tech agencies.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, has dropped 16 points in favorability since October 2013. “The agency has been widely faulted for delays in health care for veterans; the scandal led to the ouster last year of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki,” the study stated.

The situation also changes significantly when breaking the respondents down by political party affiliation.

Republicans and Democrats strongly disagree when polled about these government agencies – especially when it comes to EPA. While 80 percent of Democrats viewed the agency favorably, only 36 percent of Republicans did so.

The difference in opinion has not always been quite so severe. Less than a year ago, almost 50 percent of Republicans viewed EPA positively, compared with 70 percent of Democrats.

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