A cooperative survey by Idaho National Laboratory and Idaho State University aims to gauge community perceptions on issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity, nuclear energy and local disaster preparedness.

The survey is being led by biostatistician Irene van Woerden, who is an assistant professor in ISU’s Department of Community and Public Health, and Rae S. Moss, director of communications and outreach at INL.

The survey was funded with a $20,000 ISU internal grant.

The survey link is https://isu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_bEFhd3bRF3kzuRM and those who finish it will be eligible to win one of 100 Amazon gift cards for $20.

It covers a broad range of timely topics. Regarding the pandemic, the survey asks participants to rate the level of importance of wearing protective face masks, social distancing and hand washing.

It seeks to assess the community’s readiness for a disaster, questioning participants on their inventories of food, water and medicine, their knowledge of first aid and whether or not they’ve developed emergency plans.

The survey also explores how local families are faring economically amid the COVID-19 recovery, asking questions pertaining to food insecurity such as: “In the last 30 days, did you ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money for food?”

“The question I’m most interested about, I’ve done a lot of research about food insecurity. I’m very interested to see what food insecurity is around this area,” van Woerden said. “That can really highlight areas of need. I think we’re going to see a lot of food insecurity, especially because of COVID-19.”

Participants are quizzed on their knowledge of nuclear reactors and energy sources and are asked to rank energy types by production cost and environmental impact. Several questions single out nuclear power, emphasizing perceptions about its safety.

The survey solicits participants’ general backgrounds — such as political leaning, age, ethnicity, level of education and household income — enabling researchers to provide demographic-based analysis.

Participants rate sources of information — such as the media, politicians, social media and scientists — based on level of credibility.

Moss said the survey should help INL identify priorities for future public outreach while also pinpointing the most trusted outlets for disseminating its messaging.

“The public’s perception has a lot to do with acceptance when we have new projects coming in and locations of projects,” Moss said.

Moss met van Woerden in 2020 through the Center for Advanced Energy Studies summer faculty program, during which faculty from several universities and INL scientists collaborate on devising potential research projects.

Moss said there have been several attempts to study public perceptions on nuclear energy, but few have been done in a statistically accurate way.

Moss predicts the survey will show greater skepticism about nuclear energy among older residents who grew up during the Cold War, and more acceptance among the younger generation, who tend to support clean energy.

Van Woerden has been promoting the survey through local media outlets and Rotary clubs. She hopes to get at least 1,000 responses from within a roughly 50-mile radius of Idaho Falls. She’ll use modeling techniques to account for possible uneven demographic distribution in survey responses to minimize the margin of error.

She expects to have data back within two months and to release preliminary results by the year’s end. She and her students are also evaluating national journals for publishing their findings. Van Woerden said she may seek to redo the survey in a few years to assess changes in perceptions.

Several of her students plan to conduct their own research on subsets of the data. For example, she has a master’s student who plans to write a thesis on community disaster and pandemic readiness.

“If you don’t have the information, you’re really just doing what you think is best and you may be wasting a lot of resources,” van Woerden said. “To make effective decisions you really need to have a basic understanding of the current situation.”