By Elizabeth G. Olson
FORTUNE -- Soldiers -- followed closely by teachers, physicians, scientists, and engineers -- contribute the most to society's well-being, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.
In a snapshot of the public's view of a variety of occupations, most surveyed gave the highest marks to the military, and only middling marks to business executives.
Only 24% of those surveyed said that business executives contributed a lot to society, slightly more than the 21% who held that view four years ago. Another 42% viewed business executives making "some" contribution to society, which was nearly identical to their percentage in 2009. Another 21% said business executives contributed nothing much to society, and 7% said executives contributed nothing at all -- roughly similar to the earlier survey.
The military's standing among American adults, with 78% giving high praise for their contributions to society, dipped slightly from Pew's last survey of public confidence four years ago. The other professions were ranked in the same order as they were in 2009, with lawyers continuing to anchor the bottom of the list. About 18% of survey respondents, all of whom were adults, said that lawyers make an important contribution to society, and 43% listed them as making some contribution. Another third surveyed said lawyers contribute either not much or nothing to society.
Clergy ranked somewhat higher than business executives, with 37% of those surveyed claiming that they make a big contribution to society. The rating was slightly lower than the Pew's previous survey in 2009 and may reflect the declining rate of regular religious service attendance in the United States, and the fact that the country has been at war over the past decade. Most communities have sent soldiers to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.
People who attend religious services regularly held a higher opinion of ministers, priests, and other clergy members. But even among those who attend church once a week, only 52% rated the clergy as contributing a lot to society. Less than one-third agreed that they made some contribution, and 11% said their contributions were minimal or nonexistent.
The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years. As of last year, about 20% of the public overall -- and a third of adults under 30 -- listed themselves as religiously unaffiliated.
Despite a seemingly steady stream of proclamations that the U.S. education system is in crisis and calls for increased accountability, teachers won the approval of 72% of those surveyed. Only about 10% said educators contributed not much or nothing to society.
Medical doctors, scientists, and engineers each won a two-thirds vote of public approval, with few dissents. But results for other professions were decidedly mixed.
Public perception of artists' contributions was modest, with 30% lauding their contributions to society. Journalists were low on the list but beat out lawyers by 10 percentage points at 28%. That reflected a sharp dip in approval from 38% in 2009 as the media industry continues to fragment, and people get their news from more sources. Women, in particular, expressed lower approval of journalists.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, was conducted in March and April, among 4,006 adults nationwide. The survey, which has an error margin of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, does not differ greatly from other surveys of public confidence in institutions.
Cary Funk, a senior researcher at the Pew Center, said that other surveys generally rank the occupations in the same order. The 2012 General Social Survey, from NORC, an independent research organization at the University of Chicago, put military leaders at the top of the list of respected professions and rated other occupations similarly.
"Our survey did not focus on soldiers or leaders, but asked about military members," Funk said. The study also did not ask about active military service or about recent military scandals.
Education and age affected the ranking of some professions. Those with a college degree tended to rank doctors, scientists, and engineers as contributing more to society. Younger adults had a more favorable view of engineers' societal contributions. More than two-thirds of adults under 50 years old said engineers contribute a lot to society compared to only 56% of those above 50.
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