Professor Helen Haste, a psychologist from Bath University who has researched the public understanding of science, compared the image of scientists in the 1970s to that of today. She found that adolescents now think scientists are not only wealthy, but also people who have rewarding and challenging work.
"Twenty years ago people who were anxious about science thought they would invent something that could destroy the world," Professor Haste told the British Psychological Society's London conference yesterday.
But the growth of "popular" science books and the increasing number of scientists who go on television have helped to change the public's perception of science, she said.
According to Professor Haste, the change has been reflected in films, with scientists now presented more realistically in movies from Jaws, with Richard Dreyfuss as a marine biologist confronting moral issues, through to Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon gave a sympathetic portrayal of a mathematical genius.