Scientific Literacy

A variety of books, pamphlets, white papers, and magazines from different sources flow into and out of my in-box. Some are more interesting than others. Sometimes it is not entirely clear why a given document arrived there. A case in point is a white paper, “Increasing Scientific Literacy: A Shared Responsibility,” by G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. As I was going through my in-box upon returning from the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, Calif., I found this interesting and important paper. I don’t know who put it in my in-box. Apparently, whoever put it there did so because the paper cites an editorial I wrote in 2008. “Increasing Scientific Literacy” is a well-written, carefully reasoned, 68-page tract that explores the development of science, engineering, and technology since the Age of Enlightenment and the public’s relationship to advances in these disciplines over time. Not surprising given the author’s current position, the essay has something of a Smithsonian Institution focus. Overall, however, “Increasing Scientific Literacy” is much broader in scope than one might initially imagine. (You can download a copy of “Increasing Scientific Literacy” at Curious about the provenance of the paper, I learned from the Smithsonian’s website that it had been released on Feb. 16. I also learned that Clough had given a talk on scientific literacy on Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but I don’t recall the talk getting any media coverage. I called John Gibbons in the Smithsonian Institution’s media relations office and asked him what had inspired Clough to write the paper. “Primarily, it was Secretary Clough’s frustration with other nations’ focus on science and science literacy,” Gibbons told me. “He felt that there must be a broader role for the Smithsonian Institution in advancing science literacy in the U.S.” In the conclusion of “Increasing Scientific Literacy,” Clough writes: “Our nation is at a critical juncture. Science and technology are essential to our future, yet America as a whole is losing its confidence in scientists at a time when the accumulating negative consequences of past developments pose an ever-growing threat. Waning scientific literacy further clouds the debate. Developed over the past two hundred years into a powerful engine, science is now devolving into ever-smaller specialties and becoming increasingly opaque to a public whose need to understand what is happening grows more urgent. Many institutions and agencies have become aware of the problem and are beginning to work toward a solution, but the absence of coordination and common purpose marginalizes their impact.” Clough believes that “[f]amilies, scientists and engineers, professional organizations, universities, research organizations, and museums all have skin in the game and need to link arms to meet the challenge. All must aim their efforts at providing a rich array of formal and informal opportunities for citizens of all ages to improve their scientific literacy, and at greatly expanding opportunities for public discussion and debate about the future directions of science.” It’s hard to argue with Clough’s analysis and conclusions. I know ACS is committed to increasing the public’s scientific literacy. It is part of the society’s congressional charter. That said, we’re not very coherent with our efforts. Sure, there’s the annual celebration of all things chemical during National Chemistry Week. The Education Division has excellent materials for use at all grade levels. The Office of Public Affairs puts out its weekly PressPac on interesting papers published in ACS journals. At C&EN, we’re delighted when one of our stories gets picked up by the mainstream press. Other science and engineering societies have similar efforts. So why are so many people scientifically illiterate? Clough defines scientific literacy as “an appreciation of the basic principles of science and its methodology and an understanding of what scientific research produces” and cites research indicating that only 28% of Americans are scientifically literate. What is it that we’re all doing wrong? I don’t know, but I’d appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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1 Comment

  1. Many kids from infancy on are “taught” that it is either hard or boring…and kids are natural born scientists–it’s how we learn. We need committed people early on in others’ lives to feed children’s curiosity. I know that that is a highly simplified answer. Thanks for writing


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