For most Americans, science is something to be tolerated in high school, details of
which are promptly forgotten after tests are over. This may be understandable, since,
regrettably, the basic science curriculum can often consist of lectures on taxonomy
or analogous facts about what science has discovered, along with the painful need
to memorize long lists of strange words. But any notion that science should be left
to the scientists, and that the very question of what is and is not science should
be left to those with a political agenda, is wrong and damaging.
As the pace of scientific research accelerates, the average citizen is faced increasingly
with having to grapple with matters of science in his everyday life. Some of the country's
most complicated and urgent public policy debates have at their center been questions
of science. It is imperative that the public is engaged in science issues which have
an impact on their lives, in their own self-interest, to best thrive in modern society.
Furthermore, citizens must understand what is a question of science, and what is a
question of public policy that can be informed by science. For example, the many causes
and effects that impact human health are questions of science: smoking is a cause
of lung cancer; obesity is a cause of diabetes; lead poisoning is a cause of brain
damage in the young; alcohol and drug use by pregnant women are a cause of brain damage
to their unborn children. These are objectively proven claims and therefore are science.
The public must also grapple with important public policy questions that must be informed
by science. For example, an understanding of the science of embryonic stem cell research
is critically important to inform policymakers who are advocating or opposing this
research; an understanding of climatology is essential to those concerned with regulation
of fossil fuel consumption and energy policy; astronomy and cosmology must inform
wise investment in space exploration.
On a less weighty level, science is everywhere in society; a part of each person's
everyday life – even grocery shopping is more informed by a basic understanding of
science. But most citizens are not equipped to personally assess the facts, nor often
even to separate the facts from opinion or political spin; science from non-science.
They therefore are likely to be predominantly influenced on these issues by the prevailing
perception in their communities.
Yet no country, no matter how sophisticated technologically, can advance its society
fully without the informed engagement of its citizenship. The existence of a democratic
process (voting rights, a transparent and representative governance structure) is
necessary but not sufficient. As with economic decision-making, public policy decision-making
depends on full information. The nonscientist is increasingly at a disadvantage because
he lacks the information to engage in these important public policy dilemmas as an
informed, independent thinker.
How can we equip our people with sufficient scientific skills to enable them to develop
informed opinions about these important issues, without imposing the unrealistic expectation
that they be trained as scientists? This question is distinct from the question of
how the U.S. can continue to produce the world's leading scientists. The latter consideration
is also of course critical to the future health and economic prosperity of the Nation.
But without a broad populace of "science appreciators", both the continued national
investment in science and the implementation of enlightened public policy will be
Teach thinking more than facts
Distinguished biochemist Bruce Alberts, who served as President of the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences from 1993 until 2005, highlights the importance of state science
testing1. The "No Child Left Behind" Act mandates that effective in 2007, "high-stakes
science assessments will be coming to all of our K-12 schools. It is left to each
state to decide what science tests it will select for all its students ." History
shows that, when pressured, science teachers adjust their curricula to ensure the
best possible results on state tests . Therefore it is imperative that scientists
and policymakers get involved in the development of state science tests. This may
be our last, best chance to influence how a generation recognizes science and what
it understands about science. It will be counterproductive to squander this segment
of their education on requiring extensive memorization of facts. Instead, state tests
should teach students how to bring their own independent thinking to important issues.
Thus, for example, most biology classes today stress the importance of having students
learn names for the parts of an organism – with even seventh grade textbooks highlighting
words like endoplasmic reticulum, mitochondrion, and Golgi apparatus. But it is much
more important for students to experience the scientific method, so as to learn about
the difference between data and speculation, how to frame a question, and how to approach
a problem critically and skeptically. As called for in the National Science Education
Standards of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences , this approach emphasizes logical,
hands-on problem-solving, and insists on evidence for claims that can be confirmed
by others. Had this requirement been broadly implemented in this country a generation
ago, the painful and contentious debate over the teaching of creationism, "creation
science" and "intelligent design" in public science class may have been unnecessary:
at the core of this issue is the simple fact that these ideas, while they may or may
not be true, do not present confirmable claims and therefore are not science. The
public must be able to consider questions such as this within a framework that enables
individuals to distinguish science from other propositions. Science education at all
levels should focus on creating a society where well-educated adults are equipped
to bring scientific thinking to bear on issues that affect them as citizens.
Scientists must engage society
Scientists, writ large, can play a major role in the engagement of the public in science
affecting their lives. We must resist the notion that a scientifically-trained person
who does not do science per se for a living has "failed" as a scientist or even "abandoned"
their science. Instead, we must urge "scientists" to become opinion leaders and policymakers.
"Scientists" for these purposes include not just those with advanced training in a
scientific discipline, but also the high school science fair student and the college
biology major. When people who have experienced science become journalists, filmmakers
and public servants, they bring rigor and scientific thinking to their work, and positively
influence others to do the same.
Those who do dedicate their careers to science carry an even greater burden to engage
their relatives, friends, neighbors and others in their communities. They must communicate
why science is central to everyday life in terms that laypeople can understand, starting
with why what they do is relevant. If a scientist cannot explain to a ten-year-old
what he does and why it is relevant to the child, it's like a tree falling in the
forest with no one there to hear it: it may happen, but nobody will care. Publicly-funded
scientists must justify tax support, and privately-funded scientists must justify
commercial investment. Furthermore, scientists who do not engage the public – by submitting
op-eds to their local newspapers or calling into radio talk shows when timely issues
arise; by volunteering to make a presentation in a local school, or by writing to
or even meeting with their Member of Congress to discuss policy issues that are informed
by science – in effect relinquish their expertise to non-experts: even our judicial
system has increasingly and alarmingly been called upon to act as untrained and unqualified
arbiters of science in questions of guilt and law .
Increase the national investment in the public engagement in science
The Nation must invest heavily in engaging the public in science in parallel with
our investments in the conduct of science itself. When people are left behind in their
understanding of how public dollars are invested, their commitment to that funding
is diminished. A disastrous recent example is the need to reinforce the levees protecting
New Orleans. The Administration and Congress were able to quietly reduce the city's
natural disaster preparedness budget through the Army Corps of Engineers  because
there was insufficient public education about the need for this investment – and therefore
insufficient resistance to reducing funding by the taxpaying public. Likewise, over
the long run, the public funding of scientific research will depend on our investments
in the public engagement in science. NASA may be the most successful government example
of how public education about the importance of science has directly driven public
funding to carry out its work. Its website  brings the agency's science to the
desktops of all citizens, enabling them to appreciate the public investment in space
exploration in real time.
We must consistently and clearly educate the public about what science is and is not,
and how it benefits the citizenship. This responsibility is one that is spread among
many industries and professions. For our future success as a nation, the media, professional
scientists, industry, educators and many others must all become science communicators.
The progression of basic to applied science to useful technologies, and, in medicine,
from cellular to clinical research to useful disease treatments and preventions, depends
on an informed public . This is because ultimately it is the public that controls
both the money and the policies that enable modern science and medicine to progress.
That which a person does not understand, he tends to reject. We must engage the public
in the challenges presented by science and medicine, to capture their imagination
and hope, and to gain their essential support.
Elizabeth Marincola, President , Science Service, and Publisher Science News 1719
N Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20036 202-785-2255. firstname.lastname@example.org