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Increasing science literacy may not lead to more science supportIncreasing science literacy may not lead to more science support

Support for science does not always correlate with attitudes toward specific issues; report offers conceptual framework for science literacy research.

August 10, 2016

3 Min Read
Increasing science literacy may not lead to more science support

U.S. adults perform comparably to adults in other economically developed countries on most measures of science knowledge and say they support science in general, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine.

However, attitudes toward some specific issues, such as climate change or genetic engineering, may be shaped by factors such as values and beliefs rather than knowledge of the science alone, the Academies said. Despite popular assumptions, research shows that increasing science literacy will not lead to appreciably greater support for science.

The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report said science knowledge is only one component of science literacy, which also encompasses understanding scientific practices, such as forming and testing hypotheses and understanding science as a social process, such as the role of peer review.

“Historically, assessments of science literacy have focused on individuals, but we see now that communities can engage in science and produce scientific knowledge in a way that transcends any individual’s ability,” said committee chair Catherine Snow, the Patricia Albjerg Graham professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Furthermore, the structural features of a society can impede or enhance individuals’ or communities’ development of science literacy.”

Communities can demonstrate science literacy by leveraging individuals’ diverse knowledge and skills to achieve specific goals, the report says. For example, AIDS activists in the late 1980s to early 1990s developed scientific knowledge to demand modifications to drug testing procedures and drug approval policies and worked together to successfully advocate for expediting the delivery of drugs to consumers in health emergencies.

In addition, communities can meaningfully contribute to science knowledge through engagement in community action, often in collaboration with scientists. For instance, activists in a community may work together to detect and address links between environmental hazards and cancers.

Individuals with limited economic resources and limited access to high-quality education have fewer opportunities to develop science literacy and health literacy, the report acknowledges. This lack of access disproportionately affects some demographic groups, including Latinos and others who speak English as a second language, African-Americans and children growing up in low-income families.

Limited evidence shows that populations around the world have positive attitudes toward science and support public funding for scientific research, and these attitudes have been generally stable over time, the committee found. In addition, there is an overall high level of trust in scientists and in scientific institutions.

The report presents a research agenda with questions about creating new measures of science literacy and expanding the information available to clarify: (1) the relationship between science knowledge and attitudes toward science, (2) how science literacy is used and measured in different contexts, (3) the relationship of science literacy to other literacy skills and (4) the role of science literacy for citizens as decision-makers.

The study was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences.

The full report may be downloaded here.

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