My latest blog post over at Science Progress is a reaction to the NSF’s new Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report, and in particular, to its famous Chapter 7, which deals with science and the public.
In essence, the new Chapter 7 gives you the choice of whether to view the glass as half full, or half empty, when it comes to the U.S. public and its relationship to the world of science. I personally lean toward “half empty,” but here’s the pro/con breakdown:
On the positive side…the report consistently shows that Americans are not so scientifically benighted as one might think, at least in comparison with the rest of the world. We go to science museums more frequently. We claim a higher level of interest in “new scientific discoveries” than citizens in South Korea, China, and many parts of Europe. And in terms of sheer factual knowledge, we perform pretty much on par with Europe, and ahead of other countries like Japan, China, and Russia.
Through such international comparisons, the latest NSF report suggests that if your preferred standard for judging a nation’s engagement with science is to see how it stacks up next to other comparable (e.g., developed) countries, then the United States really doesn’t fare so poorly. Furthermore, NSF emphasizes that Americans profess to have very positive views about science. They overwhelmingly think science makes our lives better and that it deserves federal funding. And they have an apparently abiding trust in the leaders of the scientific community.
That’s the good side. But here’s the reason I still feel pretty negative in outlook:
As Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 itself admits, seeing how the country fares on science in comparison with other nations isn’t the only possible means of judgment. If one’s standard is more ambitious—emphasizing, in the latest report’s words, “what a technologically advanced society requires (either today or in the future) to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to better take advantage of science progress in their own lives”—then it is very hard to feel good about the current state of affairs in the United States.
For instance, just 13 percent of the public now claims to follow science and technology news “very closely,” and this number has been on a downward trend for the past decade, ending with the current low. So while Americans may profess great admiration for science in the abstract, they hardly feel compelled to pay it much attention.
Similarly, there has been little apparent improvement over time in Americans’ basic ability to answer factual questions about science correctly. Moreover, the vast majority of our citizens have scant familiarity with key emerging scientific fields that will dramatically shape the future, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology—and it is important to note that these are the only such fields that the NSF report focuses in on. Ask Americans about other coming scientific technologies or quandaries—say, geoengineering, or synthetic biology—and I imagine the responses would be even more dismal.
Anyway, there’s much more to the column, so check it out here–and decide for yourself whether, when it comes to science and the American public, you’re an optimist or pessimist.
I’m back from the 2009 Science and Technology in Society Conference in DC where I really enjoyed meeting so many terrific graduate students interested in pursuing science and policy. I was there to discuss my career path–which admittedly, isn’t something I planned as a scientist turned radio DJ turned policy wonk turned blogger and author. I emphasized the benefits of an interdisciplinary education and reminded everyone there are many ways to pursue a career in science. The best advice I have echoed the message of the morning’s keynote address by James Turner, former Chief Counsel to the Committee on Science and Technology: Follow your passion.
Here I am on the career panel with Todd LePorte of George Mason University and Debra Mathews of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. The conference was a wonderful opportunity to explore the myriad of intersections between science, policy, and society and we should be having these conversations as often as possible.
I also moderated a thought-provoking graduate student panel on education where I was extremely impressed with the presentations–so much so, that every morning this week, I’ll be highlighting a panelist’s topic and posing a related question to readers from the discussion that followed. Here’s what we have to look forward to:
Tuesday: Megan Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The science in the News: A Useful Tool or Distracting Target in the Pursuit of Scientific Literacy?
Wednesday: Christine Luk, Arizona State University
Engaging Women in Science and Technology Policy-making: Beyond the Paradox of Under-representation of Women
Thursday: Fei Guo, Southeast University, Nanjing, China, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Absense of Engineering Ethics in China and its Solutions: An STS Perspective
Friday: Reynold Galope, Georgie State and Georgia Tech
Defining a Comparison Sample to Measure the Effect of Institutional Factors on Highly Creative Scientific Research: Issues and Options
As you can see, a very interesting mix of subjects that will be fun to discuss here…