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Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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SCIENCE LITERACY

Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences

Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science

Catherine E. Snow and Kenne A. Dibner, Editors

Board on Science Education

Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

A Report of

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THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
Washington, DC
www.nap.edu

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS 500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001

This activity was supported by Contract No. HHSN26300077 from the National Institutes of Health. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.

International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-309-44756-0
International Standard Book Number-10: 0-309-44756-9
Digital Object Identifier: 10.17226/23595

Additional copies of this report are available from the National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Keck 360, Washington, DC 20001; (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313; http://www.nap.edu.

Copyright 2016 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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Cover Credit: NASA/ESA, The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI).

Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/23595.

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

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The National Academy of Sciences was established in 1863 by an Act of Congress, signed by President Lincoln, as a private, nongovernmental institution to advise the nation on issues related to science and technology. Members are elected by their peers for outstanding contributions to research. Dr. Marcia McNutt is president.

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Learn more about the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine at www.national-academies.org.

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

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Reports document the evidence-based consensus of an authoring committee of experts. Reports typically include findings, conclusions, and recommendations based on information gathered by the committee and committee deliberations. Reports are peer reviewed and are approved by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Proceedings chronicle the presentations and discussions at a workshop, symposium, or other convening event. The statements and opinions contained in proceedings are those of the participants and have not been endorsed by other participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

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Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE LITERACY AND PUBLIC PERCEPTION OF SCIENCE

Catherine Snow (Chair), Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Nick Allum, Department of Sociology, University of Essex

John Besley, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University

Dominique Brossard, Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Noah Weeth Feinstein, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

S. James Gates, Jr., Department of Physics, University of Maryland

Louis Gomez, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Alexa T. McCray, Division of Clinical Informatics, Harvard Medical School

Janet Ohene-Frempong, J.O. Frempong & Associates, Inc., Elkins Park, PA

Jonathan Osborne, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University

Eugenie C. Scott, National Center for Science Education, Oakland, CA

Earnestine Willis, Department of Pediatrics and Institute of Health and Society, Medical College of Wisconsin

Kenne Dibner, Study Director

Julie Anne Schuck, Associate Program Officer

Emily Backes, Research Associate

Lyla Hernandez, Director, Roundtable on Health Literacy

Melissa French, Program Officer, Health and Medicine Division

Heidi Schweingruber, Director, Board on Science Education

Renée L. Wilson, Senior Program Assistant

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

BOARD ON SCIENCE EDUCATION

Adam Gamoran (Chair), William T. Grant Foundation (president), New York, New York

Melanie Cooper, Department of Chemistry, Michigan State University

Rodolfo Dirzo, Department of Biology, Stanford University

Matthew Krehbiel, Achieve, Inc., Washington, DC

Michael Lach, Urban Education Institute, University of Chicago

Lynn S. Liben, Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University

Cathy Manduca, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College

John Mather, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Brian Reiser, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University

Marshall “Mike” Smith, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, CA

Roberta Tanner, Retired Physics Teacher, Thompson School District, Loveland, CO

Suzanne Wilson, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

Heidi Schweingruber, Director

Margaret Hilton, Senior Program Officer

Kerry Brenner, Senior Program Officer

Kenne Dibner, Program Officer

Amy Stephens, Program Officer

Matthew Lammers, Program Coordinator

Miriam Scheiber, Program Assistant

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

Preface

In the months leading up to the formation of the Academies’ Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science, the committee’s chair had an illustrative conversation with her 4-year-old granddaughter. While walking outside one afternoon, the child reached down and plucked from the ground a small acorn. Looking up at her grandmother, the child brandished the acorn, saying, “Grandma, I’m going to take this home so I can science it.”

As our chair’s granddaughter is observing here, science is a way of knowing about the world. Just as this child alludes to the notion that the use of science will help her understand something more or better about the acorn in front of her, people have come to depend on science as way to help explain the world around them. In this sense, science can help one understand what the acorn is—what it is made of, why it exists—as well as provide the frameworks, standards, and methods within which to evaluate and create new knowledge.

How does science help everyone, as citizens of an increasingly interconnected global community, know about the world? Over the course of about 6 months in 2015-2016, the Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science considered this issue and others in the context of a study on the state of science literacy in the United States. In today’s world of immediate access to information and ideas, what is the value of science literacy and how do people know if they have it?

In responding to the charge to the committee, we have written a report that considers how the definition of science literacy has expanded and shifted over time in order to accommodate changing ideas about science. To reflect those changes in the definition of science literacy, the committee has devoted

Page viii Cite
Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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considerable attention to the way that science literacy operates in context. As this report explains, the committee argues that science literacy can be more than just an individual accomplishment and that communities (and societies) can meaningfully demonstrate science literacy in ways that go well beyond the aggregated science literacy of the people in them.

We found this idea particularly compelling at the community level: communities faced with critical environmental issues—such as dangerous levels of lead in their water supply, clusters of cancer or other illnesses, the prospective consequences of fracking, road construction through communities or protected areas, or the introduction of new industries—can achieve levels of sophistication in science literacy that transcend the knowledge or skills of any individual in the community. Under these circumstances, communities not only enable science literacy at the individual level, they also possess science literacy. We devote Chapter 4 to the important phenomenon of community-level science literacy, both to demonstrate that assessing the literacy of individuals does not capture or characterize the emergent literacy of the community and to demonstrate important sources of heterogeneity within nations and societies. Ultimately, it is our goal to move beyond the “horse race” conceptualization of science literacy as a way to judge the state of one nation against others, or to identify individuals who are somehow lacking in knowledge.

Science literacy for individuals, communities, and societies emerges at the interface of the knowledge, attitudes, and motivation of laypeople and the communicative efforts and trustworthiness of scientists. The scientific community needs to take at least partial responsibility for creating an environment in which science literacy can thrive. We envision a society that is infused by science literacy, not in the sense that every person necessarily knows any specific set of things about biology, chemistry, or physics, but in the sense that there is a shared belief that scientific expertise can be trusted, that scientific misconduct and fraud are rare, and that social organizations can and should be structured to enable science literacy rather than prevent it.

Just like our chairperson’s granddaughter, we, too, believe that science is one way of knowing about the world. For that reason, we believe it is important that the public understand how scientists work to build increasingly robust explanations by gathering and analyzing empirical evidence. It is our hope that this report offers some insight into how that way of knowing can be an empowering and enabling force for societies, communities, and individuals.

Catherine Snow, Chair
Kenne Dibner, Study Director
Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

Acknowledgments

This report would not have been possible without the contributions of the staff of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the study committee, and many other experts.

First, we acknowledge the sponsorship of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We particularly thank Carrie Wolinetz from the Office of Science Policy, who provided the committee with insight into how the NIH plans to use this report.

Over the course of the study, committee members benefited from discussion and presentations by the many individuals who participated in our two public meetings. At the first committee meeting, Jon Miller, University of Michigan, provided a thorough explanation of his foundational thinking on defining and measuring science literacy. Dan Kahan, Yale University, provided insight into his research on the relationship between world views (such as political orientation or values) and science literacy. The committee also heard from Philip Kitcher, Columbia University, on the relationship between democracy and science literacy.

At the second meeting, the committee heard from Dietram Scheufele, University of Wisconsin–Madison, on science communication; Ellen Peters, Ohio State University, discussed numeracy; John Durant, director of the museum of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Larry Bell, senior vice president for Strategic Initiatives at the Museum of Science–Boston, talked about the role of informal learning institutions in addressing issues around science literacy.

This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

approved by the Report Review Committee of the Academies. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process. We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Suzanne R. Bakken, Center for Evidence-based Practice in the Underserved, Reducing Health Disparities Through Informatics, Columbia University; Martin W. Bauer, Department of Social Psychology and Research Methodology, London School of Economics; Rick E. Borchelt, Communications and Public Affairs, Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy; Anthony Dudo, Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin; Gerald Gabrielse, Department of Physics, Harvard University; Edith M. Flanigen, consultant, White Plains, New York; Cary Funk, Research on Science and Society, Pew Research Center; Anita K. Jones, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia; Ellen Lettvin, Informal STEM Learning, U.S. Department of Education; Bruce V. Lewenstein, Department of Communications, Cornell University; Robert Silbergleit, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Michigan; and Leon Walls, Elementary Science Education, College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont.

Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the content of the report nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Paul R. Sackett, Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and Julia M. Phillips, retired vice president and chief technology officer at Sandia National Laboratories. Appointed by the Academies, they were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the committee and the institution.

Finally, thanks are also due to the project staff and staff of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE). In her first project with the Academies, Kenne Ann Dibner, Board on Science Education, directed the study and played a key role in the report drafting and review process. Emily Backes and Julie Schuck provided critical assistance in project direction, writing, and editing. Renee Gaines Wilson managed the study’s logistical and administrative needs, making sure meetings ran efficiently and smoothly. Kirsten Sampson Snyder of the DBASSE staff expertly guided us through the Academies review process, and Genie Grohman provided invaluable editorial direction. Yvonne Wise of the DBASSE staff oversaw the production of the report. Heidi Schweingruber, director of the Board on Science Education, provided infinite wisdom and oversight in this endeavor. Thanks are also due

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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to Health and Medicine Division staff Lyla Hernandez and Melissa French for their guidance and collegiality in the endeavor. The committee also wishes to express its sincere appreciation to the Academies Research Center staff for their support with the comprehensive literature review conducted for this study.

Catherine Snow, Chair
Kenne Dibner, Study Director
Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science

Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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Suggested Citation:"Front Matter." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
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Science is a way of knowing about the world. At once a process, a product, and an institution, science enables people to both engage in the construction of new knowledge as well as use information to achieve desired ends. Access to science—whether using knowledge or creating it—necessitates some level of familiarity with the enterprise and practice of science: we refer to this as science literacy.

Science literacy is desirable not only for individuals, but also for the health and well- being of communities and society. More than just basic knowledge of science facts, contemporary definitions of science literacy have expanded to include understandings of scientific processes and practices, familiarity with how science and scientists work, a capacity to weigh and evaluate the products of science, and an ability to engage in civic decisions about the value of science. Although science literacy has traditionally been seen as the responsibility of individuals, individuals are nested within communities that are nested within societies—and, as a result, individual science literacy is limited or enhanced by the circumstances of that nesting.

Science Literacy studies the role of science literacy in public support of science. This report synthesizes the available research literature on science literacy, makes recommendations on the need to improve the understanding of science and scientific research in the United States, and considers the relationship between scientific literacy and support for and use of science and research.

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