The work of science is complex: it is a process, a product, and an institution. As a result, engaging in 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. Knowledge of basic science facts is but one small part of the constellation of features that can constitute science literacy. In this report, we document what is known about the components of science literacy, the contexts in which it arises and is used, the foundational literacy and numeracy skills that are prerequisite to it, and the ways in which it is applied, supported, and constrained.
Americans have an ongoing and multifaceted relationship to science. At times in the nation’s history, the shifting nature of this relationship has been marked by heightened concern about the ability of Americans to understand, participate in, appreciate, and engage with science, with various stakeholders bemoaning what they perceived to be Americans’ decreasing science literacy and worrying about the uncertain future of a citizenry they see as disengaged from or ambivalent toward science.
Despite these episodes of handwringing, the available evidence about the science literacy of the American public does not paint a universally dark picture. As contemporary understandings of science literacy have evolved, so too has the research on what Americans know about science and what they are able to do with that knowledge. This evolution has led to asking and answering questions such as: How should science literacy be defined? How can science literacy be measured? How does science literacy connect to behavior? Is there
a connection between science literacy and public support for science? These questions form the background for the committee’s study.
In response to a request from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert committee to examine the role of science literacy in attitudes toward and public support for science, and its relationship to health literacy and health-related behaviors. The specific statement of task for the committee is shown in Box 1-1.
The 12-member committee included experts in several relevant disciplines and areas: science literacy, health literacy, education and learning sciences, international comparisons, survey methods and statistics, and psychometrics and attitude measurement. The committee considered existing data about science and health literacy, research on the association of science literacy with public support of science, health literacy, and behaviors related to health.
Interpreting and Addressing the Charge
A major challenge in addressing the charge is the relatively limited array of metrics available for measuring science literacy. As this report describes, the measurements available for cross-national comparisons are thoughtfully developed but limited in scope and depth. Because these assessments are administered to nationally representative samples through the use of costly and labor-intensive surveys, they must be succinct—and, as a result, have often focused on the sort of science knowledge items that can be administered quickly. But many scholars now agree that knowledge of science content falls short of fully representing the construct of science literacy as it is now understood.
In addition, although it is straightforward to document differences across nations or across ethnic groups on those content measures, explaining them is more difficult. It is clear that for some analytic purposes more information is needed—information, for example, about the level of knowledge across multiple domains of science and health, as well as knowledge about the processes scientists engage in and how science epistemology differs from other ways of knowing. The limitations of the commonly used metrics constrain the extent to which the committee can answer the specific questions posed in the charge: in the absence of richer and more complete measures of science literacy, we must often limit our conclusions to what is known about knowledge of an array of science facts and a very limited set of science processes. This report addresses these issues throughout.
Because the charge mandates that this report concern itself chiefly with science literacy,1 it is the primary lens throughout much of this report. We have attempted as much as possible to differentiate between health literacy and science literacy when the specific point requires it, noting throughout the challenge embedded in teasing health literacy and science literacy apart.
The committee considers health literacy as an important domain that is closely related to and somewhat overlapping with science literacy, though the history and recent developments in the scholarly work on health literacy have been quite different than that on science literacy. Because NIH asked the committee to assist the agency with understanding a potential relationship between science literacy and health literacy, the committee sought research that illuminated the connection across fields: we found few studies. This lack of research made it difficult for the committee to develop an empirically driven discussion of how science literacy and health literacy overlap and how they are distinct. In
1The committee notes that research oscillates between the terms “science literacy” and “scientific literacy.” The committee cites research and evidence throughout this report that employ both terms. The committee prefers the term “science literacy,” but uses “scientific” if specifically quoted. The committee declined to perseverate over the meaning of the specific language, given that research uses the words interchangeably to mean similar ideas.
responding to the statement of task, we use examples from the field of health literacy, as applicable, in order to highlight the overlap across the two fields.
This study was conducted on a notably short timeline of less than 1 year. In order to meet this timeline, the committee elected to address a narrow interpretation of the study charge, which reflects the specific language provided by NIH. As a result, the committee was not able to comment on many interesting and evocative topics that are relevant to the topic of science literacy. There is an unending list of both potential predictors of and consequences for science literacy, and the committee could have proceeded in any number of directions in investigating these ideas. In particular, given committee members’ expertise, the committee would have been particularly interested in examining the acquisition of science literacy through both formal and informal education. Similarly, the committee focuses on adult populations and trends in adult data throughout the report. Unfortunately, both time and the specific charge to the committee precluded delving into many topics in depth.
In addition, the committee was mindful that a companion Academies’ report on the science of science communication was under way during the time of our investigations. Though the work of the science of science communication study in no way influenced the committee’s deliberations, we chose to leave issues related specifically to science communication to that committee. Though the committee is interested in how the institutions of science communicate with the public and the consequences of those interactions, that topic, too, was deemed outside our scope given the time available, the other committee’s work, and the specific charge from NIH.
The statement of task specifically asks the committee to make “recommendations on the need to improve the understanding of science and scientific research in the United States.” The committee grappled with the underlying assumptions embedded here. Throughout this report, the committee aims to challenge traditional understandings of science literacy, and as a result we note many places at which expanding conceptions of science literacy would require further research. That is, in order to fully understand whether or not there is a need to improve the understanding of science and scientific research in the United States, it would first be necessary to solidify an evidence base that investigates science literacy in all its complexity. Again, in order to be responsive to both the charge and the study timeline, the committee did not take on the issue of how to improve science literacy, even though that issue is both important and relevant.
In addition to the specific language discussed above, the committee notes a number of places in the statement of task that reflect assumptions about both the concept of science literacy and its utility. These assumptions are particularly noteworthy in the request for the committee to consider evidence of “enhanced scientific literacy on” a list of suggested outcomes, presupposing a relationship between science literacy and those outcomes. Throughout the report, the com-
mittee attempts to identify and delineate those assumptions where appropriate while responding to the specific charge from NIH.
Reframing Science Literacy
A first task faced by the committee was to decide how to conceptualize science literacy. We reviewed many definitions and approaches to measurement, considered how those definitions and measurements have changed over time, and catalogued the many aspects of science literacy that have emerged (see Chapter 2 and Appendix A). The committee recognizes that individuals are nested within communities that are nested within societies—and, as a result, individual literacy skills are limited or enhanced by these multiple, nested contexts. In keeping with recent literature on this issue, throughout this report the committee reflects on the ways that social structures might inform the development of an individual’s science literacy. Research on individual-level science literacy provides invaluable insights, but on its own offers an incomplete account of the nature, development, distribution, and effects of science literacy within and across communities and societies.
The committee emphasizes another important finding emerging in the literature in its use of the term science literacy in this report: a science literate society is more than the aggregation of science literate individuals. A science literate society or community is a social organization, with traits that can transcend the average knowledge or accomplishments of individuals in that society or community.2 In light of this broad understanding of science literacy, the committee organized its work to answer the questions posed in the charge by examining evidence at three levels of science literacy: the society, the community, and the individual. We chose this organization to contrast purposefully with the default understanding of literacy only as an individual accomplishment.
The committee emphasizes that science literacy is the application of foundational literacy skills to a particular domain. Thus it is important to first consider what is meant by “literacy” when it comes with no qualifiers or modifiers. Literacy as a term and a concept has great usefulness and seemingly boundless semantic potential, such that it is used to refer to an ever-larger array of ideas, and the central concept has drifted dramatically from its original meaning. The
2In a society, people have direct and indirect social connections; in a community, individuals are more closely connected due to shared environments and interests. A community that demonstrates science literacy, for example, might proactively coordinate to monitor whether tap water is potable or could organize to advocate for a specific environmental objective. Chapters 3 and 4 offer in-depth discussions of science literacy at the society and community levels, respectively.
origin is letra, Latin for letter, and literacy once very simply referred to the capacity to recognize letters and decode letter strings into recognizable words, along with the concomitant capacity to write words and sentences. That circumscribed meaning has long been transcended, and for the purposes of this report, the committee uses the term “foundational literacy” in reference to the set of skills and capacities described below. The committee asserts that these skills and capacities are effectively foundational to all other domains of literacy, including science literacy.
Even within the field of reading, foundational literacy has been defined in different ways in different historical periods, under different educational policies, through various assessment priorities, and for different segments of the population. The “three Rs” notion of reading that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century was relatively limited—reading mostly meant pronouncing words correctly. That limited notion has been reinforced in public education by efforts to promote grade-level reading, based on the theory that instruction that ensures accurate and fluent decoding by the end of 3rd grade will lead to later comprehension and mastery of other reading literacy challenges (learning from text, synthesizing information from multiple sources, analyzing text to infer the writer’s point of view, critiquing claims and arguments in text). In recent years, critics of this approach have argued that the emphasis on that goal in instructional and assessment practices risks diverting attention from the robust developments in reading demands that emerge after 3rd grade, which require instructional attention across the age span and across all subject domains. These demands have now been widely recognized within the reading research community (see Goldman and Snow, 2015).
Even the most conservative of foundational literacy researchers now incorporate a range of extra-textual skills into their notions of literacy. Foundational literacy is commonly extended to include processing words and language in oral contexts, using academic vocabulary and language structures, and having the knowledge base required for comprehension of nontechnical texts about such topics as politics, popular culture, history, art, music, and science. In addition, research on foundational literacy, based as it is in the field of education, has traditionally operated in parallel with research on foundational numeracy, rather than emphasizing the connections between literacy and numeracy. However, this committee asserts that numeracy, defined as the ability to understand probabilistic and mathematical concepts (Peters, 2012), is indeed foundational to other domains of literacy, especially science literacy. Because mathematics represents ideas and concepts in ways that language alone cannot, the committee includes numeracy as part of foundational literacy for the purposes of this report.
All other domains of literacy thus depend on foundational literacy. For science literacy, the production or consumption of science knowledge depends on the ability to access text, construct meaning, and evaluate newly encountered
information in the specific domain of science. But the application of the term “literacy” to a specific domain does more than just signify that foundational literacy skills are necessary to understanding the domain itself: it also signifies something like “knowledge, skills, and fluency” within that particular domain. New forms of domain literacy emerge when an individual or group attempts to identify some particular knowledge or competencies as socially important. In other words, framing a domain as an important “literacy” (i.e., media literacy, technology literacy, financial literacy)3 has become a way of arguing for the importance of ensuring that individuals can access and use the ideas in that particular domain. Not all domain literacies have been the subject of concerted scholarly attention, though, and it is here that science literacy and health literacy stand out: science literacy and health literacy have both emerged as important research arenas, with consequences for policy in a number of contexts.
Finally, the committee notes an important point about the relationship between science literacy and many other domain literacies (in this case, health literacy): health literacy is closely related and somewhat overlapping with science literacy. Science content areas, such as biology or chemistry, are necessary for understanding basic health concepts, and as a result, some science literacy is essential for the knowledge, skills, and fluency necessary to be health literate. As noted above, however, there is relatively little empirical work explaining these relationships, thus limiting the committee’s ability to deal in detail with this issue.
As noted above, the value of science literacy and health literacy—their usefulness and importance to people, communities, and society—is an explicit focus of this report. In order to undergird the committee’s arguments about how science literacy and health literacy operate differently in different contexts, it is necessary to raise, at the outset, a critical point about the role of science literacy and health literacy in society: they reflect deep structural inequities in the United States.
Individuals with fewer economic resources and less access to high-quality education have fewer opportunities to develop science literacy and health literacy. This lack of access disproportionately affects some demographic groups: second-language speakers of English, Latinos, black Americans, and children growing up in low-income families or attending under-resourced schools may have fewer opportunities to acquire science literacy (see Chapter 3). Moreover, this inequitable distribution is of particular concern with regard to health
3See, for example, http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/aspen-institute-report-national-leadership-conference-media-literacy and http://www.mymoney.gov/researcher/Pages/forresearchers.aspx [July 2016].
(Institute of Medicine, 2004). There is strong evidence that health literacy is associated with access to health resources, so those with less opportunity to develop health literacy may as a consequence also experience poorer health care and poorer health outcomes than people with more opportunity to develop health literacy.
At the same time, research from the field of health literacy shows that it would be entirely too simplistic to ascribe poor health outcomes among certain groups exclusively to limitations of an individual’s health literacy (Institute of Medicine, 2012). For example, living in a food desert impairs the ability of an individual to gain access to healthy food, regardless of how much they know about the importance of vegetables. Individuals with diabetes may fully understand the mechanisms underlying the disease, but if they are unable to afford regular monitoring of their condition, they are more likely to become sick. In these cases and others, these “undesirable” outcomes cannot be attributed to an individual’s deficit of health literacy. Social factors may explain much more of the variability in outcomes than individual levels of health literacy or science literacy. As a result, the committee chooses to emphasize how social factors constrain (or promote) how health literacy and science literacy are expressed at each level of society.
The committee held four in-person meetings and one telephone meeting over the course of the study. The first two were largely information-gathering meetings at which we heard from a variety of stakeholders, including Carrie Wolinetz from NIH’s Office of Science Policy, as well as several professional academics with relevant expertise. Jon Miller from the University of Michigan, Dan Kahan from Yale Law School, and Philip Kitcher from Columbia University addressed the committee at its first open session, each speaking to different facets of research on science literacy. At the second open session, Dietram Scheufele from the University of Wisconsin–Madison fielded questions on science communication. Ellen Peters from Ohio State University discussed numeracy. John Durant from the MIT museum, and Larry Bell from the Museum of Science–Boston formed a panel on the role of informal learning institutions in addressing issues around science literacy.
Following those information-gathering meetings, the committee conducted its work in closed session to analyze evidence and formulate conclusions and recommendations. The committee reviewed multiple sources of information in order to consider how science literacy and health literacy may be defined and measured, as well as the relationship between science literacy and the outcomes articulated in the charge.
Multiple fields of research informed the committee’s work. Notably, literatures from science communication and science education were considered,
as these fields have both proceeded, often in parallel, in attempting to codify what is considered science literacy. Literature from the sociology of science also supported this work. In order to address the health-related components of the charge, the committee reviewed research from the field of health literacy. Literature from psychometrics was considered in order to best synthesize the role of attitude measurement in assessing the potential effects of enhancing science literacy.
The committee also commissioned four supplementary papers intended to support the writing of this report.4 Lauren McCormack, director for the Center of Communication Science at RTI International, provided a paper on the ways in which health literacy is assessed and measured. Michael Cacciatore, assistant professor of public relations at the University of Georgia, reviewed literature on the role of science literacy in public support for and attitudes toward science and science research. Jon Miller, who spoke to the committee at its first open session, provided a paper on traditional measures of science literacy. Arthur Lupia, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, wrote a paper on science literacy and civic engagement. These papers helped supplement the committee’s expertise in order to effectively address the study’s statement of task.
The committee expects that this report will be important to a number of groups beyond the study’s sponsor. We anticipate that the primary audience for this report will be the science literacy research community, along with science communication practitioners. Science educators (both formal and informal) may be particularly concerned with the committee’s discussions about how social structures both constrain and enable the development of science literacy, while policy makers interested in public support for science are likely to find the discussion of the relationship between science knowledge and attitudes toward science informative.
The report is organized into six chapters, with two appendices. Following this introduction, Chapter 2 details the history of how science literacy and health literacy have been defined and measured, taking care to note the differences in how the fields of science literacy and health literacy have developed.
Chapter 3 considers science literacy at the society level by summarizing the claims that have been made about how increased science literacy affects societies, considering the role of social structures in science literacy. It also examines how issues at the societal level may constrain science literacy at the community
4All commissioned papers may be viewed upon request via the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s public access file. Jon Miller’s paper is also available at this report’s National Academies Press website.
and individual levels, and it addresses international comparisons on measures of science literacy.
Chapter 4 examines how communities develop and use health literacy and science literacy and how enhanced literacy in communities may be mobilized to achieve local goals.
Chapter 5 looks at science literacy and health literacy at the individual level, considering how enhanced science and health literacy might affect people: Does it make people more supportive of science? Does it make them better able to use scientific information?
The final chapter offers the committee’s recommendations for the field and identifies areas in which new measures and new research inquiries might improve what is known about science literacy and its relationship to support for and use of science and research.
Appendix A presents a table of key definitions and statements about literacy, numeracy, science literacy, health literacy, and health numeracy. Appendix B contains biographical sketches of committee members and staff.