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Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences (2016)

Chapter: 6 Research Agenda

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Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." 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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6

Research Agenda

Throughout this report, the committee has both illuminated and complicated evolving notions of science literacy. This analysis reflects our understanding of the history of how the term has been understood and applied, as well as suggests a new direction for future thinking on these issues. In order to continue the trajectory of this work, the committee offers a recommendation for how the term should be considered and applied moving forward.

Recommendation: The committee recommends that, in keeping with contemporary thinking, the scientific community, the research community, and other interested stakeholders continue to expand conceptions of science literacy to encompass (a) an understanding of how social structures might support or constrain an individual’s science literacy and (b) an understanding that societies and communities can demonstrate science literacy in ways that go beyond aggregating the science literacy of the individuals within them.

In continuing to expand the conceptions of science literacy, it will be necessary to solidify an evidence base that investigates science literacy in all its complexity.

Recommendation: The committee recommends that the research community take on a research agenda that pursues new lines of inquiry around expanding conceptions of science literacy.

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

This chapter outlines some areas of research needs. We offer sets of research questions (found throughout this chapter in bold) as a way of thinking about creating new measures and expanding the information available. These questions, divided into four issues, reflect the need to better understand (1) the relationship between science knowledge and attitudes toward science, (2) the utility of science literacy, (3) the relationship of science literacy to other literacy skills, and (4) the role of science literacy for citizens as decision makers.

ISSUE 1: KNOWLEDGE AND ATTITUDES

In our review of the literature on science literacy, we conclude that the research shows a positive relationship between science knowledge and attitudes toward science and support for science. This finding stems largely from decades of survey research assessing the public knowledge and general attitudes toward science. This relationship, however, is small and mediated such that analyses of the survey data suggest that an increase in knowledge across a population is unlikely to result in an appreciable change in positive attitude toward science.

Interventions intended to change individuals’ attitudes often have focused on providing scientific information to increase individuals’ knowledge. Experimental and case studies of such interventions have sought to assess the effect of providing individuals with new information, comparing the views of individuals who were given specific information to individuals who received either no new information, different information, or some other intervention. These experiments can be challenging to interpret. While some limited effects have been observed, it is not clear that short-term learning of new facts is the same as science literacy or the development of meaningful knowledge. In addition, evidence from interventions that do not take into account context may have limited applicability in other contexts. More research is needed to understand the impact of efforts to enhance science knowledge and their effects on attitudes and behaviors, as well as the role of context and the relationship between findings from experimental and case studies and those from cross-sectional surveys.

1.1 Under what conditions and for which types of knowledge does acquiring new scientific knowledge affect individual attitudes and behavior related to science? In other words, to what degree are the results of experimental interventions consistent with results that emerge from studies based on cross-sectional surveys?

The potential relationship between science literacy and information-seeking/interpretation behaviors, such as searching online information or participating in research, needs to be investigated. Individuals now routinely seek science-related and health-related information online. When doing so, individuals need to possess the ability to determine which information is trustworthy

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

and process the appropriate information in an efficient manner. There is some evidence to suggest that science literate individuals may be more equipped to efficiently look for and process health-related information (see Chapter 5). Life circumstances including (but not limited to) group membership and geographic location affect what resources people can access and use. Despite a remarkable leveling in access to the Internet and Internet-enabled technologies in the past 2 decades, research continues to point to troubling differences in the way that people are supported in their use of Internet technologies, particularly in educational settings (see Chapters 3 and 5).

1.2 How do developments in digital resources and growth in participatory research opportunities (e.g., citizen science) change information seeking in, understanding of, and attitudes toward science? Particular attention should be placed on understanding access and use of information (i.e., factors that play into access to information, information-seeking habits, and evaluation and use of information.)

ISSUE 2: UTILITY OF SCIENCE LITERACY

Currently science literacy is assessed in adult populations throughout the world using survey instruments that reflect knowledge of content and some limited ways of scientific thinking. These instruments are widely used and methodologically sound, but constraints on length and demands for comparability across nations mean that they may not capture as much of the depth and breadth of the knowledge nor the full diversity of scientific reasoning required for science literacy. Researchers in the field need to come to a common understanding of potential indicators as well as limitations of what can be measured regarding the utility of science literacy. More research is needed to produce new measures to better examine how science literacy at society, community, and individual levels is shaped by and contributes to behaviors, attitudes, and cultures.

2.1 To what extent do the current measurements of science literacy map onto people’s capacities to accomplish specific tasks, such as to understand science or health messages, choose between competing sources of information, identify expertise, or modify behavior? For example, what can someone who scores in the upper quartile on a science literacy measure do that someone who scores in the lowest quartile cannot? How do these scores relate to the probability of success in either science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or STEM-enabled jobs? How does science knowledge—and knowledge about science—shape a person’s ability and willingness to engage with contemporary scientific and technological issues?

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

Case studies have demonstrated instances in which communities became centrally involved in the interpretation of scientific research or critically engaged in community-based decision making on science-related issues. However, the current literature may be biased toward successful examples and thus miss instances in which science literacy did not emerge or in which a community was not able to develop the capacity to manage a scientific issue it faced. In addition, the role of science literacy in accomplishing community goals has typically been extrapolated from findings afterward and not considered at the outset of studies. Future research should consider explicitly the nature of science literacy within communities. In most cases there has been little effort to assess, prior to the start of community action or controversy, what level of science literacy was present in the community. Though, we recognize that many of the concepts that drive community-level analyses of science literacy may be difficult to operationalize empirically.

2.2 How can research measure, understand, and support the features, structures, and circumstances of communities that make it possible for them to engage collectively with and use science? Research on this topic requires comparisons across multiple communities.

The context and demands for science literacy at every level of social organization—society, community, and individual—are variable and may shift as new scientific advances and discoveries emerge. Empirical findings suggest that the knowledge needed to engage with science in contemporary societies is somewhat different than the specific content knowledge captured by existing measures of science literacy. Similarly, researchers have observed that existing measures of health literacy do not address the full conceptualization of health literacy as has developed in the field in recent years (see Chapter 2).

The growth in communications media is one example of the complexity of information sharing that could affect science literacy and of an area that deserves more research attention. The breadth of the Internet’s topical coverage and the increasing ease of access through mobile devices have changed how people think about and use information and interact with others. To date, what little data exists from these media suggest that people participate in large numbers and that participation spans national boundaries. Recent figures estimate that 84 percent of U.S. citizens use the Internet, but participation is not uniform. Nearly all young adults, those with higher levels of education, and those in the most affluent households use the Internet. Use among other age, education, and income subgroups is rising but gaps in use remain.1 The Internet and related media make possible the formation of virtual communities. Evolving communication technologies allow people from all over the world to

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1 See, for example, Perrin and Duggan (2015).

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

exchange information and to connect with others on issues of interest and/or relevant to them. These virtual communities could have significant as well as disparate impact across societies on individuals’ information seeking and informal learning.

There are currently few data from these media sources that bear on science literacy and health literacy. However, there is opportunity to create datasets and examine the collective action made possible by virtual environments and social media and investigate whether beneficial community-level or national-level knowledge is made possible by them. As more information becomes available, researchers could examine the contribution to science literacy at multiple levels and how such literacy becomes distributed.

2.3 To what degree are existing measures of science and health literacy associated with knowledge about emerging issues? To answer this question, the research community should continue to develop, test, and validate measurement tools that assess science literacy and health literacy.

2.4 Given the complex, variable, and contingent nature of the situations in which people develop and use science literacy, what new research tools are needed to complement commonly used survey-based measures?

ISSUE 3: OTHER LITERACY SKILLS

Making progress toward understanding the constraints on and supports for achieving adequate levels of science literacy requires understanding better the relationships among science literacy, health literacy, and foundational literacy. Foundational literacy encompasses the skills and capacities necessary to process and be fluent in the use of words, language, numbers, and mathematics. The committee recognizes that all other domains of literacy depend on foundational literacy. New forms of domain literacy emerge when an individual or group attempts to identify a particular set of knowledge or competencies as socially important. Science literacy and health literacy have been the subject of concerted scholarly attention, albeit in separate research communities.

Health literacy appears closely related and somewhat overlapping with science literacy since science content areas, such as biology or chemistry, are necessary for understanding basic health concepts. One could envision that some level of science literacy is essential for performing the knowledge, skills, and fluency necessary to be health literate. However, there is relatively little empirical work explaining this relationship or analyzing the relationship between science literacy and health-related behaviors.

3.1 What is the relationship among different types of literacies, including foundational literacy, science literacy, and health literacy? Are there threshold

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

levels of foundational literacy required for accessing health literacy or science literacy? How do these different types of literacies relate to attitudes and behaviors that are related to health and science?

Although it is rarely discussed in cross-national studies of science literacy, there is often greater variation within a country than between countries. A closer look at variation in the United States reveals stark disparities in knowledge, access to knowledge, and access to systems (e.g., education, health care, and justice) that enable people to interpret and act on the knowledge they have. Research on stratification, variation, and disparities in science literacy is rare and more work is needed to understand the association between differential access and the development and use of science literacy. A thorough account of disparities in science literacy cannot rely on individual measures alone; it must examine the conditions that structure science literacy differently for different groups of people, shaping how their understandings of science are developed and deployed.

3.2 How is science literacy distributed within society, and what broader societal factors affect how people access, develop, and use science literacy? What are the disparities in the distribution of science literacy associated with race, ethnicity, gender, schooling, or geographic region? How might such disparities be mitigated?

3.3 How can research measure science literacy and health literacy in the context of the constraints that the broader social systems place on the individual and communities, and the opportunities that those systems provide?

ISSUE 4: CITIZENS AS DECISION MAKERS

It is generally assumed that improving civic science literacy is a social good, regardless of its effect on support for funding of scientific research. The value of science literacy in societal systems such as the health care system, the justice system, and the various systems of political participation, as well as the opportunities that these systems provide to develop science literacy, have not been studied in sufficient detail. What is known, however, is sufficient to conclude that different individuals and communities in a society need different levels of science literacy at different times to accomplish their personal and civic goals. More research is needed to better understand the role of science literacy for citizens as decision makers and consumers of science.

4.1 Participation in particular social systems requires different, perhaps deeper levels of science literacy. For example, citizens participating in the legal system (judges, lawyers, jurors, plaintiffs, defendants) may require different

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×

understanding of scientific concepts for justice to be served. Research on science literacy should also examine the particular demands of participation in critical social systems. Where the legal system is concerned, it is particularly important to know what fields of science are most frequently referenced in the legal arena and what level of understanding of scientific principles, methodologies, and habits of mind are needed for the proper and equitable operation of the justice system.

4.2 Many people not employed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) or STEM-related occupations nonetheless watch television programs about science, read science magazines and books, frequent natural history museums, participate in citizen science and other community science-related activities, and in other ways appreciate science in the same way people appreciate art, music, and literature. Is a higher level of knowledge about science and its methodology associated with increased appreciation of science? To what degree does taking advantage of opportunities to appreciate science increase science literacy?

NEXT GENERATION OF RESEARCH ON SCIENCE LITERACY

This committee was asked to review existing research literature and metrics on science literacy. Much of the current literature focuses on examining the relationship between science knowledge and attitudes toward science using data from large population surveys measuring individuals’ understanding of and factual knowledge and scientific processes. Research on individual-level science literacy provides invaluable insights, but on its own offers an incomplete account of the nature, development, distribution, and impacts of science literacy within and across communities and societies.

The literature posits arguments both for individuals and societies on the value of science literacy. However, the research community has yet to study in sufficient detail the value of science literacy “in action” in society and within societal systems and communities. Furthermore, the committee recognizes that social systems such as the health care and education systems provide opportunities to develop science literacy and that the structures within these systems may enable or constrain the development of science literacy. These ideas should be examined in depth, and investigations should pay particular attention to impacts on different subgroups of the population. With new lines of inquiry and development of a wider range of metrics, the complex nature of science literacy may be better understood and put to use. With different levels of analyses, the research community may discover important interconnections between science literacy in society, in communities, and in individuals.

Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." 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:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 105
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 106
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 107
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 108
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 109
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 110
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23595.
×
Page 111
Suggested Citation:"6 Research Agenda." 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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