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Is the Science Glass Half Full, or Half Empty?

NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

two scientific beakers, one with green liquid, another with blue liquid SOURCE: iStockphoto The latest figures on the relationship between science and the U.S. public can be used to support either a positive or a negative perspective.

Roughly every two years, the National Science Foundation’s National Science Board releases the much awaited Science and Engineering Indicators report, a kind of temperature-taking for science in America that compiles all the latest evidence on science funding, student trends, the science workforce, and much else. Within this data dump, the heavily read Chapter 7 always addresses a subject that has been dear to me, and to the many pieces I’ve written for Science Progress: What are the latest findings on the relationship between science and the U.S. public, not only in terms of knowledge, but also engagement?

In my view, the picture here remains pretty dismal. But perhaps out of academic evenhandedness (and also in part by avoiding at least two very problematic areas), NSF paints a more mixed picture.

On the positive side, for instance, 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.

All of which is certainly to the good. And yet  the image of an America little informed about science, and little engaged with it, still shines through in the latest report.

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.

And then there are the egregiously politicized issues, like climate change or the teaching of evolution, where the gulf between the scientific community and the public is unbelievably vast. For instance, according to a 2009 Pew study, 84 percent of U.S. scientists think the earth is getting warmer due to human activities, versus 49 percent of the public.

Rather surprisingly, Chapter 7 of the latest Science and Engineering Indicators report doesn’t discuss evolution. Neither does it address another increasingly critical topic, and another central area of breakdown between science and U.S. society: vaccination. Americans are currently in the extremely dangerous throes of vaccine retreat, a growing movement that is based on little more than scientific misinformation.

The latest Science and Engineering Indicators report performs a great service—it gives us all the best data, and it frames it in such a way as to keep us honest. Not everything is rotten when it comes to the state of science in America, and we should remember that. But at the same time, there is much, much to worry about. One year ago, President Obama pledged to restore science to its “rightful place” in American life, and the administration has done much to achieve this goal—but as the latest figures show, none of us has any excuse to feel satisfied or complacent.

Chris Mooney is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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