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The importance of science literacy

By Tasman Bain - posted Tuesday, 16 October 2012


Finally - a science advocacy group in the Federal Parliament has been established. The Parliamentary Friends of Science, a cross-party brainchild of Richard Marles MP and Karen Andrews MP, was launched on the rooftop of Parliament House last month at the thirteenth annual "Science meets Parliament" event organised by Science and Technology Australia.

Richard Marles, a Labor MP who studied science at the University of Melbourne, and Karen Andrews, a Liberal MP who studied mechanical engineering at the Queensland University of Technology, along with the other 48 members who have joined, recognise the profound importance of science in Australian society and for the Australian economy. The value of science literacy is translated into a public support of scientific research. Indeed a 2007 report by the Productivity Commission shows the economic imperatives for this.

Mainstream society also recognises the importance of science for Australia. In a survey conducted by Science and Technology Australia in 2010, 1500 individuals from a diversity of backgrounds were asked "In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?" 42 per cent answered "absolutely essential" and 38 per cent answered "very important". Thus, like the members of the Parliamentary Friends of Science, the Australian public understands the importance of science education.

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It is a truism that education is a good and ideal aim for everyone. This statement is no less important when it comes to science. Indeed in Australian society there seems to be recognition of the importance of science for the economy. Yet, this understanding is not being translating into science literacy, which is sadly in a poor state of affairs. In the same aforementioned survey, six basic science questions such as "How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?" and "Is the following statement true or false - the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs?" were also asked. Only about 30 per cent of the respondents answered all six questions correctly.

The Health of Australian Science Report by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia in May this year has a largely positive account of the Australian scientific community. Our researchers are punching well above their weight in terms of output and recognition. Our high school science students are excelling comparative to other OECD countries. However, the report does point to two trends that will prove problematic. There have been declining rates of enrolment in high school science, especially in chemistry and physics, with the recent years being at an all-time low since 1980. Moreover, there have been declining rates of science teaching graduates.

Fundamentally, this deficit in science education will lead to our industries such as mining, energy, technology and biomedicine suffer in international competition and efficiency from a shortage of science graduates. Ongoing harm continues with important public debates about climate change, nuclear energy, genetically modified food, stem cell research, and other scientific issues are distorted from science illiteracy.

There certainly is a detrimental gulf between the scientific community and the public through shortfalls in science communication. When was the last time a scientist appeared on ABC's Q&A, along with the politicians as opposed to an artist, actor or musician? The answer is a poor one: since its inception in 2008, the only scientists to have appeared as panellists are Brian Schmidt, Megan Clark, Nick Klomp, Richard Dawkins, and Tim Flannery. Indeed this deficit in science awareness of Q&A reflects a similar deficit in Australian media at large.

Importantly, where does this evident failure in science engagement lie – with the scientists themselves not willing to engage with mainstream media? With the mainstream media not willing to engage with the scientists? With society in not valuing science, thus causing scientists and the media to not bother about engaging society? Sadly, it is probably a combination of all three demographics to blame.

Current practices and policies for science communication to the public are too top down. Whilst this may not necessarily be an issue for the classroom or university, outside this educational context it certainly stunts broader public engagement. Outside of the high school laboratory it is important to incentivise the public to become scientifically literate – to make them stakeholders, to allow them to interact with the scientific community and the scientific method, to have their voices to be heard and to give them the chance to influence research priorities. Science is as much a part of society as the arts. As Jon Turney, a science journalist, states:

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"Should we work to promote scientific literacy so everyone is up to speed, empowered and ready to contribute to the great debates about science, technology and the future? No. Invite them to participate, and really mean it and they will find the motivation to become as scientifically literate as you, or rather they, please."

To value science is not to degrade or criticise the liberal arts and humanities. As the famous science communicator Jacob Bronowski posited, "It has been one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and science are different and somehow incompatible interests". Thus it should be of equal shame and hypocrisy for a liberal arts graduate to be oblivious to whom Watson and Crick were just as it is for a theoretical physics graduate to be ignorant about Shakespeare or Chaucer.

To be scientifically literate empowers you to comprehend the world and make more enlightened decisions about your place in it. The scientific understanding of reality is one of beauty. Just as the Nobel Physics Laureate Richard Feynman mused "there are all kinds of interesting questions that come from the knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe and beauty".

When scientific literacy suffers not only does the economy suffer but so too does society. It is an imperative for a citizenry and an economy in this modern age, as President of the Australian Academy of Science Suzanne Cory said in a 2011 National Press Club Address. Surely if a small cross-party group of Federal Parliamentarians can agree on the importance of science, then so can we all. Fundamentally, we need to transform the way science is both taught in schools and universities, the way in which science is communicated in the media, and the way in which we engage with science in broader society.

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About the Author

Tasman Bain is a social sciences student at the University of Queensland. He is an Advisor to the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, a Policy Officer with the Left Right Think-Tank

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