Science Problems: Scientists fault education and media, but should they?

When it comes to problems for science today, scientists largely fault deficits in K-12 STEM education, public and media interest in science. But scientists should be asking themselves the hard questions. What have you done to advance the conversation? Shutterstock:

I'm going to keep this commentary brief, because dissertation writing calls my name. What I really want is for other science communication scholars to weigh in here on some of the Pew results concerning scientists' perceptions of public and media interest in science.

Just a few days ago, Pew published a new report on public and scientists' views on science and society. Great reporting and commentary on the study's results can be found at Matt Shipman's blog, at Nature News and at Dan Kahan's blog.

I want to feature a few findings from the report that I find interesting about scientists' views on science and society. We often focus on the public views, and how wide opinion gaps exist between the public and scientists regarding issues such as climate change, the need for childhood vaccines and the safety of genetically modified (GMO) foods. Focusing on this aspect often leads us to expound on the need for more education and communication efforts directed at the public. But I feel that we rarely question and confront the need for change in the scientists' views on science and society.

One of the things that the Pew report shows is that fewer scientists see "good times for science" today than did in 2009. Where 76% of scientists said it was a good time for science in general in 2009, only 52% of scientists said the same in the recent report. Regarding difficulties facing researchers today, the AAAS scientists surveyed by Pew overwhelming point to a lack of funding for basic research.

Fewer Scientists See Good Times Today

So we've set the stage for scientists to be more pessimistic about the state of science today than they were 5 years ago.

"Compared with five years ago, both citizens and scientists are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise. Citizens are still broadly positive about the place of U.S. scientific achievements and its impact on society, but slightly more are negative than five years ago. And, while a majority of scientists think it is a good time for science, they are less upbeat than they were five years ago. Most scientists believe that policy regulations on land use and clean air and water are not often guided by the best science." - Funk & Rainie, Pew 2015

So it might not be surprising that a large number of scientists see limited public knowledge as a major problem for science today. 84% of AAAS scientists surveyed indicate that it's a major problem for science that the public doesn't know much about science. 79% of these scientists cite inadequate news reports and 52% indicate media oversimplification as major problems for science.

Scientists Fault Public Knowledge and Media Reports as Problems for Science

But science communication scholars often interpret lack of public scientific literacy differently than scientists do. While many scientists may think that improved public knowledge of science would translate into greater support for anything from childhood vaccination, to climate change regulation, to support for federal funding of science, many scicomm scholars point out that that this is not the case. More information does NOT necessarily change people's minds or increase their support for science.

There are some findings deep within in the Pew report that I find just as pernicious, if not more so, than the public-scientist opinion gaps on a variety of scientific issues. Scientists fault K-12 education and lack of public interest in science news as major reasons for the U.S. public having limited knowledge about science. Only 40% of scientists say that too few scientists communicating their findings is a major reason for limited public knowledge about science.

Scientists Say More K-12 STEM Would Help Raise Public Science Knowledge

At first, these findings don't seem to say anything all that noteworthy. Any scientist can get behind more K-12 STEM education. More science education is always better, right? But if we look closely, scientists are saying that public knowledge of science is a leading problem for science today, and that the major reasons behind this limited knowledge include not enough K-12 STEM education and lack of public interest in science news. So are we led to conclude that scientists believe that more K-12 STEM education and more public interest in science news (and media interest in science) would translate into fewer problems for science?

“A majority of scientists also fault public interest levels in science: 57% say the lack of interest in science news contributes to limited public knowledge. By comparison, fewer fault the media or scientists themselves. About four-in-ten (43%) say a major reason for limited public knowledge about science is a lack of media attention to scientific developments while 40% say that too few scientists communicating their findings through the media and online (40%) is a major reason for limited public knowledge about science. (These questions were not asked in 2009.)” - Funk & Rainie, Pew 2015

This is where I want science communication scholars out there to weigh in. What do you think are the major problems for science today? What do you think of the fact that scientists are, at least indirectly, pointing to science education and public interest in science as the major problems for science today?

Yes, surveys on public knowledge of science generally leave scientists and science communicators shaking their heads. But that doesn't mean that more knowledge about evolution or how vaccines work is necessarily going to "fix" public views and opinions surrounding these topics.

In the wake of the Pew report Alan Leshner called for “respectful bidirectional communication, where scientists truly listen, as well as speak, to the public.” In a Science editorial, Leshner wrote: “[T]here needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. The public’s perceptions of scientists’ expertise and trustworthiness are very important but they are not enough. Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels.” This is a key point that, I'm afraid, many of the AAAS scientists surveyed don't seem to reflect in their survey responses. True conversation between scientists and the public is not typically going to happen through K-12 education (unless scientists are saying they need to visit classrooms more?!). Nor is it going to happen through the intermediary straight news story.

And what about public interest in science news? Why are scientists so adamant about the fact that the U.S. public isn't interested in hearing or reading news about science? According to a 2010 report publish by Pew, 44% of Americans say there is not enough coverage of science-related news, with an even greater percentage (52%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 saying they would like more coverage of science news. If this is any indication, the U.S. public IS interested in science news. I'd venture to say that they absolutely love science news, and science news stories are often some of the most e-mailed and shared stories in U.S. newspapers. If Buzzfeed's expanding science desk and IFLS are any indication, the U.S. public loves media stories about science.

So why are scientists pointing to lack of public interest in science news as a major problem? And why aren't more scientists worried about the need for more public communication of science by scientists themselves? Scientists getting out there to not just communicate their findings, but also to listen to and engage with the "former audience", is absolutely, positively, CRITICAL.

So let's discuss this aspect of the latest Pew report, and not use the report as just one more "downer" on public knowledge of, support of and interest in science.