visit donate
FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
January/February 2002
Volume 55, Number 1
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The BW Protocol as a Health Care Intervention
Arms Control: Where Now?
Scientific Literacy: A Necessity in the 21st Century
Survey in International Investment in Ed Tech R&D Released
Counterforce and the New Nuclear Posture

Civic Scientific Literacy: A Necessity in the 21st Century

By Jon D. Miller

Americans and other citizens of modern industrial societies have lived in an age of science and technology during most of the 20th century. Continuing advances in information technologies, the mapping and application of genomic information, and the wired and wireless infrastructures needed to fully utilize these developments will accelerate the pace of scientific and technological advancement in the 21st century.

The economic need for and value of a scientifically literate populace are well known. Science and technology have had a pervasive impact on both the methods of production and the products that are manufactured. The manufacture of traditional industrial products like steel and the shaping of this and other metals into products have been largely automated. Workers in the modern office are characterized by the technologies used-word processors, data entry operators, data base managers, fax clerks, and photocopy technicians. The industrial challenges of the 21st century will be the manufacture of microcomputer chips, genetically-engineered products, and new products yet to be invented. In this kind of economy, a basic understanding of science and technology will be the starting point for the development of the additional professional and technical skills needed to be competitive in an era of intense international economic competition.

Parallel to the need for a more scientifically literate workforce, the economy of the 21st century will need a higher proportion of scientifically literate consumers. From the experience of the last two decades, it is clear that increased exposure to computers at work and school has stimulated a strong and growing home microprocessor market. As more products incorporate new technologies, the information about the desirability, safety, and efficacy of those products will require a basic level of scientific literacy for comprehension. Some 20th century technologies like the irradiation of foods for preservation have never achieved a high level of commercial success due to public misunderstanding and resistance. A strong technologically-based economy in the 21st century will require that a substantial portion of the consuming populace be scientifically literate.

Of equal importance to these economic arguments, the preservation of democratic governments in the 21st century may depend on expansion of public understanding of science and technology. Over recent decades, the number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing. At the community level, the fluoridation controversies and referenda of the 1950's and 1960's in the United States illustrated the importance of a scientifically literate electorate. The more recent controversies over the siting of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste disposal facilities, and the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research point again to the need for an informed citizenry in the formulation of public policy.

It is clear that national, state, and local political agendas will include an increasing number of important scientific and technological policy issues in the 21st century. While a detailed discussion of public participation in the formulation of science and technology policy is beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to note that the public plays the role of final arbiter of disputes, especially when the scientific community and the political leadership are divided on a particular issue. As new energy and biological technologies move toward the marketplace, there will be important public policy issues to be decided and some of these issues may erupt into full-scale public controversies. The preservation of the democratic process demands that there be a sufficient number of citizens able to understand the issues, deliberate the alternatives, and adopt public policy.

If citizens are to discharge this responsibility in the context of an increasingly scientific society, it is essential that a significant proportion of the electorate be able to understand important public policy disputes involving science or technology. I refer to this level of understanding as "civic scientific literacy." This paper will summarize a measure of civic scientific literacy that has been widely used over the last two decades and examine the present level and structure of civic scientific literacy in the United States.

The Conceptualization and Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy

To understand the concept of civic scientific literacy, it is necessary to begin with an understanding of the concept of "literacy" itself. Historically, an individual was thought of as literate if he or she could read and write their own name. In recent decades, there has been a redefinition of basic literacy skills to include the ability to read a bus schedule, a loan agreement, or the instructions on a bottle of medicine. Adult educators often use the term "functional literacy" to refer to this new definition of the minimal skills needed to function in a contemporary industrial society (Resnick and Resnick, 1977; Harman, 1970). The social science and educational literature indicates that about a quarter of American adults are not "functionally literate," and there is good reason to expect that roughly this proportion applies in most mature industrial nations and a slightly higher rate in emerging industrial nations. In this context, civic scientific literacy is conceptualized as the level of understanding of science and technology needed to function as citizens in a modern industrial society.

Although a detailed discussion of the conceptualization and measurement of civic scientific literacy is provided in the refereed literature (Miller, 1998), it may be helpful to summarize this measure briefly. In broad terms, to be classified as civic scientifically literate, a citizen needs to display:

  1. an understanding of basic scientific concepts and constructs, such as the molecule, DNA, and the structure of the solar system,
  2. an understanding of the nature and process of scientific inquiry, and
  3. a pattern of regular information consumption (Miller, 1998).

In practical terms, the level of concept vocabulary and process understanding required reflects the level of skill required to read most of the articles in the Tuesday science section of the New York Times, watch and understand most episodes of Nova, or read and understand many of the popular science books sold in bookstores today.

Using this measure, approximately 10 percent of American adults qualified as civic scientifically literate in the late 1980's and early 1990's, but this proportion increased to 17 percent in 1999 (see Figure 1). Since each percentage point in a national survey of adults aged 18 and over in the United States represents approximately 2 million individuals, this result means that about 34 million Americans were civic scientifically literate by the end of the 20th century. This rate of civic scientific literacy is higher than that found in Canada, the European Union, or Japan, using similar measures (Miller, Pardo, & Niwa, 1997; Miller and Pardo, 2000). At the same time, it is a level that may be too low for the requirements of a strong democratic society in a new century of accelerating scientific and technological development.

Fig. 1 Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 1988-1999. Click image for larger version.

What Factors Contribute to Civic Scientific Literacy?

While it is useful to know the level of civic scientific literacy in the United States, it is important to understand the factors associated with a functional level of understanding of basic scientific terms and processes. To identify the factors associated with civic scientific literacy, a structural equation analysis1 of the 1999 U.S. data set was conducted (Jöreskog and Sörbom, 1993). The analytic model included each individual's age, gender, highest level of education, number of college science courses completed, presence or absence of minor children in the household, and level of use of informal science education resources. The total effect of each of these variables on civic scientific literacy is shown in Figure 2.

Despite a general expansion of educational access in the United States in the last half of the 20th century, both age and gender had moderately strong influence on civic scientific literacy in 1999. Holding constant all of the other factors in the model, women were slightly less like likely to be scientifically literate than men (-.24) and older adults were slightly less likely to be scientifically literate than younger adults (-.24). Independent of age and gender, the level of educational attainment was positively related to civic scientific literacy (.19).

The number of college-level science courses taken is the strongest predictor of civic scientific literacy (.53). It is important to understand this variable and its impact. The variable is a measure of the number of college-level science courses, including courses at both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities, but excluding graduate courses. The number of courses was divided into three levels: 1) no college-level science courses, 2) one, two, or three courses, and 3) four or more courses. Those individuals with one to three courses reflect the students who took college-level science courses as a part of a general education requirement rather than as a part of a major or a supplement to a major. The use of an integer measure would have given undue weight to majors and minimized the impact of general education science courses in the analysis.

It is not well known in the scientific community that the United States is the only major nation in the world that require general education courses for its university graduates. University graduates in Europe or Japan can earn a degree in the humanities or social sciences without taking any science course at the university level. In cross-national studies, a slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than do adults in the European Union or Japan, and comparative structural equation analyses of those data show that this exposure to college-level science courses accounts for US performance (Miller, Pardo, and Niwa, 1997; Miller and Pardo, 2000). Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain, these analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among US adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing (Schmidt, McKnight, and Raizen, 1997).

...studies have shown that civic scientific literacy is positively associated with support for basic scientific research and for the intellectual freedom needed for good science.

The model also included a variable indicating whether there were any minor children living in the respondent's household. In this model, the net impact of having minor children in the home, also known as the "science fair" effect, was .02, indicating a miniscule effect on parents and children's scientific literacy.

The analysis found that the use of informal science education resources was positively related to civic scientific literacy (.30). The measure included each individual's use of science magazines, news magazines, science books, science museums, home computer, science Web sites, and the public library. The magnitude of the influence of informal education resource use-second to college-level science courses-indicates that the efforts of members of the scientific community to enhance the scientific literacy of non-scientists is having a positive effect.

Implications for the Scientific Community

What are the implications of this work for the scientific community? Let me suggest three points to consider.

First, it is clear that the generally defamed general education requirements to take at least a year of science courses continues to make a major contribution to the civic scientific literacy of citizens who are outside the scientific community. Other studies have shown that civic scientific literacy is positively associated with support for basic scientific research and for the intellectual freedom needed for good science. We need to recognize the value of these courses and seek to make them more effective in the years ahead. As one example, the National Science Foundation provides funding for the enhancement of undergraduate science courses, but only a few scientists and fewer institutions have attempted to understand how important these courses are to improving civic scientific literacy.

Second, the accelerating pace of scientific development will place increasing demands on informal science educators-science writers, journalists, television and movie producers, and web masters-and their institutions to keep Americans up-to-date about new scientific and technological developments after the end of formal schooling. The relatively strong influence of informal science education resource use in the 1999 analysis indicates that the system is working, but it will need the help and leadership of more members of the scientific community to meet the accelerating demands of the 21st century.

Fig. 2 Factors Contributing to Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 1999. Click image for larger version.

Finally, it is clear that the best long-term source of civic scientific literacy is to improve pre-collegiate education so that all students who graduate from college are scientifically literate. The fact that college-level science courses are currently able to compensate in part for inadequate middle school and high school science should be of little consolation to the scientific community. A slightly high proportion of American adults may qualify as more scientifically literate than European or Japanese, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults. We should take no pride in a finding that four out of five Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.

Jon Miller is Director and Professor of the Center for Biomedical Communication in the Northwestern University Medical School and Professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Dr. Miller has measured the public understanding of science and technology in the US for the last two decades, and has examined the factors associated with the development of attitudes toward science. He is one of the few scholars in the US that has studied both the development of knowledge and attitudes in adolescents and young adults and the attitudes of national samples of adults. His basic approach to the study of public understanding and attitudes has been replicated in approximately 30 countries. He is the Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, now located at Northwestern University. His published works include four books, the latest of which is Biomedical Communications (Academic Press, 2001)-and more than 40 journal articles and book chapters. Miller is also the editor of a new collection of original research Public Perceptions of Biotechnology (Hampton Press, available in late 2002).

Notes:

  1. In general terms, a structural equation model is a set of regression equations that provide the best estimate for a set of relationships among several independent variables and one or more dependent variables. For all of the structural analyses presented in this report, the program LISREL was used, which allows the simultaneous examination of structural relationships and the modeling of measurement errors.

References:

Harman, D. 1970. Illiteracy: An Overview. Harvard Educational Review 40:226-30.
Jöreskog, K. and Sörbom, D. 1993. LISREL 8. Chicago: Scientific Software International.
Miller, J.D. 1983. Scientific Literacy: A Conceptual and Empirical Review. Daedalus, 112(2), 29-48.
Miller, J.D. 1998. The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy. Public Understanding of Science, 7:1-21.
Miller, J.D., and Pardo, R. 2000. Civic Scientific Literacy and Attitude to Science and Technology: A comparative analysis of the European Union, the United States, Japan, and Canada. In M. Dierkes and C. von Grote (Eds.), Between Understanding and Trust: The Public, Science and Technology (pp. 81-129). Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Miller, J.D., Pardo, R. & Niwa, F. 1997. Public Perceptions of Science and Technology: A Comparative Study of the European Union, the United States, Japan, and Canada. Madrid: BBV Foundation.
Resnick, D.P. and Resnick, L.B. 1977. The Nature of Literacy: An Historical Exploration. Harvard Educational Review 47:370-85.
Schimdt, W.H., McKnight, C.C., and Raizen, S.A. 1997. A Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics Education. Boston: Kluwer Academic Press.