Tag Archives: science literacy

Science literacy, science advice, the US Supreme Court, and Britain’s House of Commons

This ‘think’ piece is going to cover a fair bit of ground including science literacy in the general public and in the US Supreme Court, and what that might mean for science advice and UK Members of Parliament (MPs).

Science literacy generally and in the US Supreme Court

A science literacy report for the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), due sometime from early to mid 2017, is being crafted with an eye to capturing a different perspective according to a March 24, 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release by Terry Dewitt,

What does it mean to be science literate? How science literate is the American public? How do we stack up against other countries? What are the civic implications of a public with limited knowledge of science and how it works? How is science literacy measured?

These and other questions are under the microscope of a 12-member National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel — including University of Wisconsin—Madison Life Sciences Communication Professor Dominique Brossard and School of Education Professor Noah Feinstein — charged with sorting through the existing data on American science and health literacy and exploring the association between knowledge of science and public perception of and support for science.

The committee — composed of educators, scientists, physicians and social scientists — will take a hard look at the existing data on the state of U.S. science literacy, the questions asked, and the methods used to measure what Americans know and don’t know about science and how that knowledge has changed over time. Critically for science, the panel will explore whether a lack of science literacy is associated with decreased public support for science or research.

Historically, policymakers and leaders in the scientific community have fretted over a perceived lack of knowledge among Americans about science and how it works. A prevailing fear is that an American public unequipped to come to terms with modern science will ultimately have serious economic, security and civic consequences, especially when it comes to addressing complex and nuanced issues like climate change, antibiotic resistance, emerging diseases, environment and energy choices.

While the prevailing wisdom, inspired by past studies, is that Americans don’t stack up well in terms of understanding science, Brossard is not so convinced. Much depends on what kinds of questions are asked, how they are asked, and how the data is analyzed.

It is very easy, she argues, to do bad social science and past studies may have measured the wrong things or otherwise created a perception about the state of U.S. science literacy that may or may not be true.

“How do you conceptualize scientific literacy? What do people need to know? Some argue that scientific literacy may be as simple as an understanding of how science works, the nature of science, [emphasis mine]” Brossard explains. “For others it may be a kind of ‘civic science literacy,’ where people have enough knowledge to be informed and make good decisions in a civics context.”

Science literacy may not be just for the public, it would seem that US Supreme Court judges may not have a basic understanding of how science works. David Bruggeman’s March 24, 2016 posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog) describes a then current case before the Supreme Court (Justice Antonin Scalia has since died), Note: Links have been removed,

It’s a case concerning aspects of the University of Texas admissions process for undergraduates and the case is seen as a possible means of restricting race-based considerations for admission.  While I think the arguments in the case will likely revolve around factors far removed from science and or technology, there were comments raised by two Justices that struck a nerve with many scientists and engineers.

Both Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice John Roberts raised questions about the validity of having diversity where science and scientists are concerned [emphasis mine].  Justice Scalia seemed to imply that diversity wasn’t esential for the University of Texas as most African-American scientists didn’t come from schools at the level of the University of Texas (considered the best university in Texas).  Chief Justice Roberts was a bit more plain about not understanding the benefits of diversity.  He stated, “What unique perspective does a black student bring to a class in physics?”

To that end, Dr. S. James Gates, theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, and member of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (and commercial actor) has an editorial in the March 25 [2016] issue of Science explaining that the value of having diversity in science does not accrue *just* to those who are underrepresented.

Dr. Gates relates his personal experience as a researcher and teacher of how people’s background inform their practice of science, and that two different people may use the same scientific method, but think about the problem differently.

I’m guessing that both Scalia and Roberts and possibly others believe that science is the discovery and accumulation of facts. In this worldview science facts such as gravity are waiting for discovery and formulation into a ‘law’. They do not recognize that most science is a collection of beliefs and may be influenced by personal beliefs. For example, we believe we’ve proved the existence of the Higgs boson but no one associated with the research has ever stated unequivocally that it exists.

For judges who are under the impression that scientific facts are out there somewhere waiting to be discovered diversity must seem irrelevant. It is not. Who you are affects the questions you ask and how you approach science. The easiest example is to look at how women were viewed when they were subjects in medical research. The fact that women’s physiology is significantly different (and not just in child-bearing ways) was never considered relevant when reporting results. Today, researchers consider not only gender, but age (to some extent), ethnicity, and more when examining results. It’s still not a perfect but it was a step forward.

So when Brossard included “… an understanding of how science works, the nature of science …” as an aspect of science literacy, the judges seemed to present a good example of how not understanding science can have a major impact on how others live.

I’d almost forgotten this science literacy piece as I’d started the draft some months ago but then I spotted a news item about a science advice/MP ‘dating’ service in the UK.

Science advice and UK MPs

First, the news, then, the speculation (from a June 6, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily),

MPs have expressed an overwhelming willingness to use a proposed new service to swiftly link them with academics in relevant areas to help ensure policy is based on the latest evidence.

A June 6, 2016 University of Exeter press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the proposed service and the research providing the supporting evidence (Note: A link has been removed),

The government is pursuing a drive towards evidence-based policy, yet policy makers still struggle to incorporate evidence into their decisions. One reason for this is limited easy access to the latest research findings or to academic experts who can respond to questions about evidence quickly.

Researchers at Cardiff University, the University of Exeter and University College London have today published results of the largest study to date reporting MPs’ attitudes to evidence in policy making and their reactions to a proposed Evidence Information Service (EIS) – a rapid match-making advisory service that would work alongside existing systems to put MPs in touch with relevant academic experts.

Dr Natalia Lawrence, of the University of Exeter, said: “It’s clear from our study that politicians want to ensure their decisions incorporate the most reliable evidence, but it can sometimes be very difficult for them to know how to access the latest research findings. This new matchmaking service could be a quick and easy way for them to seek advice from cutting-edge researchers and to check their understanding and facts. It could provide a useful complement to existing highly-valued information services.”

The research, published today in the journal Evidence and Policy, reports the findings of a national consultation exercise between politicians and the public. The researchers recruited members of the public to interview their local parliamentary representative. In total 86, politicians were contacted with 56 interviews completed. The MPs indicated an overwhelming willingness to use a service such as the EIS, with 85% supporting the idea, but noted a number of potential reservations related to the logistics of the EIS such as response time and familiarity with the service. Yet, the MPs indicated that their logistical reservations could be overcome by accessing the EIS via existing highly-valued parliamentary information services such as those provided by the House of Commons and Lords Libraries. Furthermore prior to rolling out the EIS on a nationwide basis it would first need to be piloted.

Developing the proposed EIS in line with feedback from this consultation of MPs would offer the potential to provide policy makers with rapid, reliable and confidential evidence from willing volunteers from the research community.

Professor Chris Chambers, of Cardiff University, said: “The government has given a robust steer that MPs need to link in more with academics to ensure decisions shaping the future of the country are evidence-based. It’s heartening to see that there is a will to adopt this system and we now need to move into a phase of developing a service that is both simple and effective to meet this need.”

The next steps for the project are parallel consultations of academics and members of the public and a pilot of the EIS, using funding from GW4 alliance of universities, made up of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter.

What this study shows:
• The consultation shows that politicians recognise the importance of evidence-based policy making and agree on the need for an easier and more direct linkage between academic experts and policy makers.
• Politicians would welcome the creation of the EIS as a provider of rapid, reliable and confidential evidence.

What this study does not show:
• This study does not show how academics would provide evidence. This was a small-scale study which consulted politicians and has not attempted to give voice to the academic community.
• This study does not detail the mechanism of an operational EIS. Instead it indicates the need for a service such as the EIS and suggests ways in which the EIS can be operationalized.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Service as a new platform for supporting evidence-based policy: a consultation of UK parliamentarians by Natalia Lawrence, Jemma Chambers, Sinead Morrison, Sven Bestmann, Gerard O’Grady, Christopher Chambers, Andrew Kythreotis. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1332/174426416X14643531912169 Appeared or available online: June 6, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall open access. *Corrected June 17, 2016.*

It’s an interesting idea and I can understand the appeal. However, operationalizing this ‘dating’ or ‘matchmaking’ service could prove quite complex. I appreciate the logistics issues but I’m a little more concerned about the MPs’ science literacy. Are they going to be like the two US justices who believe that science is the pursuit of immutable facts? What happens if two MPs are matched up with a different scientist and those two scientists didn’t agree about what the evidence says. Or, what happens if one scientist is more cautious than the other. There are all kinds of pitfalls. I’m not arguing against the idea but it’s going to require a lot of careful consideration.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NanoSpace online science ‘theme park’ and science literacy project wins web award

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NonoSpace, which opened in Oct. 2012, was designed to improve science literacy according to the Oct. 18, 2012 news release,

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today unveiled NanoSpace, an online “molecular theme park” populated with more than 25 games, activities, and animations to educate and excite young students about the world of atoms and molecules.

From playing “Who wants to be a Quindecillionaire?” in H2OPark, to solving the Polypeptide Puzzler in DNA Land, to button-jamming on Electronz and other retro-style games in the arcade, NanoSpace visitors are having too much fun to notice they’re also learning complex scientific topics.

NanoSpace is the latest platform from the Molecularium Project, which is the flagship outreach and education effort of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center. Many NanoSpace games and activities feature the characters Oxy, Hydra, and Mel from the Molecularium animated movies Molecules to the MAX! and Riding Snowflakes.

The mission of the Molecularium Project is to expand science literacy and awareness, and to excite audiences of all ages to explore and understand the molecular nature of the world around them. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and others, the project is a direct response to the challenge of inspiring more young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is a significant workforce development issue, as the NSF estimates 80 percent of jobs created in the next decade will require some mastery of STEM.

“Science literacy—in every capacity—has never before been so important to our nation,” said Professor Richard W. Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer and director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center.  “We realize that not every kid wants to be a scientist, but learning the basics of science—involving molecules and atoms—is critical to the careers that will be available in the next decade, especially as the U.S. continues to fall behind. When learning is fun, it increases a child’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. That’s why we are excited to unveil NanoSpace. Kids are interacting, exploring, and having a great time while learning about atoms and molecules, and they are not even realizing they’re learning.”

This concept of “stealth education” runs through every aspect of the Molecularium Project. …

Almost one year later, it seems the project has been successful with its ‘stealth education’ concept, from a Sept. 25, 2013 news item on Azonano,

Faculty researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were honored for their efforts in developing and creating the NanoSpace website, an online science “theme park” that aims to excite elementary and middle-school students about the world of atoms and molecules.

Rensselaer and NanoSpace received a “2013 Best of the Web” award from the Center for Digital Education, in the category of Higher Education Website.

The Sept. 24, 2013 Rensselaer news release, which originated the news item, describes the agency bestowing the designation,

The Center for Digital Education’s “Best of the Web” awards recognize and honor outstanding education websites. The awards are open to all education institution websites in the United States, including K-12 districts, schools, colleges, universities, teachers, multi-class, parent, and student websites. The Center for Digital Education is a national research and advisory institute specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy, and funding.

“Educational institutions are constantly tasked with creating quality websites and applications to deliver services and enhance learning,” said Kim Frame, executive director of the Center for Digital Education. “This year’s winners are cognizant of this challenge and have developed innovative models to increase learning and promote achievement via the use of technology. The center congratulates them for creativity and dedication toward excellence!”

I decided to take a look at the Center for Digital Education and found this on their About the Center webpage,

The Center for Digital Education (CDE) is a national research and advisory institute specializing in K-12 and higher education technology trends, policy and funding. CDE advises the industry, conducts relevant research, issues white papers, and produces premier annual surveys and awards programs. CDE also hosts events for the education community. CDE’s media platform includes the quarterly Center for Digital Education’s Special Reports, centerdigitaled.com, email newsletters and custom publications.

The rest of the page includes links to their sales, research, corporate, etc. divisions. This looks like a ‘for profit’ endeavour and awards like “2013 Best of the Web” are classic public relations ploys. One of  the most spectacular examples of this ploy are the Nobel prizes.

You can go directly to the NanoSpace website here (be prepared to sign up) or you can go diectly to the Molecularium project website to find out more about both.

Canadian science policy conference has started; silver nanoparticles wash off your antibacterial socks

Rob Annan is reporting from the science policy conference taking place in Torontp, Oct. 28-30, 2009. (More info. about the conference here and Rob’s blog here with his comments and links to other commentaries.) From the 2nd keynote speaker’s (Bruce Alberts, scientist and editor-in-chief of Science magazine) speech as Rob reports,

“If you want your government interested in science and technology, send them to China”, he [Alberts] quipped. He pointed out that the Chinese Minister of Health, Chen Zhu, is a world-renowned molecular biologist who is reshaping his country’s health ministry and is employing many of the tools that served him well as a scientist. Alberts suggested that China’s embrace of science and its methods, the number of scientists and engineers in top roles in the Chinese government, and the role science is playing in the emerging Chinese economy, can’t help but convince other countries of its benefits – I’m [Rob Annan] not so sure…

Alberts also argued that to spread science in society, you need to spread scientists. Too few trained scientists – at the PhD level, he argued – enter other areas of society. Only by having trained scientists working as lawyers, journalists, and – especially – in government, can we expect science to play a broader role in society at large.

Alberts seems a bit fevered. I don’t disagree with the principle that it’s a good idea to have people with grounding in both sciences and other specialties. However, there does seem to be an underlying assumption about science and scientists and to make my point I’m going to flip his suggestion. Have the English majors, the social workers, the musicians, the lawyers, etc. take up science so that  society has more of a role in science. I don’t have time today to finish this but I will get back to it tomorrow.

Swiss scientists have published a study about silver nanoparticles being washed off in the laundry. There is a news item here or here.

Friends of the Earth and sunscreens; update on RUSNANO

In a bit of interesting timing given that it’s on the heels of the publication of a study about two tragic deaths which are being attributed to exposure to nanoparticles, the Friends of the Earth (FOE) organization has released a report titled Nano-Sunscreens: Not Worth the Risk.The media release can be found on Azonano or Nanowerk News.

I have read the report (very quickly) and noted that they do not cite or mention the recently released report on the same topic by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which stated that after an extensive review of the literature, there was no evidence that the titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles used in sunscreens were dangerous. (posting here).

Shortly after the EWG report’s release, a new study (which I mentioned here … if you are inclined, do read the comments as some additional points about reading research critically are brought out)  suggested concerns based on the work of researchers in Japan.  The new study from Japan is cited in the Friends of the Earth report.

While the overall tone of the FOE report is fairly mild (they suggest precaution) they cite only a few studies supporting their concern and they damage their credibility (in my book) by ignoring a report from a well respected group that reluctantly admitted that there is no real cause for concern about nanoparticles in sunscreens based on the current evidence. FOE didn’t have to agree with the EWG’s conclusions but some counter-argument or discussion suggests that they don’t have a counter-argument or that they will ignore any opinions, and in the EWG case it’s based on evidence, contrary to their own.

More about this tomorrow when I tie it into science literacy, critical thinking, affect (feelings), and values.

Meanwhile, RUSNANO (Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies) has announced $1.25B US  (40billion rubles) of investment will be approved this year. I blogged (here) about RUSNANO when their executives visited Canada with an eye to investing in Canadian nanotechnology companies. I will be eagerly waiting to find out if RUSNANO has followed up with investments in Canadian nanotechnology.

Janus particle breakthrough; science knowledge or illiteracy?

It’s a two-faced particle named after the Roman god, Janus (love the reference to Roman mythology) and complete control has been achieved. The Janus particle is made up of at least two different substances according to this 2005 news item on Phyorg.com. From the 2005 new item,

A Janus particle is composed of two fused hemispheres, each made from a different substance than the other. This means Janus particles could, for instance, carry two different and complementary medicines.

For instance, one side could hold compounds that bind to molecules specific to a certain tissue or disease, while the opposite side would carry the appropriate drug.

There are other potential applications as researchers at Duke University note in their media release posted on Phyorg.com on Aug. 12, 2009. The Duke researchers have achieved control over the particle’s movements. From the media release on Physorg.com,

Duke University engineers say they can for the first time control all the degrees of the particle’s motion, opening up broad possibilities for nanotechnology and device applications. Their unique technology should make it more likely that Janus particles can be used as the building blocks for a myriad of applications, including such new technologies as and self-propelling micromachines.

There are more details and a Janus particle video here. I did get a little confused with this description,

“Past experiments have only been able to achieve four degrees of control using a combination of magnetic and optical techniques,” said Nathan Jenness, a graduate student who completed his studies this year from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering. He and co-author Randall Erb, also a graduate student, were first authors of a paper appearing online in the journal Advanced Materials. “We have created a novel Janus particle that can be manipulated or constrained with six degrees of freedom.”

I looked at the video where the range of motion appeared to be much broader than the 6 degrees that the researcher mentions. Perhaps the phrase “of freedom” is of more significance than I know. This brings me to Andrew Maynard’s discussion (on his blog 2020 Science) of a book on science illiteracy. Titled Unscientific Americans: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, the book’s authors (Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum) caught my attention with their recent essay (based in part on their book) on Salon.com where they elucidate their position.They make a compelling argument and one I find emotionally satisfying unfortunately it’s a little problematic as Maynard points out here.

It’s more than just amusing when Maynard (a scientist by training) notes that he could be described as scientifically illiterate since there are scientific terms that he doesn’t understand and that “Math makes my head ache.” If you take the comment to its logical conclusion,you can infer that all scientists are scientifically illiterate since none of them can know everything about science. Maynard notes that he enjoyed the book but has some major issues with the term “scientific illiteracy” as promotes and “us vs them” mentality and the book’s intellectual depth. He also offers some recommendations for reading about science and society.  I do have some hesitation about one of his recommendations but more about that tomorrow.