NSF Science & Engineering Messengers

Smart Money: Does the U.S. Economy Hinge on Science Literacy?

with 3 comments

This is a crowd-sourced blog post created at the #nsfmessenger conference to explain the importance of scientists engaging in communication.

Our Future is in Their Hands

A new wave is sweeping the scientific community. Now more than ever before, researchers are being called upon to communicate—and indeed, fame and even scientific citations seem to accrue to those who do so successfully.

But this isn’t just about becoming the next Neil Tyson or Brian Greene. It’s about Thomas Jefferson’s “well-informed” public. More public communication efforts about science are essential to the future well-being of the U.S.

Consider: A more scientifically literate electorate is crucial to informed policy-making regarding science-related issues like climate, energy, and food production. On climate change, for instance, there’s a great deal of confusion—people regularly confound changes in weather with changes in climate, for instance—as well as some active resistance to the scientific consensus. And this has clearly interfered with addressing the issue, whatever type of solution you think is necessary. If scientists don’t get the word across about their knowledge, we simply won’t be able to solve this problem.

But it’s not just for the purpose of ensuring good policy that science communication matters. Our elected leaders must understand not only the science underpinning various policy issues, but the near- and long-term value of government investment in scientific research. And scientists need to explain it to them, and make them listen. How? Well, consider the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who found that advances in knowledge and technology drove more than half of U.S. economic growth during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, as the National Academy of Sciences has put it (discussing what happened when scientists and engineers learned how to dramatically increase the capacity of the microchip): “It enabled entrepreneurs to replace tape recorders with iPods, maps with GPS, pay phones with cell phones, two-dimensional X-rays with three-dimensional CT scans, paperbacks with electronic books, slide rules with computers, and much, much more.”

In other words, research really, really pays off.

Who will found the next Google, then? Well, it’s likely to be the kids of today, which is the third reason why science communication matters. The continued vitality of our scientific institutions–as well as U.S. competitiveness–requires convincing young people to pursue STEM careers. And here, the science communicator is again crucial: Some of the best sci comm wizards will reach such large audiences that they can become role model for kids; even, in the best case, science heroes. If we mobilize scientists in general to communicate, we’ll find a few Sagans and Tysons out there in the crowd—er, the Cosmos—and so will our kids. (Because of course, our science communication ninjas will be reaching them through the social media tools that they use. That goes without saying, right?)

So what’s the big picture?

After the Soviet launch of Sputnik, this nation turned to science not just for the purpose of national defense, but to ensure prosperity at home. But a key piece of the puzzle was missing—science communication. This time around, scientists know that it’s not just their knowledge that brings prosperity; it’s also their message.


Written by nsfmessengers

March 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks Chris!

    Jerome Cann

    March 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm

  2. Though the generation of science heroes is interesting, an unrealistic expectation is built upon the shoulders of a hero. Perhaps a more realistic goal is to have science champions…just a thought.


    March 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm

  3. Nice article, but let’s stop always reducing the argument for scientific literacy to the bottom line, ie for a better economy. This is just the industrial paradigm all over again, just this time for a different century. Sure the economy is a driver, but let’s focus on SL as developing whole persons capable of contributing to the common good.

    Simon Lindsay


    March 29, 2012 at 10:55 pm

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