Science: Public interest high, literacy stable

October 28, 2016

ANN ARBOR -- While public interest in science continues to grow, the level of U.S. scientific literacy remains largely unchanged, according to a survey by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Funded by NASA, the study found that 51 percent of Americans are interested in science, but only 28 percent have a sufficient level of scientific understanding to follow and engage in debates about current science and technology policy issues.

The level of scientific literacy has remained constant for nearly a decade.

Recent reports from the National Science Foundation reinforce the U-M findings. Analyses since the 1980s have shown that the adult literacy rate is driven primarily by the completion of college-level science courses and completion of a baccalaureate degree. It is this group that follows science and technology news closely in the media, both traditional and online.

After NASA's 2011 Mars Curiosity Landing and 2015's first-ever close up images of Pluto, Americans' interest in science spiked--but scientific literacy still lagged. Why the disconnect? NASA wanted to know.

In September 2015, NASA's Science Mission Directorate selected 27 organizations across the nation to implement a new strategic approach to more effectively engage learners of all ages on NASA science education programs and activities.

U-M was one of those selected and was tasked to study ways to boost science literacy, with the support of a $5.2 million five-year cooperative grant from NASA.

"NASA plays a key role in addressing these issues because of the exciting and accessible activities that their earth and space science activities afford," said Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at U-M's Institute for Social Research.

NASA's current science portfolio consists of more than 100 missions. In 2015, SMD required all of its science education-related activities to compete in a reassessment to better align science content and experts with learners' needs.

An examination of the pattern of growth in adult scientific literacy indicates that levels increased steadily between 1988 and 2008, but has plateaued since then.

"The stability observed in these results suggests that less growth in these factors may, in part, reflect the impact of the recession on educational enrollments," U-M's Miller said. "We will continue to examine the factors associated with the stalled rate of growth in scientific literacy and expect to be able to identify and discuss causal factors in subsequent reports."

The U-M survey builds on several decades of work that was initiated by a survey sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers in 1957, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, and conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

The 1957 study was conducted only a few months prior to the launch of Sputnik and provides an essential baseline. In 1979, Miller and colleague Kenneth Prewitt resumed the series with support from the National Science Board.

With the issuance of the five-year NASA grant, Miller is continuing this work with an eye to the future.

"NASA has provided lifelong learners around the globe the information to become science literate, a key asset being the inspiration NASA science missions provide," said Kristen Erickson, director of Science Engagement and Partnerships at NASA. "Our diverse portfolio gives us the opportunity to accomplish that mission in many ways--not only to the scientific community but to the public worldwide."

Full report and data:

University of Michigan

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