Science in the Public Interest

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Science In The Public Interest

I was never encouraged to study science. It’s a disappointment I carry to this day. I really don’t know why this was the case for me. It’s true my family was not particularly oriented toward science. In fact, I don’t know anyone in my immediate or extended family who has an educational or professional background in science. I recall the teachers I had in secondary school for science classes were not very inspiring. In my experience, science was mostly about memorization. I do remember dissecting a frog in biology class, but that’s about it. I also had an earth science teacher who was entertaining as a lecturer, but there was little for me to do beyond listening, recording and remembering – at least for the test.


Today I am working to increase my scientific literacy. I actually find science quite interesting. I noticed a rekindling of my desire to learn more as our daughters needed help with homework over the years. This allowed me a chance to read some text and recall a few basic principles about energy, weather or anatomy. I also have noticed when I have some down time, I enjoy watching a bit of “science” television on channels that explore interesting topics about the universe or various settings in nature. I don’t remember a lot as time passes, but I am enjoying a renewed curiosity.

In a recent report entitled, “Increasing Scientific Literacy: A Shared Responsibility,” G. Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, outlines the challenges our nation faces in increasing our understanding of science. He writes:

Without scientific literacy, both in today’s adult population and in generations to come, our nation stands to lose its ability to compete on a global scale. The future of our youth depends on their fluency in science in a world where employers seek well-educated, well-rounded individuals. (p. 1)

These are strong words but I think he has a point. The world has become so much more complex and the demand for knowledge, skill and experience incredibly high. Clough also notes:

Changing times present us with a conundrum. Today, science and technology form a global enterprise fueled by billions of dollars from governments and industry and driven by a growing army of researchers. Our ability to survive as a society depends in large part on the innovations brought about by scientists and engineers, whose past work has dramatically improved everyday life in most of the developed world. And yet the public is growing uneasy about the same enterprise from which it benefits so greatly. The sheer volume of scientific knowledge has triggered the viral growth of specialization, dividing that knowledge into smaller and smaller pieces understood by fewer and fewer people. With communications moving at warp speed and computing power reaching mind-boggling proportions, the pace of technological advancement threatens to overwhelm us. (p. 46)

I would take it one step further. I wonder if the complexities of science and technology are yielding an intimidating or mystifying effect on the wider population – particularly adults. I know I benefit from advances in medical science, digital communication and energy, but my understanding of the underlying knowledge domains is quite limited. Some might argue the lack of knowledge is irrelevant and I should just enjoy the fruits of scientific discovery. Yet if I don’t understand something about how these elements of science, engineering, technology and math connect, then my capacity to participate in the public discourse will erode. When I wish to voice my view on funding priorities for our nation, how do I know that investments in science make sense? If there are ethical choices to be made, how do I frame my understanding about what is appropriate? If there are societal tradeoffs to be assessed in the future development of science and technology, how can I prepare an informed opinion? If my knowledge erodes too far, I may not be able to effectively contribute to the dialogue and will need to rely on the opinions and influence of others. If this happens, will I become marginalized in society along with a host of others who lack scientific literacy?

This is where colleges come into the picture. Our role in the education of undergraduates is obvious. A strong liberal arts education will always include science as part of general education. To our credit, the teaching of science has become far more experiential in recent years as scientists have emphasized the importance of “doing” science, not just studying science. There is no substitute for experience that takes the lecture into the lab and the field. Learning strategies in science now focus on problem-solving as a means for teaching complex ideas as teams of students seek to find answers through scientific discovery in a shared experience.

Science is also integrating disciplines that have been fragmenting for decades with the expansion of knowledge. The lines between biology, chemistry, psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, computer science and physics are blurring as never before. The new frontiers of the human genome and the emerging possibilities of the nanoscale are the next horizons of integration for many disciplines. The reach upward into space may give way to new depths of knowledge in the oceans of our planet. All of science will be needed to chart a course into this future.

As science and technology continue to extend our human potential, our calling as educators is to enable everyone to learn and grow as new patterns emerge and societies change. We dare not leave anyone behind. We need to enhance our approaches to teaching science to children in ways that will engage and inspire their sustained interest. As they mature into our colleges and universities, we need to be prepared with learning environments that will greet them with advanced opportunities.

What about me? I don’t want to be left behind either. As a baby boomer gradually joining the ranks of the more senior in our society, I have the desire to learn and understand more. What can I do to extend my scientific literacy? What role can a college play in helping me? It may be an uphill climb, but is anyone willing to join me?

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



18 responses to Science in the Public Interest

Ross Vermeer says:

There are two areas of scientific knowledge that Central could (should?) have required me to master, but didn’t: an understanding of the scientific method itself, including Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, and true experimental design; and descriptive statistics (for example, simply understanding how the normal distribution and standard deviations work opens windows into many research areas that otherwise remain obscure).

Sarah Moglia says:

That’s interesting. I’m a Senior Psychology major, and I know we definitely covered both those topics– thoroughly– in the course of my major. I know with the old Core, a Behavioral Science course was required, so many people took Gen. Psych. In that course, the scientific method is definitely covered. Hopefully the new Core will help students with those topics, because I agree, they are very important.

jkisner says:

Mark: We agree on The Science Channel, especially “Through the Wormhole” and my favorite actor, Morgan Freeman. The need for critical thinking in math and science from America’s college students is dire, especially women. Some of the very best CUI grads in my day were women in the sciences! So alma mater again has been ahead of the curve.

But you’ve put me on the defensive a bit, Mr. President. Schooled under the tutelage of Willis, Schulze, Bergman, and Maxam, I would have put my knowledge of how science works (e.g., its method) up against any of the undergraduates of my long-past CUI era. Jim’s statistics and Ed’s experimental psych courses were extremely demanding (thanks!). I’ve served 14 years as chair of an academic department that included the entire social and behavioral sciences and I would make the same contention about students in our department compared to those in the biological, chemical, and digital sciences at our institution.

I appreciate your thoughts, Mark, and also share in your sentiments. It is too bad that there is so much confusion about science and its methods, and I think that people learning the basics of the scientific method as suggested by Ross and jkisner would help a lot. Unfortunately, “science” has become so politicized that it can be hard to sort through what claims are legitimate. Witness the ongoing dismissal of legitimate science regarding evolution and the causes of climate change.

Retired faculty member says:

Mark, as a professional scientist who majored in History in college, I appeciate your thoughts about the place of science in all our lives. It is clear that the American adult public is woefully lacking in a useful understanding of science. For example, in the latest survey results I’ve seen, about 60% of U.S. citizens reject evolution and favor the idea of teaching “creationism” in public school science courses. This is only the tip of the iceberg re the misunderstanding of science in our society. To a large extent, scientists are responsible for having poorly prepared public school teachers in basic scientific understanding. And, to some extent the paucity of good science taught in our schools has enabled “pseudoscientists” opportunities to request “equal opportunity” to present scantily disguised religious concepts in public school science courses. Most people are not appreciative of the “scientific method,” and it is rarely taught well in elementary and secondary schools. I believe that a thorough knowledge of science methodology could help reduce the misunderstanding of legitimate science in our society. College is a bit late to remedy this, but it is imperative that we make clear to all our students the importance of science as it impacts them and the public interest.

My perspective stems from a career starting in research science with BA in Physics from Central and PhD in Biophysics from University of Illinois. I have followed with interest the historical course of evolution as scientific fact vs. a useful hypothesis seeking evidence. What I see is that many are entirely discouraged from jumping on the “evolutionism hype” bandwagon partly due to the “compelling lack of evidence”, and partly due to the “insistent bent” of too many scientists, and others, to abandon a worldview centered on the Lord. No, I am not proposing somehow teaching science with only the book of Genesis as textbook – not at all my point. But 60% of the public are indeed going to remain doubtful, or even mistrusting, of a science construct that isn’t thoroughly forthcoming with data/evidence reconciliation, open to integration with other views , including pertinent and telling guidelines such as the “principle of irreducible complexity”, and finally, recognizing as did the great historical founders of Western science that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.

Retired faculty member says:

David, While I respect your right to view evolution as “a hypothesis seeking evidence,” I understand that it is more accurately viewed as a scientic theory which has overwhelming scientific facts in its support, ranging from fossil evidence to molecular and atomic structure. Each area of evidence is overwhelmingly consistent with evolution. As in all science concepts, evolution is not a “finished concept,” and is open to change given the appropriate evidence. Most scholars view theological and scientific knowledge as two separate domains, each valid and important within its confines, but of little value in interpreting one another. Acceptance of one does not preclude acceptance of the other.

Steve Meyer says:

You are spot on regarding our need to understand science. I just wanted to caution you in your choice of title. “Science in the Public Interest” is very close to Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that, in my opinion, stands for anything but science in the public interest. My experience is that they attempt to block many scientific advances, using fear of the unknown as a main motivator. Please do not become identified with their agenda and do all you can to prevent CUI from being so identified as well.

Anne Petrie says:

The points made above are excellent–that the elements taught by science (including the social sciences) that everyone needs to understand are the scientific method and descriptive statistics. But they can’t be put off until college, if society as a whole is to benefit. Fortunately, I’m seeing some steps in that direction: my 12-year-old son has already learned more about statistics in his math classes than I ever did.

Paul Weihe says:

Thanks for starting what I feel is an important conversation. I thought people might be interested in a National Science Foundation report on the Web. I just found out about it today…perfect timing! This allows you to see trends in science and math, and includes data broken down by State in some cases.

Sarah Moglia says:

I am thrilled with this entry. It is disappointing to see so many of my peers uninterested in (or not knowledgeable about) basic tenets of science. That’s why I think it’s crucial to integrate science into all aspects of our curriculum and learning– of course, isn’t that what liberal arts is all about? I would love to see Central College integrate scientific thinking into more classrooms.

Elementary Student says:

From what you said, I can now see that the way science is truly thought of as an understanding of not only how, but why things happen. We have the ability to gain a greater understanding of the world around us.

Josh Dolezal says:

It’s interesting how much more compelling science becomes once it is linked to a narrative. I endured a similar process of passive memorization through high school and didn’t fully appreciate the scientific method until I read Sinclair Lewis’s ARROWSMITH (which Lewis wrote in collaboration with Paul de Kruif, a bacteriologist who went on to write THE MICROBE HUNTERS and other works of popular science). It’s important to remember that popular science isn’t actually science, and sometimes I think NOVA (as much as I admire their programming) focuses a bit too much on the drama of discovery – the entertaining side of science – and not enough on the painstaking and precise process required for such discoveries. Others in the profession might correct me on this, but it seems that science as a discipline (in every sense of the word) has much to teach us about humility, about patience, and about self-criticism, none of which are much en vogue in our entertainment-driven culture.

Retired faculty member says:

Josh, you make an important point in noting that NOVA and similar programs focus too much on drama in science, and not in the painstaking day to day reality of doing science. The self-correcting nature of science does require humility, patience and self-criticism to succeed, and often enough, it does not result in science drama.

Bruce Janousek, PhD - Class of 1975 says:

Science education is about using critical thinking skills to solve problems and assess the credibility of others’ claims and solutions- my BA in chemistry from Central helped me develop these skills. In the absence of these skills we will not have the scientific literacy necessary to have a meaningful debate on the challenges we face (energy, water, biomedical engineering, etc.). My concerns about scientific literacy have taken me back to the classroom (USC School of Education) where I am teaching the next generation of science teachers to make science accessible and engaging to all students. Thank you, Dr. Putnam for another provocative and timely post.

Retired faculty member says:

Bruce, If we could just recruit a flock of Central sciences grads like you to join the sort of latter-day-career professional teaching you are now doing, we could make a sizeable contribution to the problem of scientific literacy. Congratulations on your return to the classroom!

Rick Mills says:

My daughter graduated from Central and forwarded this post to me. I am a visual learner and would like to call attention to a site that has excellent resources for self-directed self-paced learning. The site has over 2,100 videos and is particularly relevant for learning math, science, and finance. It also could easily be leveraged to enhance classroom instruction. The site is . If you check them out, be careful with the spelling of the url and the .org . Several other sites that appear to be educational are “camped out” around their url.
Disclaimer: I have no personal or professional affiliation with Khan Academy.

Stan Durey '71 says:

A review of my formal science education would reveal an undistinguished record. Despite those unremarkable accomplishments, I did take away one lesson that has informed my beliefs and formed my ethos – that one must never confuse correlation with causation. Or more glibly, one can choose one’s own opinions, but you don’t get to choose your own facts. Please continue to offer these thoughtful challenges!