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July 10th, 2009

The Public and Science


We've lived through the "Generation Gap" and the "Missile Gap" (which wasn't real). Now many think we are in what could be called the "Science Gap." A spanking new study by the Pew Research Center and AAAS shows Americans understand less about current science (only about half know that stem cells differentiate into other kinds of cells) and scientists say they aren't getting enough funding for basic science, partly because the public doesn't understand the process of science. There are plenty of data here to pick from as fodder for your individual peeve. Mine is there: scientists blame the media for the public's lack of understanding of science while at the same time admitting that they rarely talk to reporters. Only 3 percent of AAAS members say they give the media the time of day. How's that for cause and effect? People still have a lot of respect for scientists and physicians and their contributions to society (70 and 69 percent, respectively), but that doesn't mean they understand what they're talking about. In my experience, most Mayo researchers will talk to reporters unless they are with patients or on an immediate grant deadline.  That's heartening. What's not is the disconnect that we are seeing in the foundational understanding of science. One respondent says it happens between elementary and junior high school. You might call it the line when science shifts from being "cool" to being the stuff of nerds. The new survey implies that society never quite recovers from that shift. Clearly scientists of all walks need to see public education and PR as a professional duty. Short of a new "sputnik" on the horizon, it's clear we all need to build a lot of bridges. Any suggestions?

Tags: Findings, People, public opinion, Science, science education


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