"I can repeat the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?"


2003

"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"


In a climate of growing religious fundamentalism and rising skepticism about science, the scientific community itself has began to understand the importance of reaching out to the wider public.

Margaret Wertheim

Dear Mr. President

Of all the scientific issues currently confronting us it seems to me that one is paramount—the woeful state of the public understanding of science in our nation. Some of your other correspondents have already raised this issue and I concur with much of what they have said. But I would like to bring to your attention a further dimension of the problem—the degree to which ignorance about science is correlated with gender, age, race and socioeconomic position.

At present the serious science readership in the USA is estimated to be around 1.5 million people, the combined subscriber base to our 2 major popular science publications, Discover and Scientific American. Readers of these and other science-based magazines are well served and scientifically fluent. But who precisely are these readers? Overwhelmingly they are white, male, over 35, well educated (often employed in science and technology fields) and in the upper socioeconomic brackets. This 1.5 million people constitutes just a little more than half a percent of our population, yet they are the audience at whom almost all scientific publishing is aimed. This is also the readers at whom science book publishers pitch their wares. The question I would like to raise is what about the other 99% of our population?

In a climate of growing religious fundamentalism and rising skepticism about science, the scientific community itself has began to understand the importance of reaching out to the wider public. Yet for all the admirable rhetoric on this subject, most science communication continues to be aimed at an already-well-informed audience. What I would like to propose, Mr President, is the establishment of a National Office for the Public Understanding of Science—an organization that would be charged with responsibility for reaching out to the "other 99", those who at present read almost no science and who, as polls continue to show, are almost universally ignorant about the subject. Such an office would have as its mission the task of finding and supporting truly innovative ways to communicate about science outside the box.

One major group of people who are disenfranchised from science are women. One of the tasks for our proposed National Office could be to explore ways in which science might be made more accessible and exciting to women. It is a sad but true fact that few women read science magazines, yet women buy and read an enormous number of magazines per se. One thing our office might explore then is ways to get science content into women's magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Glamour. What about science programs on television that might appeal to women? At present almost all the science on television is watched by men—is it possible that there are other ways of presenting science on TV that might also appeal to a female audience?

Another task our office might consider is ways in which scientific organizations could be partnered with cultural organizations such as art galleries and museums. So often science is presented as an isolated activity, but like all human enterprises science takes place within the context of the wider social and cultural spectrum. One way to draw more people into science, I believe, is to bring them through the portal of their other interests. There are, for example, many artists today producing work based around scientific themes—genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and computation in particular. This work, and the immense interest in the arts world in scientific issues right now, constitutes a formidable resource. Our office could work to create links between artists and scientists in specific areas of mutual interest.

We urgently need to improve our nation's pool of scientific literacy. If we are serious about achieving this goal we must be serious about reaching out to those who are disenfranchised. That means taking seriously who those people are and how to speak to them effectively. 99% of our people is too large an audience to ignore—it is no good sitting around demanding that they come to science—science must find ways to go out to them!

Margaret Wertheim
Science writer and Commentator
Author of Pythagoras' Trousers and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet.

 

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