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Volume 4, Issue 1                                    University of Houston

Americans lack strong knowledge of science

By Ken Fountain
Breaking News Staff

While most Americans, and U.S. policymakers, generally support the sciences and technology, many of them are woefully ignorant of some of science's basic principles and discoveries which hampers researchers' ability to make advances, a leading member of the scientific community said Monday.

"Government policies and human activity of almost every kind -- how we live, work, communicate, stay safe and healthy -- increasingly depend on science and technology. But most people, including most politicians, don't know anything about science and technology," said Neal Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation and former chief science advisor to President Bill Clinton.

Neal said that during his tenure in the White House, he and his staff spent most of their time on areas in which science and public policy connect -- including medical research (cloning, stem cell research, the Human Genome Project); defense research and development (chemical and biological agents, nuclear missile defense, problems in the nation's defense weapons labs); and environmental issues (global change research, genetically-modified organisms, air and water pollution).

Neal Lane, a Rice University professor and former director of the National Science Foundation, speaks about the American's public's understanding of and attitudes toward science and technology Monday.

Ken Fountain/Breaking News

"Science and technology connects now with virtually everything," said Lane, who now teaches at Rice University. "But what does the public think about science?"

Lane said the National Science Board takes polls every two years to gauge public knowledge of and attitudes toward scientific issues. In the last one, he said, 80 percent of those polled said the government should fund scientific research simply to increase knowledge and that science and technology is good for society. Ninety percent are moderately interested in science, following science news in the media.

But only 17 percent feel they are well-informed about scientific matters, and 30 percent feel they are poorly informed, he said.

"So what does the public know about science?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, quite a lot of people, 70 percent, know that oxygen comes from plants; they know that continents drift over millions of years, that light travels faster than sound, that the earth goes around the sun, and that all radioactivity is not made by humans.

"But fewer than half know that humans did not live with dinosaurs, that it takes the earth a year to go around the sun, that electrons are smaller than atoms, that antibiotics do not kill viruses, that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves," he said. Just over 10 percent of the public can correctly define what a molecule is.

"How many can define DNA? Twenty-nine percent -- but they don't know it's a molecule. Thirty-three percent of the public believes in astrology, and 50 percent believe in extra-sensory perception and extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting earth.

"So we have a problem," he said, eliciting chuckling from his audience of researchers in the cutting-edge science of nanotechnoloy attending a symposium at Rice.

Lane, an atomic physicist, went on to assert that science and technology are advancing faster than the ability of the public and policy-makers to easily accommodate.

"The pace of progress in science and technology is just stunning. But the wheels of policy grind very slowly, at least in our country," he said, citing as an example outdated U.S. patent laws which make the job of the Patent Office increasingly difficult in the high-tech age, as well as international trade and environmental protection laws.

"On the matter of public attitudes, we also face problems. In fields of science which touch directly the lives, values and, in many cases, the religious views of people, there are rising worries, and there are outright efforts to shut down research," he said, notably research into human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.

A new area of concern may well be nanotechnology, the creation of man-made products at the atomic scale. While many scientists have hailed the technology for its potential in cleaning up environmentally spoiled areas, others have warned of great potential risks to the environment as well.

"The more we know, the more we find we need to know," Lane said, particularly in the area of global climate change. While the scientific community is nearly in universal agreement that global warming is caused in large part by human activity, there are often wide discrepancies in the data disseminated by scientists through the media.

"There's a lot of work being done to reduce the uncertainties of climate change. Until we do that, it's too easy for misinformation to be circulated. It's too easy for governments who really don't want to deal with climate change to take head-in-the-sand responses to these problems," he said.

Lane further asserted that "public policy, including environmental and health policy, is made in a political environment. But thoughtful change comes slowly, and misinformation is often the tool of choice." He said that the "laws" of public policy change, often resembling Isaac Newton's laws of motion dealing with mass and inertia.

"Much of the problem is the glacial pace at which policy change takes place -- the time it takes to change a law or regulation," he said. "We tend to blame the lawyers. Well, I don't want to totally give that up, but it's more complicated than that. We're talking about changing a whole culture, a way of thinking about what's going on in the environment.

"The general public needs to know more about science and technology -- what's exciting about it, why we're doing what we're doing, and how it connects with peoples' lives and makes them better; and if there are risks, what are those risks, and what it is we're going to do about it," he said.

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