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Study: Science Literacy Needs Definition, Does Not Affect Attitudes

August 18, 2016
By: Jason Rittenberg

A recent National Institutes of Health-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences identifies how “science literacy” has been defined in research and the role this construct plays in attitudes about scientific research and funding. The 138-page report finds that science literacy has been measured many different ways but that the concept does not seem to directly affect attitudes toward science generally or in specific subjects.

Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences investigates 20 definitions of science literacy used in various studies, as well as numerous definitions of potentially-related constructs, and determines that the term is not well-defined in the literature. Despite noting that the “predominant conception” of science literacy has been individual knowledge, the authors want the term to include appreciation for a broader set of process-related concepts, such as peer review.

The lack of a consistent definition of “science literacy” does not itself spell trouble for science and research. The report notes that global attitudes toward science and research funding are generally positive, a finding that was also evident in a recent polling project by SSTI. However we want to talk about science, people will largely embrace the conversation.

In fact, a high baseline of support may be part of the reason why science literacy does not seem to affect attitudes very strongly—a limited marginal opportunity for improvement provides few opportunities to observe effects. Another factor affecting the importance of science literacy is that attitudes toward controversial types of science, including nuclear power, climate change and genetically modified foods, appear to be controlled more by other values and beliefs than by support for science. Taken together, the report suggests that science literacy is prevalent but relatively unimportant to individuals—and is therefore also insignificant as a channel for influencing broader attitudes or actions.

A reasonable reader might wonder if “science literacy” has been measured in a variety of structures and appears to have little bearing on public support, does the definition matter? The short answer is maybe. Academics need clear constructs to fairly compare methodologies and results, and public support for a policy can vary greatly depending on the exact language used. In this sense, the lack of a common definition of “science literacy” is something to be sorted out through further research—or addressed through deliberate policy and communications work.

The authors lean toward the latter solution for definitional inconsistency. The report proposes a factual- and conceptual-based definition including the following:

  • Understanding of scientific practices (e.g., hypothesis testing);
  • Content knowledge; and,
  • Understanding science as a social process (e.g., “the role of peer review”).

The desire to define “science literacy” as more than knowledge may make sense from a theoretical standpoint, but the decision is particularly interesting in contrast to two other terms discussed by the authors. Unlike scientific literacy, foundational knowledge and health literacy are reported to have greater methodological consistency and measurable effects on attitudes and actions in academic literature.

Theory-driven definitions are certainly not rare, but they can be subject to greater challenge that evidence-based definitions. Nonetheless, the inclusion of peer review as a core piece of science literacy seems to have strong support—this concept was affirmed in the first section of the S.3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, introduced earlier this summer. If core concepts of a newly-defined “science literacy” make their way into legislation, the implications could affect science and innovation practitioners for some time, even if public attitudes still fail to take notice.