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ELSI Panel Discusses Scientific Literacy, Scientists' Obligations to Public

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The public's scientific literacy comes from education, and education can take many forms, including what people learn in school, what they read in the news, and what they see on television. Researchers can support scientific literacy through each of those endeavors, said participants in the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications session at the Biology of Genomes Meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, NY, in May.

"How do stories in the media influence the public's understanding of science? What does the public need to understand today about genomics for civic scientific literacy? What is the responsibility of scientists to enhance scientific and genomics literacy?" asked the National Human Genome Research Institute's Vence Bonham, who led the ELSI session.

The University of Michigan's Jon Miller has sought to quantify the public's scientific literacy. In 1957, the National Association of Science Writers and the Rockefeller Foundation undertook a survey of US adults to see what they knew about science, and, in the 1970s, Miller aimed to recreate that survey. As the survey from the 1950s focused on the popular science of that time — strontium, fluoridation, and the Salk vaccine — Miller developed a new questionnaire focused on scientific fundamentals. "What I set out to do was to measure scientific literacy, not as a retrospective measurement, but as the possession of set of tools that allows you to become functional in keeping up with whatever the story is," he said at Biology of Genomes.

He developed an Index of Civic Scientific Literacy and people who receive a score of 70 or higher on it are considered to be scientifically literate. Between 1988 and 2008, the percent of scientifically literate adults in the US increased from 10 percent to 28 percent. In addition, Generation X adults scored better in 2008, with 44 percent literacy. However, Miller added that there is a gap in scientific literacy as people who do not attend college do not have as much grounding in science.

Additionally, scores on Miller's Index of Biological Literacy have increased from 12 percent to 18 percent during the past 20 years. Looking specifically at the concept of DNA, Miller noted that literacy has increased slightly — from 22 percent to 34 percent. "Thanks perhaps to [the television drama] CSI and other things, people have gotten the idea that DNA has to do not just with crime, but with inheritance," he said.

Miller also examined how different variables, including education and secondary learning resources, like the media and museums, affect biological literacy. He said that both are needed, but an educational foundation is necessary to understand what is in the newspaper or in an exhibit.

Hollywood also sees itself as an educator, to an extent, added Wayne Grody from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has advised a number of television and film productions, including The Nutty Professor, Life Goes On, and Heroes. Screenwriters often want to get the science right, he says, so long as it does not interfere with the story they want to tell.

"I don't know if you'd say Hollywood has done a good or a bad job of educating the public. It certainly has power to reach lots and lots of people," Grody said. He added that researchers anywhere could be called to consult on a TV show or movie, as he has.

Miller also offered suggestions on how to communicate with the public. He advised researchers to speak with journalists about their work as they would to non-major college sophomores, to speak with friendly and neutral interest groups, and to their representatives and senators.

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