Public Understanding of Science:
A Literature Review Prepared by:
Mika Cohen Jones
John H. Falk
Carol Lynn Alpert
With contributions from Hava Contini
Institute for Learning Innovation
Annapolis, MD August 2002
In April 2001, the Museum of Science in Boston launched the Current Science & Technology Center, an effort to address leading edge research for school and public audiences and to provide depth and context for science and technology stories in the news within a museum context and through various outreach methods. This experiment is one of the first of its kind in any informal science education institute anywhere and is the first to combine a daily schedule of live presentations, short-term exhibits, web and new media. Already, the effort has been recognized as a “Best Practice in Communicating Science and Technology to the Public” by a Department of Energy and National Institute of Standards and Technology panel, and has been awarded the gold “MUSE” award for media and technology in science centers by a committee of the American Association of Museums.
Health science programming in the CS&T Center is researched, produced and delivered to public and school audiences by a dedicated staff in partnership with selected New England area medical and public health schools, teaching hospitals, and biomedical research institutes. This Health Science Education Partnership is funded by SEPA grant #15653-01 from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health. The Museum of Science (MOS), in collaboration with the Institute for Learning Innovation (Institute), has initiated a multi-year evaluation effort designed to support the Current Science & Technology Center and its Health Science Education Partnership through (1) the monitoring and evaluation of CS&T’s several modes of education and outreach; (2) the establishment of a baseline understanding of how a consortium of research organizations working with a major science museum can help facilitate public interest in and understanding of research and stimulate further learning and dialogue, and (3) a comprehensive assessment of the efficacy of the the CS&T project as a whole, and the HSEP partnership in particular
Background and Description of the Current Science & Technology Center In recent years, informal science education centers such as science museums have taken an increasingly important leadership role in complementing the role of school curricula and the popular media in informing K-12 students and the public on areas of scientific knowledge and research.
However, with the expansion of the public and privately funded science and technology enterprise and the growing pace of acquisition of knowledge in all fields of science and technology (largely due to advances in technology and computing), it has become increasingly difficult to keep science curricula up-to-date as well as science museum exhibits, which, because of their long-standing emphasis on interactivity, require years to plan and prototype and build. The Current Science & Technology Center at the Museum of Science was an attempt to develop a new exhibit paradigm for science museums in consonance with these new conditions, where the investment would go into a media and infotech-heavy infrastructure to support rapid updating of exhibits, presentations, and digital content, and funding sufficient staff to develop and produce new content in response to recent research and science news.
With that aim, the Museum of Science built a high-tech presentation stage equipped with instant access to digital graphics, video, live communications links, and other visualization tools. The exhibit area was furnished with flexible, reconfigurable kiosks, and a networked system of distributed software allowing for daily updating of content. The CS&T Center also launched a website and has begun preparing for cablecasting through New England News. To provide for the staffing necessary to research and develop new content weekly, the Museum sought grants and research partnerships with government-funded research centers. The most comprehensive of these partnerships, the Health Science Education Partnership, was funded for five years by the SEPA program at the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health, in the first year that informal science learning centers were encouraged to apply to participate full-scale in the program.
The Current Science &TechnologyCenter’s Health Science Education Partnership was formed with the overall goal of enhancing public understanding of current health science research and its findings. The program’s partners established specific target audiences for their outreach efforts: the general public and school group visitors to the museum over the age of twelve, and general audiences reached through programs, websites, New England Cable News and other outreach efforts. Across the scope of the activities associated with the partnership, program partners seek to accomplish the following content goals:
Increase public understanding of significant areas of current research in biomedicine, biotechnology, and public health, as well as the implications of such research.
Encourage citizens to consider research findings in making healthy lifestyle choices.
Interest K-12 students in pursuing careers in these fields.
Foster an informed and continuing public discussion on the social and ethical ramifications of new research in the life sciences.
Not explicitly stated, but certainly an important possible outcome, is enhanced public support for funding health science research seen to be in the public interest.
The Process Goals of the Current Science & Technology Health Science Education Partnership are:
Develop a highly successful and duplicable model for educating the public and K-12 students in the methods, directions and findings of contemporary biomedical and public health research.
Explore new means of partnering with research institutions in creating programming that brings the excitement of research at the cutting edge to broad and diverse audiences.
Develop methods of evaluation that contribute to continuing development, refinement, and improvement of the educational model.
Report on and disseminate findings widely to the national community of science and technology centers, science educators, and research institutions.
Focus of the Phase I Evaluation
The Institute for Learning Innovation (Institute), an Annapolis MD-based non-profit educational research organization, was contracted to provide evaluation services in support of the CS&T project across multiple years. The first phase of evaluation focused on establishing a baseline related to the public’s understanding of science and research and a survey of the current “state of the art” in techniques for presenting current research to the public . To that end, the Institute for Learning Innovation conducted this in-depth literature review, with the aim of (1) identifying where and how people learn science and technology related concepts, as well as factors that influence the public’s interests and attitudes toward science and technology (2) providing some general sense of the public’s level of scientific literacy, primarily in the health and life sciences, and(3) reviewing other existing science-center based attempts to inform public and K-12 audiences on current research. Ultimately, Institute researchers were able to derive general recommendations on ways to present current scientific information to a general interest audience.
PUBLIC LEARNING ARENAS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF SCIENCE INTERESTS
A few emerging patterns Science and technology education has been a priority in the United States for close to 50 years. In consort with these national priorities, researchers have been increasingly interested in investigating the public’s attitude towards and knowledge of science (National Science Board, 1998; 2000; 2002). These studies can be categorized into four main types:
Studies reporting how and where people learn science.
Studies reporting the public’s attitudes and interest in science.
Studies reporting public scores on a variety of tests of science knowledge.
Studies reporting public attentiveness toward science and technology.
Unfortunately, few researchers have attempted to connect how and where people learn or acquire their science attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors to the context of people’s lives. Based on the research that has been conducted, however, several patterns are clear. First, adults in their post formal-education years may derive much, if not most, of their understanding of science from free-choice settings (National Science Board, 1998; Falk & Coulson, 2001). A large percentage of the specific knowledge individuals acquire during formal schooling wanes over time unless it is periodically practiced or renewed, although some of the more general knowledge may be retained even over a long period of time. The specifics are continuously renewed by sources of information primarily provided by such free-choice sources as television, newsprint, books and museums. This places the free-choice learning sector as the main actor in setting the general public’s agenda in terms of science and technology.
Second, people report that they have high levels of interest in science-related topics, and their interests and motivations in specific science topics tend to vary depending on both their prior knowledge and the connections people are able to make between various science topics and the reality of their daily lives. What follows is a detailed description of studies and findings related to each of these general themes.
Strategies for learning science and technology related concepts The free-choice sector, in particular the popular media, sets the agenda for public understanding of science. Before data on people’s science literacy could be interpreted, it was important to understand how people receive their information about science outside the K-16 classroom. Who sets the agenda and who decides what topics of science are presented to the public? What are the rules and guidelines for the type of information made available to the public?
Although many educators typically discuss learning as if it occurred exclusively in schools, a great deal of research suggests that, in fact, learning occurs in many different arenas throughout a person’s lifetime. What is unclear is to what extent people are learning in these areas related to specific subjects. Although there are numerous sources for acquiring knowledge, it seemed valuable to sort them into three broad educational sectors (after Falk, 2002; Falk & Dierking, 2002): school, work, and free-choice learning. The free-choice learning sector affords people the opportunity for lifelong, voluntary, intrinsically motivated and largely self-chosen and self-controlled learning. Included within the free-choice sector are television, books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, science centers, museums, zoos, aquariums, youth and adult organizations, special interest community groups (e.g., environmental, health, issue-oriented), and all other venues and modes of communication that people can consult on a voluntary basis (Falk & Dierking, 2000; 2002).
People tend to acquire most of their knowledge and understanding of science outside of school. Specifically, the 1998 NSF report on the public’s attitude and knowledge of science and technology (National Science Board, 1998) states that “Americans get most of their information about public policy issues from television news and newspapers.” An astounding 68% of the US adult population reports that it watches TV news for at least one hour every day, while about 46% read a newspaper on a daily basis (Table 1). Another 28% listen to radio news for at least one hour a day. Newspaper and other print media are a more important source of information for people with higher levels of formal education, while the reverse is true for TV. Radio consumption is not impacted by levels of education.
About 15% of all Americans read at least one science magazine per month, while 53% reported to watch one science TV program during the same time. Almost twice as many men than women seem to read science-related magazines (20% versus 11%), and more than a quarter of those with college degrees and higher reported to read at least one science magazine per month, while just 14% of those who did not hold college degrees did so, and just 9% of those without a high school degree did. In other words, reading about science in magazines is strongly influenced by gender and levels of formal education. Not so watching science on TV, at least when this is measured as percentage of the population watching science on TV rather than total time spend watching TV (see below). There is hardly any difference between the genders, or the level of formal schooling. If TV can be consumed easily by watching shows on the Discovery Channel, Animal Channel or PBS, there seems to be not much of a self-selecting process going on, indicating that the rate in which people watch TV shows is little indicative of their true interest in science, or that the programming on TV is of different character than reports in science magazines.
Table 1: Public use of various sources of information, by selected characteristics: 1997 and 2001 (Percentages)
Less than HS
Read newspaper every day (1997).
Read newspaper every day (2001).
Read at least one newsmagazine every day (1997).
New magazine read regularly (2001).
Read at least one science magazine per month (1997).
Science fiction books or magazines read regularly (2001).
Watch TV news for at least one hour every day (1997).
Watch TV news every day (2001).
Listen to radio news for at least one hour every day.
Watch at least one science TV program per month.
Public library, museums
One visit per year to a public library (1997).
One or more visits per year to a public library (2001).
Five visits per year to a public library (1997).
Five or more visits per year to a public library (2001).
Visit science museums, zoos, etc. at least once a year (2001).
Purchase at least one book per year.
Purchase at least one science book per year.
Sample size (1997)
Sample size (2001)
* Answers by 16,028 Europeans as part of the Eurobarometer 55.2 (December 2001). Source: European Commission, 2001.
Adapted from Science and Engineering Indicators, 1998 and 2002.
Americans spend about as much time watching TV and listening to the radio per year as they spend at work (Table 2). TV consumption is strongly correlated with levels of formal education and levels of math and science education. While those who did not graduate from high school watch almost 1500 hours of TV per year, this number drops to less than half for those with college degrees and higher. TV news consumption follows a similar trend, and is overall fairly high with about 432 hours per year on average per person. Interestingly, science TV (average time: 72 hours) does follow a somewhat different pattern. In contrast to TV and news in general, those men who watch science TV spend mmore time doing that than women (82 versus 62 hours, despite the fact that the incidence is of watching TV is not higher in men). HS graduates are the most ardent consumers of science TV, followed by college graduates, those who completed graduate school and finally, those who did not complete high school.
There is a trend for more highly educated respondents to read more copies of newspapers per year, but the difference between various sub-samples is small.
So far one might be inclined to believe that higher levels of education indicate less influence by the media. This is true only to a degree. Those with higher levels of education prove to be more ardent readers of newspapers and science magazines. The main difference between various levels of formal education is the balance between reading and watching (science) news. Again, men consume science magazines at more than twice the rate then women.
Clearly, levels of education and gender matter in terms of where people receive their information from. TV is the news source of choice for people with less than college education, while printed news and magazine style news that is less driven by current events, and allows for more in-depth reporting is preferred by college graduates and higher.
Table 2: Public use of information, on an annual basis, by gender and level of formal education: 1997 and 2001
Adapted from Science and Engineering Indicators, 1998 and 2002.
Similar results were found in a study of Los Angeles residents (Falk, Brooks & Amin, 2001). Individuals were asked to indicate which sources they used to keep current in science (Table 3). For this population, books (not for school) emerged as a more important source than television, but the popular media was not far behind along with life experiences such as personal health issues and the acquisition of information needed for day to day living. Museums (including science centers, zoos, aquariums, etc.) emerged as statistically comparable to schooling as a source of continuing public education.
Table 3: Ranking of Sources Relied Upon “Some or A Lot” or “Not At All” for Learning About Science and Technology (N = 1007)
From: Falk, Brooks & Amin, 2001
The fact that most Americans receive their scientific information from popular media, in particular the news media, has profound impacts on what it is the public learns in terms of science, and how science is understood by the public. [In fact, CS&T Center aims to tap into this by providing more in-depth and scientifically sound information about health and science/technology related issues currently covered by the media]. Journalists use the news values of timeliness, proximity, prominence, consequence (importance), and human interest to judge whether a science-related story is worth reporting on (MacDougall, 1977). These are, however, not necessarily criteria scientists would use to judge the importance or significance of “science news”. News media also tend to cover dramatic events rather than chronic issues (which is what most environmental and medical issues tend to be). News stories need a “hook” or “news peg” to hang the story, therefore, the media has an intrinsic bias towards catastrophe. There is also a profound difference between news on TV and news in print, as one of the important selection criteria for TV is that a news story be visually appealing on screen; a criterion that leads to a strong dependence on film material that has entertainment value (Sachsman, 1997).
For instance, visitors to the American Museum of Natural History, when asked about their interest in specific infectious diseases, indicated that they were most interested in learning about Ebola, AIDS, and hepatitis (Giusti, 1996). That Ebola was among the top three infectious diseases mentioned by the general public indicates that highly publicized events, such as the outbreak of Ebola in some African villages, strongly influenced public perception.
While the media has been widely criticized for its choice and presentation of science news, some of the elements that “sell” science in the mass media might also be relevant for museums and other free-choice learning environments since the logic of drawing attention and keeping the public attuned applies in similar ways.
Harz and Chappel (1997, p.93; cited in National Science Board, 2000) note that “...Two things...are vital and...found in nearly all good stories about science: relevance and context. Since so much of science is incremental, the reporter and the public need special help in placing research in the context of the big picture.” An often-forgotten aspect of the way the mass media reports science stories is the fact that few editors or reporters have any formal training in science [in stark contrast to staff at the CS&T, and other such efforts]. Although half the journalists who participated in a First Amendment Center survey had covered science, only six percent reported having science degrees. Hence, journalists are not much different from the general public when it comes to attitudes and knowledge about science.
News decision makers may decide not to cover science stories. These “gatekeepers” may believe that their readers or listeners are uninterested in science stories and/or will not be able to understand them; in that they may allow the bad experiences they may have had with high school or college science courses to influence their decision-making about what science news to print or air. Many journalists may also think that, because their publications or programs are devoting what seems to them sufficient space or time to stories about medicine and health translates into an adequate job of covering science in general.
Most of the above-mentioned reasons for why science topics may not be covered as much as they may deserve can easily be countered with better professional support for journalists, and awareness raising among the ranks of reporters and editors who influence whether and how science is covered in their medium. Reality suggests a different causation – economics. There is the prevailing belief in the news business that science sections fail to attract advertisers and that people who read science news are not large purchasers of the type of consumer products most heavily advertised in newspapers (Suplee, 1999).
The mass media is not only a major source of science information for US citizens, it also plays a large role in informing the citizenry in member countries of the European Union: Television (76%), written media (60%), and radio (35%) ranked as the most important sources for, for instance, environmental information (European Commission, 1999). Interestingly enough, Europeans seem to pay considerable attention to what their friends and neighbors can teach them (27%). Conversations as a “peer source” of information ranked fourth in most European countries. By contrast, in the Los Angeles study, peer sources ranked sixth (Falk, et al., 2001). However, these numbers have to be interpreted within the framework that many people do not pay attention to science in the media to begin with. In December 2001, 61% of 16,082 Europeans interviewed as part of the annual Eurobarometer survey agreed with the statement “I rarely read articles related to science and technology” (European Commission, 2001).