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I couldn't agree more with Rees Kassen's article "Who speaks for science? Experience from Canada" (Jan. 2013, p. 15). It is scientists themselves who are primarily responsible for the failure of elected officials to pay attention to policy-relevant scientific results. We need better ways for scientists to engage with elected officials, and scientists need to head up the effort to establish such engagement. This kind of effort is central to the mission of our Forum on Physics and Society.
But there is another needed ingredient. Science education of the general public is an even bigger part of the picture, although here the effort required is broader and the payback is years in the future, as each new generation becomes more scientifically literate. Nearly all of Canada's Members of Parliament got whatever scientific knowledge and enthusiasm (or lack of such) they have from Canada's schools. The same goes for most of their parents, for the journalists who report the news to MPs and others, and for the Canadian citizens who elect parliament--citizens whose opinions ultimately determine Canadian public policy. Do Canadian scientists participate significantly in the effort to provide science education to the public? Do American scientists?
In the United States, one huge stumbling block to greater science literacy is the gap between research and teaching in our research universities. There is substantial evidence that the scientific literacy courses taken by non-science students at American colleges are surprisingly effective in raising our nation's level of scientific literacy. Most other nations don't teach such “general education” science courses, and their scientific literacy levels are measurably poorer for it. Yet there is essentially zero encouragement for physics faculty at U.S. research universities to develop or teach such courses, and in fact the inducements are negative because serious involvement in such teaching can detract from the all-consuming and institutionally-demanded effort to obtain grants, PhD students, and research prestige. Scientists need to be more fully involved in science education. One of the many reasons is that the issues our Forum is interested in, issues such as energy, environment, nuclear weapons dangers, pseudoscience, and the scientific process, can be included within K-16 science courses. In fact, the scientific process — i.e. rational evidence-based thinking — should be the bottom line in all introductory science teaching. The poor public policy decisions that result from our failure to adequately teach such topics are all around us.
University of Arkansas
Art Hobson is author of Physics: Concepts & Connections (Pearson/Addison-Wesley, 5th edition, 2010), a physics literacy textbook for non-science college students that emphasizes social issues and modern physics.