Scientific literacy

Monitoring workshop: vegetation plot practicePublic engagement in science is a hot topic highlighted by the ‘Nation of Curious Minds’ project and the National Objectives Framework component of the Freshwater Reform package. For both, the desire is for an informed public, one that is relatively scientifically literate, this is, able to grasp scientific concepts and processes.

Interesting discussions ensue when the public doesn’t understand fundamentals about an ecosystem – I recall a lake workshop where the diverse participants (including local residents, recreational users, government agency staff, NGO reps) were asked to formulate a vision. Incompatible results ensued: a lake with clear water for local residents but stocked with Koi carp for the enjoyment of recreational fishers. Koi carp are vacuum cleaners minus the bag – as bottom-feeders, whatever they suck up gets dispersed into the water rendering it soupy at best. There will no doubt be plenty of incompatible approaches put forward between stakeholders when National Objectives Framework discussions take place.

One question I have is whether being involved with a citizen science program actually does increase scientific literacy. I’ve met folk with tremendous ecological knowledge and understanding that have grown from their environmental monitoring activities. A more complete definition of scientific literacy from the OECD includes competency to:
• explain phenomena scientifically
• evaluate and design scientific enquiry
• interpret data and evidence scientifically

One US-based study (Crall et al. 2013) for example found improvements in participants’ scientific literacy and knowledge through being part of a citizen science project. There were however caveats: a lack of similar studies meant that results were project specific. The authors’ recommendation was for developing a new survey that was calibrated with the pre-existing attitudes, behaviour, degrees of knowledge amongst the “relatively sophisticated” study participants. By contrast another (US-based) study (Brossard et al. 2005), found the opposite: their participants had no statistically significant change in their understanding of the scientific process from their citizen science project experiences.

What do these studies show us? – That scientific literacy is actually difficult to measure because it relies on what the OECD calls the knowledge of scientific content. However the US and Europe do at least have some national measures of scientific literacy among the wider public. Here in NZ it seems that most measures rely on school and university results.

A lot of groups in my study are engaged in regular monitoring and write submissions to government agencies on environmental matters. There is extraordinary knowledge though whether it’s actually scientific literacy in accordance with OECD definitions who knows? The interest these groups have expressed in future water quality monitoring may bode well though if they choose to be involved with National Objectives Framework decision-making. Their knowledge may make valuable contributions, well…. if their regional councils decide that collaboration is indeed the way forward.

Crall et al. 2013. The impacts of an invasive species citizen science training program on participant attitudes, behavior, and science literacy. Public Understanding of Science 22: 745-764

Brossard et al. 2005. Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education 27 (9): 1099-1121

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