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Scientific and Technological Literacy for Citizenship: What can we learn from the research and other evidence ?

Scientific and Technological Literacy for Citizenship: What can we learn from the research and other evidence ?

Edgar W.Jenkins,

Professor of Science Education Policy,

School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK


The need to promote a world community of scientifically and technologically literate citizens was regarded as urgent by the World Conference on Education for All held in Jomtien in 1990. The UNESCO Project 2000+, committed to developing appropriate structures and activities to foster scientific and technological literacy for all, in all the countries of the world, was a direct response to this need identified at the earlier World Conference. The various programmes, proposals and initiatives concerned with scientific and technological literacy in many different countries are, therefore, part of a global movement, although they are not, of course, necessarily associated directly with the UNESCO initiative. Some programmes, such as Project 2061 in the USA, involve large-scale and long-term curriculum development. Others, as in the science and technology components of the national curriculum in England and Wales or in New Zealand, attempt to promote the foundations of scientific and technological literacy at school level by statutory means.

Several features stand out from any scrutiny of developments thus far. Since they frame much of the rest of this paper, it is convenient to identify them at this point. The first is that scientific and technological literacy are slogans and not prescriptions for action. The word slogan is said to derive from two Gaelic words sluagh and gairm, meaning army and cry respectively. Not surprisingly, therefore, slogans are still invoked as something of a rallying cry for key ideas, serving as a convenient means of generating political, educational, social or financial support without the inconvenience of explaining the meaning of the terms involved. It is this imprecision and ambiguity of slogans which allow them to play a significant role in bringing about change. To dismiss scientific literacy as a myth, therefore, seems to me to rather miss the central point (Shamos 1995).

Secondly, as slogans, scientific and technological literacy, sustain multiple meanings and interpretations which change over time and undergo some shift in their relative importance. Such meanings and interpretations reflect different rationales and they show a marked dependence on context.

Thirdly, the coupling of scientific and technological literacy has now become commonplace, despite a substantial volume of scholarly writing which would make important distinctions between the scientific and the technological as fields of human endeavour.

Fourthly, the promotion of scientific and technological literacy cannot be seen as the exclusive responsibility of schools or other agencies concerned with formal education. Indeed, as museums, hands-on and interactive science centres, science clubs, science study groups, radio, television, the print media and a variety of interactive technologies, some linked on a global scale, come to play an increasing part in this promotion, the role of formal education and its relationship with informal and non-formal provision, becomes more problematic and in need of clarification.

Finally, in this introduction, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the term public understanding of science points towards a separation of science from general culture. In some contexts, this separation can be dated with relative precision. In England, for example, it is related to the growing professionalisation of science which gathered pace during the second half of the nineteenth century and which was marked by, among much else, a devaluing of the popularisation of science in favour of research publication within, and for, the rapidly developing scientific community. It is also related to a tacit social contract established between academic science and society which, in return for financial and public support, promised significant, but unspecified, benefits at some, equally unspecified, point in the future. There were, of course, important differences in the ways in which science was accommodated within different societies and cultures. As an example, the institutionalized commitment of Napoleonic France to science and technology has left a legacy which, to this today, means that, at least at the rhetorical level, the term public understanding of science in France has significantly different implications from those associated with its use in Anglophone contexts.

There are, of course, other dimensions to the relationship between science and the wider community. Some of these predate the emergence of modern science and they relate to the relative importance to be attached to intellect, reason, and reductionism, rather than empathy, imagination and holism, in trying to make sense of everyday phenomena. Stereotypically, the scientist is presented as objective, dispassionate and the epitome of rationality, a portrait which led A.N.Whitehead to refer to a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts (Whitehead 1929: 245). Arguably, it is issues associated with this celibacy of the intellect which lie at the heart of re-engaging contemporary science with the wider community.


The arguments for scientific and technological literacy can be categorized in ways that reflect the various advocates who seek to promote such literacy in curriculum, institutional or other terms. The advocates are likely to include governments and other organizations concerned with formal or other means of education, the media, the professional communities of scientists and technologists, industrialists, the business world, community groups, teachers, and other educators and individuals. Although the form and relative political influence of these different groups upon science and technology education vary from one country to another and show some dependence upon time, several broad categories are readily identifiable.

For many engaged professionally in science and technology, scientific and technological literacy offer the hope of disseminating to a wider public an improved understanding of their day-to-day work. The longer term objective, of course, is that of strengthening public, and in a broad sense, political, support for scientific and technological activities. The case is rarely presented simply in terms of the benefit to science and technology but rather by reference to national economic prosperity, wealth creation, raising the quality of decision making or enriching the life of individuals. Already, therefore, the rationales include economic instrumentalism, the defence of democracy and the promotion of a liberal education.

Isaac Asimov has added to these by claiming that Without an informed public, scientists will not only be no longer supported financially, they will be actively persecuted(Asimov 1984). While the reference to active persecution might seem extreme, Asimovs concern should not be dismissed, the moreso since, in the dozen years since it was first voiced, criticism of science and technology has become more vigorous and strident. Appleyard has referred to science as spiritually corrosive and presenting us with the trick of beginning by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ending by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked (Appleyard 1992: 2 and 248)., The anti-science phenomenon has been analysed by, among others, Holton (1992) while Postman has explored the surrender of culture of technology (Postman1993). Not surprisingly, writing of this kind has prompted some equally forthright and polemical responses (see, for example, Gross and Levitt 1994), some of which related directly to school science education (e.g. Matthews 1995). An indication of the current sensitivity of the scientific community in the United Kingdom to its public estimation is the attack by Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford, on television programmes concerned with the paranormal which he describes as elevating the need to entertain above a commitment to scientific rigour (Brown 1996: 31).

A less dramatic position than that indicated by Asimov and one perhaps more readily recognized by practicing scientists is that widespread scientific literacy underpins the political support required both for the successful prosecution of science in an industrialized or industrializing country and for the ability of the scientific community to counter opposition from those perceived as hostile to the endeavour in which they are engaged, e.g. creation scientists, animal rights groups. The achievements of science and technology and the dominance of scientific rationality as an approach to the solution of a wide range of problems also suggest another way in which science itself might benefit from a more scientifically literate population. This is that greater scientific literacy may act as a counter to the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations engendered by past triumphs, i.e. a greater understanding of science and, more particularly, of its limitations, might diminish the risk of widespread disenchantment with, or even hostility towards, science, the rudiments of which as noted above, are already in evidence.

In many countries, science has a place, sometimes a compulsory place, in formal schooling, although not necessarily for all students. The position of technology is usually different, with many education systems seeking to transform long-established vocational programmes into more general courses in technology. In seeking this broader and potentially more secure place for technology within education, some professional technologists have argued for technological activity as a distinct third culture, to be added to the arts and the sciences as a component of a liberal education. Although the argument is essentially educational, the technology community is also seeking to enhance its professional image and standing with a wider public and, thereby, the political support which it is able to command.

For the defenders of participatory democracy, scientific and technological literacy offers a means of challenging and, if necessary, countering scientific and technological expertise. Scientific and technological literacy conceived in these terms has to do with accountability and, in particular, the accountability of expert (lites to other and wider constituencies. While such a rationale is difficult to oppose in principle, it present formidable problems, not least in giving substance to the notion of participation and in establishing mechanisms for facilitating it. Earlier, if not always successful, attempts to engage the public in open discussion of aspects of science or technology policy include consensus conferences in Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the science shops in the Netherlands and elsewhere, the Science for Citizens and the Ethics and Values in Science and Technology Programmes in the USA, the Living Science Space Initiative in Brazil, the study groups set up in Sweden to promote public understanding of civilian nuclear policy and the many informal and ad hoc self-help and protest groups set up in many countries of the world of which the Kerala Peoples Science Movement in India is a familiar example.

Somewhat independent of, but underpinning, the claim that scientific and technological literacy are essential concomitants of effective citizenship in a modern democracy is the idea that an understanding of science and technology needs no extrinsic justification since they are themselves important cultural activities. In other words, science and technology offer distinct and powerful ways of understanding, and operating upon, the natural world which justify their claim to a seat at the table of those who would claim to be liberally educated. In the case of science, this claim has historically been couched in terms of scientific method. As far as technology is concerned, the form of the argument is yet to be settled.

For some advocates of scientific and technological literacy, the case rests principally upon the contribution which science and technology can make not simply to wealth creation but also to sustainable development. Such development is not a concept confined to countries with a low per capita income since, in all cases, the emphasis is on the modification of the biosphere and the application of human, financial and other resources to satisfy human needs and improve the quality of life. Central to such improvement is an emphasis on meeting the needs of the present without jeopardising those of generations yet to be born. However the challenges of translating a commitment to sustainable development into effective practical policies are formidable, the moreso since reliable data about a range of environmental issues are hard to obtain and often subject to revision.

In closing this section of this paper, it is appropriate to note that for some scholars, especially those writing from a feminist perspective or seeking to promote the beliefs of minority cultures within communities, enhanced scientific and technological literacy offers, as a minimum, a means of redressing some social, economic or other injustices and imbalances related to science and technology, and, at the other extreme, an opportunity for a radical overhaul of scientific and technological education. Feminist perspectives upon scientific and technological literacy are often closely related, conceptually an din other ways, to other critiques of science and technology, notably those which address cultural and racial issues. Thus, for some commentators in developing countries, scientific and technological literacy offer a means of rejecting at least some of the science and technology that has come to be regarded as an undesirable colonial legacy. From this perspective scientific and technological literacy relates to indigenous categories, idioms and traditions and places the social responsibility of scientists and technologists and the political issues surrounding science and technology at the centre of scientific and technological education.


The rationales outlined above rest upon, or entail, rather different understandings of scientific and/or technological literacy and they are commonly broad and proselytising in form and tone. Not surprisingly, therefore, the associated literature is replete with attempts to translate them into more specific statements of aims, goals, outcomes, abilities and attitudes which could be used to structure learning, teaching and assessment.



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