Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2010 Science and Engineering Indicators: Do attendance gaps in science and technology museums also lead to widening information gaps?

Despite increasing levels of informal education aimed at communicating with the U.S. public about nanotechnology, recent studies have shown that there has not been much change in the overall level of nanotechnology knowledge reported by public opinion surveys.  Yet, most of these studies have explored the changes in knowledge levels for the public as a whole without analyzing the differences across different types of publics. Data from Chapter 7 of the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 (published just a few days ago) now suggest that we may be in the middle of a widening rift between different groups of citizens: those with lower levels of formal education and those who go to college. 

Education-based knowledge gaps can be expected for a number of reasons. Most importantly, comparisons between the 2008 and 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators (based on data collections in 2006 and 2008, respectively) show that the percentage of Americans with at least some college education who attended a science and technology museum in the past year increased from 37% in 2006 to 48% . This is great news in many ways. But it stands in stark contrast to attendance figures among respondents who had not completed high school and who reported stable attendance of less than 10% in both years.

(Data from keynote presentation at the 2009 NISE Net annual meeting in San Francisco, CA; audio recording here.)

But are these gaps in outreach effectiveness mirrored in levels of public information about nanotechnology? And when I talk about levels of information, I do not mean self reported familiarity or other subjective self-reported assessments of information.  Instead, I am referring to the ability to correctly answer factual knowledge questions over time.  In a new piece in the current issue of The Scientist (see nanopublic post from January 11, 2010), ASU's Elizabeth Corley and I show that those respondents with at least a college degree displayed an increase in knowledge levels between 2004 and 2007 while respondents with education levels of less than a high school diploma had a significant decrease in nanotechnology knowledge levels between 2004 and 2007.

(Data from: Corley, E. A., & Scheufele, D. A. (2010). Outreach gone wrong?
When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist, 24(1), 22.)

Closing these informational gaps among public audiences is a necessity, especially in light of a projected 2009 U.S. budget that has reduced spending for 'educational and social dimensions' of nanotechnology to $33.5 million from $39.2 million in 2007. In a press release for UW, we outlined some strategies for tackling this problem:

"There is a real urgency to find ways of communicating effectively with all groups in society," says Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison and co-author of the study. "Unless we find ways to close these learning gaps, we will create two classes of citizens: those who are able to make informed consumer and policy choices about these new technologies, and those who simply can't."

But there is a silver lining. The study also found that the Internet is one of the most effective methods in closing gaps and informing the less educated about nanotechnology.

"Online and social media are some of the most promising tools for making sure we reach all members of the public with information about science and technology," says Scheufele, "and tools like Digg, Twitter, or Facebook will only become more important down the road."