Tuesday, September 07, 2010

New JoNR article: Seeing the intrinsic value of modern science ... and why it matters for policy choices

I have argued before that an innate belief in the value of empirical science among lay publics is critical for the long-term health of the scientific endeavor. And by that I do not mean blind public buy-in to emerging technologies or their applications. Instead, I am referring to a concept that my colleague Dominique Brossard at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has called deference toward scientific authority.

She has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public.  Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. Trust in science, in other words, is mostly situational rather than predispositional.  And the climate change or oil spills of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow. The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large.

The most recent analyses of some of our CNS-ASU's national survey data (led by Prof. Shirley Ho at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University) provide very powerful support for the importance of building long-term, predispositional support for science among U.S. publics. A new article in Journal of Nanoparticle Research (posted as an online-first version today) shows that deference toward scientific authority remained one of the most powerful predictors of people's willingness to support public spending on nanotechnology, even after controlling for other long-terms traits and variables, such as lay publics' levels of religious guidance, trust in scientists, and willingness to process new information.

All of this, of course, further underlines the importance of K-12 education and informal science education, both of which are likely to have a tremendous impact on the importance that lay publics attribute to modern science as a foundation of U.S. economic growth and global competitiveness.  The potential of K-12 to promote science, therefore, may be less a function of conveying cutting-edge scientific findings, especially since the knowledge many of us acquired in high-school or even college-level science classes is long outdated. Instead, K-12 and informal science education is much more about cultivating the belief in modern science and scientific principles as a prerequisite for the long-term economic health of this country.