By Merrill Leffler
How well do citizens understand the basic problems that have led to the decline of Chesapeake Bay, the actions that are currently being taken, and those that may have to be taken as we head into the next century?
The answers to these questions appear to be mixed.
Several years ago, a public attitudes survey sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay revealed that citizens have "gotten" some messages, but missed others. For example, many of those questioned understood that the Chesapeake Bay is threatened by an overabundance of nutrients and chemical contaminants. But at the same time, a majority identified industry as a major cause of the Bays problems.
These views conflict with the widespread consensus among policy makers and scientists that the Bays major problems are due not primarily to the regions smokestacks or discharge pipes, but to runoff from diffuse sources – runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural and developed land such as suburban lawns and parking lots – as well as airborne pollution from automobiles and smokestacks that may be hundreds of miles away.
This consensus understanding has been broadcast widely and for some years – in newspapers, in newsletters, fact sheets, magazine articles, public television and, increasingly, on the Internet. In fact, the Bay region is awash in information designed for the average citizen – plain language explanations about nutrient overloading and related issues – that are coming from government and state agencies, environmental organizations, university laboratories and elsewhere.
There is a gap between what we have been learning from research and what a majority of citizens believe to be the underlying causes of pollution.
And yet, with all this information, there is a gap between what we have been learning from research for two decades and what a majority of citizens still believe to be the underlying causes of pollution. Closing the gap could well be critical to the success of the Bay restoration program – this is because controlling contaminants in the Chesapeake will, in the long run, depend on changes in individual, if not cultural, behavior.
Meanwhile, the business of the Chesapeake Bay Program continues, the keystone of which is reducing the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus by 40 percent from 1985 levels. The governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Mayor of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have reaffirmed this and other commitments to restore, and maintain, the health of the Chesapeake. These agreements have cost taxpayers many millions of dollars and will continue to cost millions for years to come.
The editors of When Science Becomes Culture, a recent book that surveys citizen understanding of science and technology in countries throughout the world, claim that "science and its accomplishments demand that each person be able to participate in the debates on the future of our society, or at least understand their implications, in order to be a full-fledged citizen." Is this so?
How important is it for all citizens to understand the scientific issues that influence public policy? Can the average person leave it to those who are more knowledgeable, to those experts who are already making decisions, namely, the resource managers, scientists, legislators, environmentalists and others who have a strong interest? Or if more people should be taking an active role, how can they be encouraged to do so?
A Public Appetite for Science
Almost since the beginning of modern science in the United States, scientists and their popularizers have engaged in promoting widespread understanding of scientific discoveries – from itinerant lecturers in the early 1800s who regaled their audiences on the wonders of science and technology to scientists such as Louis Agassiz later in the century. They spoke at public forums and wrote widely for the popular press – they were excited about the great advances that science and technology were making, and audiences had a large appetite for what these speakers had to say. Many believed that a scientific understanding of the world would not only lead to technical progress but social and moral progress as well.
If that ideal died in the trenches of World War I, public-minded scientists over these years – those who have made first-rate contributions to their fields – have continued speaking directly and enthusiastically to public audiences. Scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and the late Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas are only a few among the most prominent.
Science and technology have continued to fascinate large public audiences. According to the National Science Foundation, which has been surveying public attitudes and public understanding of science and technology for the last 20 years, "public interest in new scientific discoveries rose from [a mean index score of] 61 in 1979 to 70 in 1997. While 70 percent of those questioned expressed a high level of interest in medical discoveries, more than 50 percent answered that they were "very interested in environmental issues."
"Scientists have to take responsibility themselves for explaining their work to the public — they need to explain it in plain English."
These figures could be complemented by the volume of popular scientific enterprises: television programming (e.g., NOVA, National Geographic and Scientific American), special newspaper sections, non-fiction books, magazines, science and natural history museums, radio features. In this last half century, scientific communications has been a growth industry – from the journalists who cover science as their regular beat to scientific associations, universities and corporations that are producing more scientific information each day than can hardly be read, let alone digested, in several months.
Bruce Lewenstein in When Science Becomes Culture estimates that the federal government alone spends $100 million which it identifies as public communication of science and technology. Adding in the resources of television, industries and other media producers, Lewenstein, a Professor of Communications at Cornell University, puts the total annual outlay in the billions.
And yet, with all the "translation" of science and apparent widespread public interest, surveys of public understanding have revealed what are, to many, discouraging findings. In 1995, for example, NSF commissioned a nationwide survey to assess the understanding that adults have of basic facts – among the questions: does the oxygen we breathe come from plants; how long does it take for the earth to orbit the sun; are electrons smaller than atoms? Of the 2,000 participating adults, a little more than 20 percent correctly answered seven or more of the ten questions. Less than half knew that it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun.
As Senior Science Advisor to the President Neil Lane has pointed out, there is "a disconnect and discrepancy between the excitement about and the understanding of science."
That there is an apparent "disconnect" is not new news. Ever since C.P. Snow published The Two Cultures in 1948, a book that sounded alarms on the gulf between scientists and nonscientists, one crisis call after another has been rung pleading for radical improvement in scientific education, beginning in primary school, and for innovative techniques of communicating scientific information at all levels.
A Public Role for Scientists
In 1997, the First Amendment Center published what has become a widely-distributed report among academic scientists and research organizations, Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens Americas Future. Written by journalist Jim Hartz and physicist Rick Chappell, the report is the result of a roundtable meeting of scientists in 1996 and extensive surveys of scientists and journalists about the communication of science to the public.
One major conclusion of Worlds Apart is that most Americans dont understand the way science works because of the "inability of researchers to move from the jargon-filled laboratory into the real world." Some scientists are actively placing blame for the publics lack of understanding on themselves as well and are calling for active involvement by scientists in public education, not only because of the intrinsic intellectual interest of science, but because such knowledge is of critical importance to society itself.
Recently, for example, twenty prominent ecologists nationwide signed a letter to Science magazine claiming, "ecologists have a responsibility to humanity, one that we are not yet discharging adequately." While they acknowledge that understanding the world through science satisfies "natural human curiosity," their concern is that scientists must take an active role in "solving the human predicament."
Until now, they write, "good science consisted of...doing first-rate research and publishing it in the technical literature for the benefit of scientific colleagues." This will no longer be good enough, they write: "[what] must now be added by all scientists is informing the general public (and, especially taxpayers) of the relevance and importance of our work."
Jane Lubchenco, Professor of Zoology at Oregon State University and signatory of the Science letter, goes even further: in her presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she proposes a new "Social Contract" that calls on scientists to "communicate their knowledge and understanding widely in order to inform decisions of individuals and institutions."
University scientists in the Chesapeake Bay region have for years participated in policy forums, serving on committees and discussing the implications of their research. While the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has long had outreach programs in place that include advisory services, public information and environmental education, the Academy of Natural Science Environmental Research Center has recently begun developing active public programming. Still, many scientists are resistant when it comes to direct contact with citizens and the media.
Citizens who understand the scientific issues, and the processes of science itself, can make more informed decisions on public issues.
Long-time environmental reporter Tim Wheeler of the Baltimore Sun says that "scientists have to take responsibility themselves for explaining their work to the public – they need to explain it in plain English." Covering science is sometimes frustrating, Wheeler says. "Someone is doing interesting research but is afraid to talk to the press because theyve been burned in the past or think its unseemly." Scientists, he says "have to come down from the ivory tower and make more contact with the masses."
"There is a normal reticence scientists have in talking with the press," says Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "It is based on a natural conservatism but also on the experience of being poorly quoted." Nevertheless, he adds, "Our [scientific] culture has undervalued the responsibility to communicate with the public." Research and its results are, after all, the goal – success, not failure, is what scientists depend on in writing new proposals that will maintain their research and support the infrastructure it takes to do so.
It will take cultural changes in our community, Boesch says, such as increasing the emphasis on "service to society" in the faculty promotion and reward process – one avenue for doing this is to stress the value of scholarly contributions in "synthesis" and "application."
The importance of the link between scientists and the media was underscored during the 1997 outbreak of the dinoflagellate Pfiesteria piscicida in the Chesapeake Bay: coverage lit up like a firestorm, concentrating more fierce attention than any other event in the Bay. For weeks, major newspapers like the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post carried one or two stories a day; television led the evening news with the latest on Pfiesteria.
Boesch was a key spokesman on controversial issues related to the outbreak. As a scientist, he says, "Ive come to see the incredible importance of communications through public media. "The media," Boesch adds, "informs decision makers. My experience is that elected officials are extremely responsive to the scientific information they hear and read in the public media." And, he says, "they are more likely motivated to operate on that [information]." This is added reason, he says, why scientists have a responsibility in making sure it is done well.
Science for the Next Century
Many have argued that the ongoing enterprise of science itself has a vested interest in scientists securing or promoting citizen understanding, a view reflected most recently in a House Science committee report that claims "the single most important challenge" facing science and technology is bolstering popular support for public financing. But another view equates public understanding with empowerment: citizens who understand the scientific issues, and the processes of science itself, can make more informed decisions on public issues – they can also take a more active role in determining just what those public issues should be.
After all, says journalist Jon Franklin, we cannot separate science from the mainstream of our life: "Science is pervasive in our civic life . . . in our lives generally." The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting on neuroscience at the Baltimore Evening Sun, Franklin sums up the challenge we face as we move into the twenty-first century: "if science was ever a thing apart, a special way of living and of seeing things, that time is past. Today, science is the vital principle of our civilization."