Where should the burden lie?

Last week, I started a course in college science teaching here at MU.  As part of an introductory assignment, we were asked to write a statement explaining the purpose and value of undergraduate science education.  While our stomachs growled (the class is 5-8 PM, aka feed me NOW time) we discussed our statements on the first day of class.  One point that many made, and that I hadn’t considered, was that undergraduate science education serves to provide basic science literacy to future adults who may not otherwise encounter science.  This literacy  informs both professional decisions, including policy making, and personal ones, such as whether or not to buy organic food.  This literacy would also dispel misconceptions about scientific concepts as these science-educated adults enter the general public and voice their opinions.

Suddenly my science teaching course was sounding like a science journalism course.  If undergraduates are not informed of science and given a chance to appreciate it, public knowledge and understanding will suffer.  But isn’t this also the function of science journalism?  This made me wonder: where should the burden of public communication of science lie? Should educational institutions (K-12 and higher education) have the task of explaining science to the general public?  Or is it science journalism that should fill this role?

Both, working in concert, with each one filling in where the other falls short, would be the best case scenario.  If currently proposed reforms for science education in the United States are successful, high school and college graduates will enter the professional world with informed views about several fields of science.  However, these views will be at a basic level, as gaining a deep understanding of many fields would be cost and time prohibitive.  Here’s where science journalism can step in, informing the public of scientific findings that go beyond surface level knowledge in an accessible manner.  Moreover, if the consumers of science journalism are equipped with a foundation of scientific knowledge, science writers could share increasingly complicated ideas with their audience.  With this shared burden, science communication could thrive.

Granted, these ideas are, perhaps over-optimistically, under the assumption that we can have our cake and eat it too.  But when the public understanding of science is at stake, I think it’s worth a shot at even just one slice.