Exclusive: Benefits and Challenges of Engaging the Public (us) in Science and Technology

Recently, I came across the Technically Speaking website, which takes a look at the benefits and challenges of developing a more tech savvy citizenry. The website is a project of the National Academy of Engineering whose mission it is to “promote the technological welfare of the nation by marshaling the knowledge and insights of eminent members of the engineering profession.”

I invited Greg Pearson, a senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering, to share his insights about public engagement in science and technology. He agreed. (Thank you, Greg!) So today, I present to you the Science Cheerleader’s very first exclusive–hooray!  

(I invite all visitors to reply with questions and comments. Oh, and check out Greg’s reference to the game “Decide.” How cool!)

From Greg:

Public engagement in science and technology should be a no-brainer.

Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, an informed citizenry is necessary to the maintenance of democracy.  And to be informed in the 21st century, some level of scientific and technological literacy is needed.  Put in more blunt terms, if we don’t make an effort to understand the influence of science and technology on our lives, then we probably get what we deserve.  (Global warming, anyone?)  

Engagement requires at least two things:  a basic level of understanding of the issues at hand, and a way to communicate our concerns to people who can do something, such as legislators, government officials, industry CEOs, social activists, and the media.  While there is very real satisfaction-and value-in taking individual action (like swapping out your incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents), really big change often requires action at a higher level.

Effective engagement faces challenges.  Surveys and other data suggest most Americans have a relatively limited understanding of science, technology, and engineering.  But there is evidence that people can self-educate quickly when they have a reason to, such as when diagnosed with a serious illness.  The Internet has made it possible for anyone with a computer and modem to become, if not an instant expert, at least informed enough to ask intelligent questions.  There is no limit to what we can, and perhaps should, ask questions about. 

You get a sense of the scale of the “big” issues facing the nation (and, really, the world) by examining the list of “grand challenges for engineering” recently published by the National Academy of Engineering (www.engineeringchallenges.org).  Of course, being informed about science and technology can help us navigate the complexities of our day-to-day lives, too.  Ought we to eat GMO foods?  How private are our Internet communications?  What kind of recycling really makes sense? Given fuel prices, what kind of new car should I buy?

Unfortunately, Americans currently get few opportunities to weigh in on the larger debates involving science and technology.  There are a few exceptions, such as locally organized science cafes (www.sciencecafe.org), which encourage informal dialog between technical experts and those without a technical background.  A group of informal learning centers in the United States has designed museum-based forums to support public discussion of nanotechnology (www.nisenet.org/forums). And the game Decide (www.playdecide.org) provides a framework for collecting citizen input about controversial S&T issues.  


A good case for why we ought to know more about science and, especially, technology, is presented at the Technically Speaking website (www.nae.edu/techlit).  As this site makes clear, the challenge of developing a more tech savvy citizenry in significant, but it is an important goal to be aiming for.