Science Education Should Not be Viewed as the Public Relations Arm of the Research Establishment

Kim Kastens
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published Oct 6, 2009

The National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) has released new report called "Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems." Although I found much to agree with in the report, a phrase from the press release rubbed me the wrong way:

Engaging the public is a top priority, the AC-ERE believes. "Without an informed knowledge base, citizens and policymakers are ill-equipped to make responsible decisions about our environmental future. It is time to ask how we can best promote environmental literacy by engaging a cyber-connected society for the benefit of environmental science."

Note that last line: "..... for the benefit of environmental science."

As far as I'm concerned, education about the environment should be for the benefit of the environment and the organisms (including humans and especially students) that live in the environment, not for the benefit of environmental science. When communications are done for the benefit of the organization or entity sending the message, that's public relations--not education.

Too often, in my opinion, scientists and administrators of science organizations view science education primarily or entirely as a vehicle to raise up: (1) young taxpayers who will take a favorable view of increased funding for their favorite brand of science, and (2) a workforce to fill jobs related to their favorite brand of science.

I think this viewpoint is too narrow-minded and self-serving. In these tough times, those of us lucky enough to be employed as scientists and as leaders of science organizations should be asking what science can do for our nation and our planet, not what the rest of society can do for the benefit of science.

Beyond this misstep in the press release, the report has lots of good stuff in it. I especially like thatCover of "Tipping Points..." Report :

  • The report recognizes that there are significant unanswered pedagogical questions in environmental education, and recommends education research, rather than just calling for application of "best practices." (p. 42)
  • The report calls for widespread engagement of "citizen scientists," partly as a means of gathering observations over space and time, but also as a means of engaging the public in science. (p. 47)
  • The report stresses the educational value of professionally-collected environmental data sets, for example those collected by global monitoring networks, made available over the Internet. (p. 17)
  • In discussing formal education, the report uses the idea of "learning progressions" as a way for teachers to help students methodically build up their understanding from a core of disciplinary concepts to an increasingly sophisticated understanding of Earth's environmental system. (p. 43)

Science Education Should Not be Viewed as the Public Relations Arm of the Research Establishment --Discussion  

I agree. However, it may be unrealistic to expect that any institution will be anything but self serving. In this case, the 'self' it serves is a worthy one. The question is whether NSF will put its money towards focused work that will benefit the environment. If it really promotes citizen scientists, with real money, then that engagement should raise environmental awareness and not simply promote scientific careers.


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